Rising up the ranks in any workplace can be challenging, especially if you're a woman pursuing a career in a male-dominated industry such as STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine).
For University of Sydney student, Annie Handmer and academic, Professor Renae Ryan, finding guidance through mentor-mentee relationships has been a big part of their journeys. We chatted to them about their experiences working in the world of STEMM, the importance of a diverse workplace, and asking your mentor for fashion advice.
ANNIE HANDMER – MENTEE
What are you studying at the moment? A Masters of Philosophy by Research in the Faculty of Science. My area of research is international cooperation in space, particularly in relation to space debris.
How did you get to where you are now? When I finished high school I had no idea what I wanted to do. I enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts/Law at the University of Sydney, but snuck into a History and Philosophy of Science class about how science interacts with society through public policy. It was the most fascinating thing I’d ever heard.
At the end of my third year of law, I decided to take a year off to do Honours. After graduating, I spent some time working and studying overseas in different areas. I really missed doing research and felt a drive to use my skills for something that would increase the sum of knowledge in the world - and maybe help countries cooperate better through science. I ended up getting a scholarship to go back to the University of Sydney and research international cooperation in space.
Why do you think women are turned off pursuing a career in STEMM? A lot of professional companies – consulting, finance, accounting, law – are very good at recruiting women with STEMM qualifications straight out of university. I think this is because we’re driven and we often work harder than everyone else to prove we deserve our place.
STEMM firms however, tend not to recruit as aggressively, which explains the underrepresentation of women in the industry. This imbalance can deter young women from entering these professions.
How did you form relationships with your current mentors? To me, a mentor is a friend you go to for advice. My main mentor in my research area is my supervisor – I took some of her classes first, then she supervised me for my honours thesis. We just found we thought in similar ways and liked working together. My other academic mentor is the Head of School. We catch up for coffee sometimes, and he gives me great career advice.
What do you see as the benefits of having a mentor? They can help navigate some of the things that aren’t written down. I’m presenting a paper at a conference in the USA next week, and it was great to be able to text my supervisor and ask what I should wear. It seems small, but no one tells you!
What makes a good mentor? Someone who can see your weaknesses and give honest, direct feedback. A great mentor is a person who recognises your strengths and goes out of their way to help you develop them further.
As a mentee, what do you bring to the relationship? The best mentor/mentee relationships are friendships; you need to give honest feedback to each other. One of my mentors is looking to make a career change, and he’s genuinely interested in my perspective because of the experiences I’ve had, even though I’m decades behind him in seniority. Being open and willing to learn is very important on both sides.
Do you think you’d still be doing what you’re doing if you hadn’t found a mentor? If I hadn’t found my academic supervisor I definitely wouldn’t be studying the sociology of science. What you do is far less important than who you do it with.
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PROFESSOR RENAE RYAN – MENTOR
Hello! Who are you and what do you do? I’m a professor at the University of Sydney. I lead a research team that investigates molecular pumps on the surface of our cells, which move things like chemical messengers, nutrients and waste in and out of our cells. I’m also the Academic Director of a gender equity accreditation program that aims to improve the participation and retention of women in STEMM – The Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Program.
Tell us about the gender balance in your early days of study. Was it similar or different to today, and how? There were lots of women in the biomedical science subjects I studied at university, and there still are. What I didn’t realise was that, although there were many women studying and in the junior academic levels, there was a steep drop-off, with very few women at professor level. Unfortunately, this hasn’t changed very much in the 20 years since I was a student.
Did you have a mentor at the time? Yes, definitely! I completed a laboratory project at the end of my undergraduate degree with Professor Rob Vandenberg. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself to pursue a career in science – in fact, several people told me I wouldn’t be successful! But Rob believed in me and asked me to do honours with him. I received first class honours and stayed on to do a PhD with him. We now run a research group together!
As a mentor yourself, what kinds of wisdom do you share with your mentees? A lot of discussions centre around identifying their strengths and boosting their confidence. They’re all amazing young people doing great work – they just need to realise it and get past the ‘imposter syndrome’. We also talk a lot about career plans, and I give them the best advice I can on how to get there. If I’m impressed, I’ll put them forward for different opportunities that will help their career development.
Why do you think it’s so important for women pursuing a career in STEMM to have role models? Because you can’t be what you can’t see! It’s really hard to feel like you belong, or that there’s space for you, when you’re different to the ‘in group’. There’s a lot evidence that diverse teams are more innovative and successful. Women and girls need confidence that they can buck the trend and go into engineering or physics, because there are women who excel in those areas – we just have to celebrate them and make them visible.
What makes a good mentee? They’ll drive the relationship and agenda of meetings, while being appreciative of their mentor’s time. I always encourage my mentees to follow up meetings with a summary email outlining the tasks set (for both mentor and mentee). This gives structure to the relationship and encourages both of us to get things done.
Any words of advice for young women considering a career in STEMM? Expand your networks, identify role models and have coffee with people who inspire you. Ask how they got to be where they are today – the good, the bad and the ugly. Write down your career goals, make (several) plans, regularly re-evaluate those plans, support your female colleagues, and enjoy the journey.
This story of some rather clever ladies was created in collaboration with the University of Sydney, which stands firm in its commitment to advancing gender equity and promoting women’s leadership in STEMM. Find out more about the University's inclusive culture.