Athena SWAN Case Study - Dr Penny Ottewell

Penny OttewellMy first child was born 4 months before my PhD viva (at the University of Liverpool) and 5 months before taking on my fist position as a Post Doctoral Research Assistant, in Medicine, at the University of Sheffield. When I first came to Sheffield, I was apprehensive about letting colleagues know that I had a young child for fear that my career aspirations would not be taken seriously. However, it soon became apparent that the Medical School had begun a concerted effort to promote equal opportunities and enable working parents to reach their full potential.

My husband and I were both employed by the University of Sheffield, at this time, and therefore both of us were able to benefit from enrolling in the ‘child care voucher scheme’. This enabled us to take a proportion of our childcare fees from our salaries before tax and we still use this scheme today.

In order to advance my career it became apparent that I needed to carry out research abroad. In 2007 I obtained funding from the department of Oncology to carry out two 3-month sabbatical at INSERM in Lyon France. This funding was especially important to me as it provided sufficient funds to facilitate travel between Sheffield and Lyon on a weekly basis enabling me to spend the weekends at home with my family.
In 2009 my second child was born and this time I was able to apply for £10,000 form the Medical School as part of their Women Academic Returners Program (WARP). With this money I employed a technician help me in the laboratory for the first 6-months after I returned to work. This additional help was invaluable as this meant that my research gained a ‘kick start’ after lying redundant for 6-months and I was able to get myself up to speed with the literature as well as having piece of mind that if for any reason I couldn’t be at work someone would be there to make sure everything was running smoothly.

In 2010 I enrolled onto the ‘Springboard’ women’s development course and obtained an academic mentor from the ‘Future leaders programme’ (a programme which I helped establish in 2008 as president of the Post Doctoral Research Association). I believe the experience that I gained through these two programmes were pivotal in helping me progress my career. As a result of discussions held in these meetings I did a second sabbatical at TUFTs Medical School in Boston USA.

In 2011 I received help from my PI to write and win a fellowship to the International Bone and Mineral Society and in April 2013 (the same month my 3rd child was born) I gained my lectureship position in the Department of Oncology and Metabolism. I was, again, able to apply for £10,000 WARP funding to help me re-establish my research upon my return to work.

In summary, the Medical School has provided me (and others) with a large number of resources to help me reach my full potential as an independent researcher. With the establishment of Athena Swan I believe that peoples attitudes are changing towards working parents (especially women) and this is providing talented individuals with the confidence to move forwards developing both their work skills whilst still having a modicum of work/life balance.