International Women's Day: The experiences of women working in research
Published: 7 March, 2019
International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to celebrate the fantastic contributions of the women who make a difference to mental health research. Black Dog Institute is lucky to have incredible women working across all our departments including Finance, IT, HR and Innovation.
To mark this year’s theme, ‘Balance for Better’, two of our tireless researchers share their experiences working in academia – a demanding yet extremely rewarding field – as they help the Black Dog Institute achieve its mission of creating a mentally healthy world.
Professor Colleen Loo is a clinician, psychiatrist and researcher based at Black Dog Institute and St George Hospital, working at the cutting edge of novel treatments for psychiatric disorders. For over 25 years, she has navigated the complexities of research to establish herself as a trusted leader in the field of non-invasive brain stimulation techniques. She is also investigating the use of ketamine for severe treatment-resistant depression.
Among her pioneering discoveries, Professor Loo previously led a study investigating improvements to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to reduce its impact on patient’s hearts. Since publication nine years ago, the research has increasingly been adopted by ECT clinicians globally, including in new treatment guidelines.
“Essentially it meant that some severely unwell patients who required ECT were able to have ECT with much less cardiac risk,” said Professor Loo.
“The academic achievements which have meant the most to me are those that have made a difference to people’s day-to-day lives.”
While she believes publications and grants are a “pretty level playing field” for women in academia, she still encounters occasions where her authority is challenged.
“When it comes to appearing in person, my sense is that I’m not taken as seriously because of my appearance. I’m not sure how much of this is being female and how much of this is being 5 foot 2!” she said.
“I have been very fortunate to have a male mentor who is ‘gender blind’, in the sense of treating everyone equally.”
In order to achieve work-life balance, Professor Loo prioritises her working week to avoid stress.
“I used to arrive at the end of each year completely exhausted. I now realise that having regular scheduled time off, particularly on weekends and evenings, is really important for avoiding burnout.”
More broadly, she said working women facing the dilemma of ‘doing it all’ can benefit from “staging” – doing it all, but one thing at a time.
“I don’t believe most of us can be a super human being who pursues an academic and research career at the same pace as everyone else while also raising a young family,” she said.
“You can’t do it all at any one point in time, but you may be able to do many things by focussing on different things at different stages in life.”
Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler, clinical psychologist and Senior Research Fellow at the Black Dog Institute, is an emerging leader in mental health research. Her work focuses on the prevention and treatment of depression and anxiety disorders, primarily in young people and school settings. More recently, Dr Werner-Seidler has become interested in the role of poor sleep and how this can significantly impact mental health conditions like depression.
Now at mid-career level, Dr Werner-Seidler notes some structural issues within academic fields that continue to inhibit gender equality across the board.
“There is actually pretty good representation of women at junior levels of academia. The gender difference begins to emerge once women move into more senior roles,” she said.
“What ‘Balance for Better’ means to me goes beyond simply better representation of women in my field, but also extends to the way that men can be involved in family life.
“While it is great that things have improved for women compared to how it used to be, unless the role of men in raising families changes considerably, this will always limit the progress of women in my field.
“Senior academic roles are much more likely to be held by men. I am hopeful that this will change and hope to contribute to this change.”
Throughout their careers, both women have had mentors to provide guidance and advice. Professor Loo profited from seeing academic women senior to herself and the way they navigated a path in research and academia.
Dr Werner-Seidler acknowledges that without guidance from her various mentors, she may not have remained in the field. They were pivotal in her career but also in understanding the importance of mentoring the next generation of young female researchers.
“I have been incredibly fortunate to have worked closely with some phenomenal women and men, who have provided opportunities and guidance in navigating the field,” said Dr Werner-Seidler.
“My doctoral supervisor was passionate about equality in academia and academic leadership roles and was excellent at providing the foundations required to build my confidence, which has in turn has allowed me to progress my career.”
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