siaa_logo_blue Sarah Maddison maddison_circle

Centre for Astrophysics & Supercomputing, Swinburne University

Melbourne, Australia
Job Title: Senior Lecturer


She is an Astronomer: How long is it since you got your PhD?

Sarah Maddison: 10 years.
In addition to being a Senior Lecturer, I am also Coordinator of Swinburne Astronomy Online. I am Co-chair for the IAU Women in Astronomy Working Group and Chair of Australia Telescope Users Committee.

SIAA: Do you feel it was more difficult for you to get a job or a promotion in comparison with male astronomers?

SM: I think that in general it is more difficult for women to get jobs and get promoted. There are many reasons for this, including that fact that women are more likely than men to take time off work (to have children, look after children, look after old parents etc.) which means there will be 'gaps' in your career portfolio and even though employer try to take this into considered, when faced with two job applications in which two people finished their PhDs at the same time but the man has more papers, has more grants, and has been on more committees, obviously the man will be hired because he has performed better. The metrics used for hiring and promotion appear to be more closely tailored to the male mode of working ('divide and conquer' rather than 'participate and collaborate'). Furthermore (again, 'in general') men find it easier to 'sell themselves' and self-promote, which means they are more likely to apply for promotion. They use the right language and sell themselves on their potential rather than on their achievements alone. Women desperately need to learn these same skills! (And so do I : )

SIAA: Are women under-represented in your institution?

SM: Yes. There are only 3 women on permanent contracts and they are in the least senior positions (two lecturers and one senior lecturer). There are 4 male professors, 1 male associate professor, 5 male senior lecturers and 2 male lecturers. (So 3/15 staff are women.) There are 3 female postdocs vs 9 male postdocs, plus 7 female PhD students vs 8 male PhD students.

SIAA: What is your family status?

SM: I am married with a 3.5 year old son. My husband's parents are quite old and do not help with child raring and my parents live 800 km away.

SIAA: Have you had career breaks?

SM: I took 12 months of maternity leave.

SIAA: How difficult did you find the return to your work?

SM: Extremely! I was doing some research while on maternity leave, which was nice, but returning to teaching and admin was really quite hard. I found it quite difficult to juggle my time and I worked about 4 hours a day less (busy with baby in the morning, racing off to crËche at about 5pm and generally too tired to work at night), so obviously research suffers first. Also my priorities had changed: a lot of politics that I might have been passionate about pre-baby felt trivial and meaningless to me afterward, so it was hard to get back into academic life.

SIAA: How many hours per day do you normally dedicate to work?

SM: Probably averages out to about 9 hours a day now.

SIAA: What would most help you advance your career?

SM: I have just had 6 months of sabbatical, which was fabulous, but it also difficult to juggle family. (I was in Europe with my son and his grandfather for 3 months, then my husband came for a few weeks and then took my son home to Australia. My husband's job doesn't allow him to take 6 months off work.). Getting 100% research time straight after returning from maternity leave would have been fabulous. That would allow women to catch up I think. Allowing people to have sabbatical at their home institute (or at least without having to move cities) could also help women (and some men!) a lot I think. What I need most to advance is more research time and less admin time. Same for most people I suppose.

SIAA: What recommendation would you make to young women starting their career in astronomy?

SM: Do something outside of your work life - all work and no play makes for an exhausted person! Do what you're good at - you'll usually enjoy it more! Get to know a few 'important' people, as they can teach you how the system works. (The definition of 'important' will depend on your career path.) Find good mentors - it is inspiring to hear others people's success stories and you can learn from others about what doesn't work (or at least what didn't work for them). There is no such time as 'the right time' to have a family, so just do it whenever you're personally ready (as opposed to when you're financially ready or career ready etc.) And of course you might not want a family anyway.