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QIMR Berghofer helps women scientists rise to the top

QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute is helping more women scientists to move into, and stay in, scientific leadership roles by introducing an innovative financial assistance policy for working mothers.

QIMR Berghofer’s Director and CEO, Professor Frank Gannon, said that women scientists whose careers were advancing to seniority and who had at least one child below high-school age could apply for financial assistance in addition to their salaries.

“This funding will help to level the playing field by making it easier for women with young children to keep publishing research so they can continue to advance their careers,” Professor Gannon said.

“The funds can be used at their discretion. For example, it could be used to pay for child care, or a research assistant to help with lab experiments, or it could be used to pay for parking close to work so it’s easier to get kids to and from day care.

“Women postdoctoral scientists who are mothers and are at a slightly earlier stage of their careers will be able to apply for assistance for particular expenses. This could include paying for childcare while the scientist travels to an important conference, or paying the travel costs for a family member to attend the conference with the researcher and her baby.”

Professor Gannon said the challenges facing women scientists with young children had been widely acknowledged in recent years.

“Being a medical researcher is a very demanding career. To secure the necessary grant funding to move into and stay in leadership roles, scientists have to demonstrate continuous publication of promising research,” he said.

“It’s very difficult for women to do this when they take time off work to have and care for a baby, and this applies even after they return to work.”

The policy has been developed based on feedback from the institute’s staff and Gender Equity Committee.

“We recognise that men also play an important role in child rearing and that it is often difficult for men to balance their research with family commitments,” Professor Gannon said.

“However, the overwhelming feedback we have received is that there are particular barriers preventing women with young children from moving into scientific leadership roles. This policy has been specifically designed to lower those barriers.

“This forward-thinking policy will help women to juggle the demands of their research with their parenting commitments and to advance in their careers.”

The policy is one of several measures the institute has introduced to support working parents. These include offering flexible work hours, reserving places at a local childcare centre for children under two, and having a designated room at the institute for nursing mothers.

“These measures have helped us to boost the number of women in scientific leadership positions. In the last five years 53 per cent of newly appointed laboratory heads have been women,” Professor Gannon said.

“Overall QIMR Berghofer has a very good reputation by comparison with other research organisations, with women accounting for 36 per cent of scientific leadership roles and 67 per cent of all research staff. While the increase in the number of women scientists in top scientific roles is promising, these numbers show that we still need to do more.

“These are highly talented scientists whose research stands to benefit the whole community. It is in everyone’s interests for us to ensure that we retain these women and that they can achieve their full potential.”