Paving the way for women in STEM

By Cathy Foley

18 December 2019

4 minute read

Cathy Foley speaking at Public Sector Women in Leadership Summit about women in stem

I recently spoke at the 8th Public Sector Women in Leadership Summit about how I overcame challenges in my career and to share my experiences.

The great thing about events like this, is it brings women together to talk and share about our experiences Something I never had for a long time in my 35 year career (and counting).

In fact, I often joked in my early career that I would have to go up my management line all the way to the Queen to find one woman!

These events are also a chance to reach out and ask questions. For so long I know many women felt like they had to do it all on their own. And in some ways they did, but today we don’t need to. It’s ok to reach out and ask for help. That’s why I love being able to coach and mentor early-career researchers and I’m more than happy to share advice.

For myself, I’ve seen it all. From being one of the first female research scientists hired in a department, to helping to set up a childcare facility because none existed on the north of Sydney. And even having one man comment “Oh I haven’t seen a woman use a screwdriver before,” as I got on to fixing a thermal gravimetric machine one day. I am so glad we have progressed from those days.

No road is easy and there is still more to be done

So, as I reflected on my career to prepare for the speech a few things stuck out that I thought I’d also share here.

One of the pivotal moments in my life came from my female first year biology professor, Heather Adamson, who believed in my capability as a scientist.

I almost went down the teaching route (a very worthy profession nevertheless), simply because I didn’t know I could be anything else. Her clarity and conviction stirred something in me and I went on to do everything she said I was capable of – becoming a first class honours student, winning a scholarship and becoming a scientist. Her speaking out and sharing her belief in me changed my life. A few words of encouragement and support at the right moment changes lives. It’s so important we keep lifting each other up.

Embracing opportunities

The other area I believe helped me tremendously was embracing opportunities when they came up. There was a speaking role with ABC I did every week for five years starting back in the late 80s. I didn’t know at the time how significant and how great that experience would be for my role today as Chief Scientist. Now I travel the country attending speaking engagements. I feel comfortable and equipped to handle media and speaking in front of crowds because of that experience. I also learnt how to get a good basic grasp of a very wide range of science topics quickly.

Before I even joined CSIRO, I used to attend an annual condensed matter conference as a student. It opened the door for meeting some of the people who would eventually interview me for the role in CSIRO. You must keep an open mind and embrace the opportunities without overthinking them because you never know where they may lead.

While each person decides for themselves the best pathway, those decisions can be easier when someone shares how they did it or believes in them or is there to support. We each are a story. When someone sees a part of themselves in you, they feel inspired to keep going forward.

It’s so important to make sure we pave the way for greater balance in the role models in the workplace, in society and around the world.