5 career barriers and how to break through them

Gender barriers in the workplace can be hard to break. University of Sydney academics offer tips to tackle career obstacles this International Women’s Day.

Every career faces setbacks, but it’s how you chose to overcome these challenges that determines the direction your path might take.

In the lead up to International Women’s Day, the outstanding female panellists of our Sydney Ideas event reflect on the barriers they have faced in their own careers and offered tips on how to tackle setbacks.

1. Don’t put limits on your potential

Hala Zreiqat  works in a male-dominated industry. She is a Professor of Biomedical Engineering and head of the  Biomaterials and Tissues Engineering research unit  at the University of Sydney.

"I have had to fight for everything that I have achieved so far; everything has been a struggle because of the limitations that people try to apply to me based on gender," says Hala.

"My willingness to fight for what I believe in has been interpreted as rudeness or self-seeking behaviour. The same actions, if done by my male colleagues, would be defined as strong and showing leadership. 

"I maintain personal ethics and stand up for what I know is right. We should always try to choose our own destiny and manifest it, despite overwhelming obstacles."

2. Embrace career changes

Rita Shackel  has experienced changes in direction throughout her career. The Associate Professor has worked as a lawyer, legal policy officer and academic in a range of settings to deliver justice to women and children who have experienced sexual or gender-based violence and abuse.

"I have embraced changes in my career and life direction by trusting myself, my values and my capacity.

"Adapting and moving on in a reflective yet not overly self-critical way has been important in my career," says Rita.

Robyn Alders,  a Professor of Food and Nutrition Security, has also followed an unusual path in her career as an academic seeking to help women and children in resource-poor settings.

"I’ve worked for universities in low and high-income countries, international NGOs and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations," Robyn says.

"My focus has largely been on doing something useful. Having flexibility in relation to my employment circumstances has enabled me to learn from and be involved with some amazing endeavours across Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, the US and Australia." 

3. Turn setbacks into motivation

"As academics we are used to setbacks," says  Renae Ryan , who is the Academic Director of  SAGE (Science in Australia Gender Equality) .  

"Grants don’t get funded, papers get rejected and experiments don’t work. In my role promoting women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM), I sometimes receive negative feedback, which can get personal and makes me feel like I am fighting a losing battle."

Renae is also a Professor of Biochemical Pharmacology who works at the  Sydney Medical School  investigating diseases.

"I allow myself to get upset, even angry, but only for a short time, and I then try to use this resistance as positive motivation to keep fighting," says Renae. "Most of the time just talking about the setback can help you move on."

"There are always setbacks in your career," adds  Dr Jacqueline Thomas,  an environmental engineer. "The important thing is to reflect on those setbacks; why the outcome didn’t match your expectations.

"Rather than beat yourself up, evaluate whether you are on the wrong path or if instead you just need to learn from the experience to move forward."

4. Build up a support network

Co-Director of the Women, Work & Leadership Research Group ,  Rae Cooper , says, "I’ve had two children since I became an academic and while I’d hate to have them think that they were a setback to me, when they were small and I was trying to juggle their care with lecturing and researching full time, I did wonder what I was doing."

"To get through this busy period I relied on a combination of a partner who shared care with me and supported my career, family who helped out with kids when they could and really kind and supportive colleagues who let me lean on them and take strength from them."  

5. Challenge the gender pay gap

"We have the most highly educated female labour force in history and one of the best in the world and yet this does not pay off in the labour market," says  Rae Cooper , Professor of Gender, Work and Employment Relations at the University of Sydney Business School.

"There is still a massive pay gap, women are not reaching the most senior positions and workers who work part time (male and female) are not seen as committed and are not as highly valued.

"Exposing the drivers for this and working out ways to challenge and dismantle anti-women culture and practices is what I’m trying to do. Hopefully it is having an impact."

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