The difficulties of returning to work after being a stay-at-home parent
Getting back into the workforce after taking time out to have children was the biggest hurdle Robyn Petch has faced in her career.
But perseverance and chutzpah paid off, and after stints in retail and more than ten years in banking, Robyn landed her dream job – as an area administrator in the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences (RSES).
“I’ve never considered moving on, because the people are so good to work with,” she says of her position in the RSES earth environment group – one of four research areas within the School.
Some of the group’s scientists are reading the geological records of past climates to get hints on the greenhouse future, while others are studying human origins. Robyn helps ensure that their ground-breaking research runs smoothly. At the time of writing, the group comprised 17 academics, eight technical staff, 27 post-graduate students and 13 honours students.
Robyn, who has a certificate in financial services, runs the group’s finances, paying bills, keeping track of grant funds, reconciling credit cards and managing financial records. She is also responsible for the procurement of chemicals, laboratory goods and instrumentation used in the group’s hi-tech laboratories, a task she labels “the shopping”. She recently bought an instrument worth $60,000.
Among her other tasks is the organisation of travel for academics and students going on field trips, attending conferences or visiting colleagues overseas. She also helps organise scientific conferences and meetings.
Her colleagues attribute her success in part to her people skills and interest in the group’s research. “Robyn is an integral part of the School’s scientific endeavour as without her efforts and skill, administrative and purchase processes could easily take twice as long,” says PhD candidate Aditya Chopra. “Perhaps it is the fact that she shares our passion for science and learning that encourages her to perform superbly in her work environment, often beyond the call of duty.”
Robyn grew up in Melbourne and married her childhood sweetheart, Gavin, whom she met at age 14. She completed two years of a Bachelor of Education degree at Deakin University but abandoned plans to become a primary school teacher. At the time job prospects in the profession looked grim and her husband, who had joined the Australian Army, was due to be posted interstate. She now regrets that she did not complete the degree.
The two spent the first 20 years of their married life on postings around Australia and the world. She devoted much of that time to caring for the children – two daughters, now aged in their late twenties. Each new posting meant settling into a new house, finding new schools for the children and establishing new social networks.
“It was impossible to pick up jobs,” she says. “It was easier to stay at home even though our income was low.”
As her husband rose through the ranks, she found herself giving support to other military wives, organising play group sessions and helping out at schools – playing an active part in the military families’ activities, especially while their spouses were away on military exercises.
When the family returned to Australia and lived briefly in Sydney after a posting in the United Kingdom, Robyn had trouble finding a job.
“I realised financially that I needed to go back to work,” she says. “Trying to get back into the workforce was the hardest thing I’ve had to do. This was 1991 in Sydney. We had never lived there before and had no family, friends or even contacts there. There was little help available for brushing up on skills. And it wasn’t a time that employers were willing to take a risk. If you didn’t have experience, they didn’t want to know you.”
Even now, women still have a tough time resuming work, she says. “Your confidence gets knocked around.”
Robyn worked in retail initially but when the family was uprooted again just a year later, moving to Canberra in 1992, she pursued a career in banking. She cold-called several banks and eventually landed a job at the ANZ, first as a teller and then as a lending manager’s assistant.
She stayed with the ANZ for more than 10 years, transferring between branches and working her way through the organisation amid her husband’s continued postings between Canberra and Darwin.
When the family moved back to Canberra in 2002 Robyn was ready for a career change. “I had to go through the job hunting process all over again,” she says. “It was really daunting.”
She got an administrative job in the RSES earth chemistry group. “That’s when I got a lucky break, thanks to Professor Trevor Ireland who gave me that opportunity,” she says. “The ANU is a great place to work. The environment is fantastic. The people are interesting. I was learning new stuff every day while bringing things I learnt in banking into the job.” She later transferred to her current position within the earth environment group.
She says her keen interest in earth sciences was piqued when she studied geography for the Higher School Certificate. “It’s cool to hear about what they do,” she says of the scientists. “A lot of it’s to do with dating rocks. We have some of the oldest in the world here in Australia. I like getting feedback on the end use of the equipment in the labs. I’m happy that I can take administrative work off their hands and let them go back in the lab or the field.”
There are compensations for times when she works long hours, she says. “I really look forward to coming to work. I have a lot of fun. I talk to people a lot, ask them about what they’re working on, share a joke. There is a positive vibe around the place.”
Robyn says the key to managing the work/life balance is “being happy at both sides of the equation”.
“My home life is happy. I’ve been at RSES for over 10 years now. I’m really happy at work. That makes it fairly easy. I work hard at home and I work hard at work but I do it because I enjoy it. If I didn’t enjoy it, I would have moved on in search of another workplace, even though the job hunt would be difficult.”
She says her husband has “had the career” while she has “had the job – the support role”.
“But we’ve tackled it as a team,” she says. “First and foremost is my family. My main focus in life is my family. My family needs have to be met first but I am always determined to make it all work.”
Robyn says the two main mentors in her career have been men – her husband and Professor Ireland. In her view, women need to get more involved in mentoring.
She says Australian society has changed drastically since the 1960s and 1970s. “There was discrimination then against everybody who was different,” she says. “It was ingrained in people, absorbed from parents and grandparents. I always tried to ignore that. I try to be a neutral person and I want to see the best in everyone. I don’t think about people in terms of their gender or background or whether they’re disabled or whether they can speak English. Every single day I deal with people – from cleaners to professors – from all around the world. It’s part of the vibrancy of the school that we’ve got this massive community of people from everywhere at all kinds of levels. I like being able to talk to everybody in a totally unbiased way.
“I treat a professor in the same way that I treat an honours student. I put as much effort into doing administrative tasks for a student as I would for a senior professor.”
She has seen big changes in earth sciences, too, with more and more women entering the discipline. “We have lots of female students,” she says. “The day will come when more will continue with a science career. We’ll see more and more female researchers.”
She says she likes living in the bush capital because of her love for wildlife. She enjoys travel, reading historical novels, caring for the family’s two labradors and two Burmese cats, and swimming, especially snorkeling on coral reefs. “I also love to cook with my husband for family and friends,” she says. “I think it’s because it’s both creative and social, which are two things I find I really need in my life.”