ADVICE: Just ask, just go for it – Madhu Bhaskaran

Unlike many women working in STEM in Australia, Madhu Bhaskaran, Professor and Co-Leader, Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group at RMIT University, has not found entering or staying in the STEM industry challenging. She attributes this to her upbringing in India, and the environment and colleagues today at her workplace, RMIT University.

“The situation in India is very different to here,” Bhaskaran explains. “Women choose professions very differently in India. We tend to choose in terms of what is going to give us the most long-term financial stability and esteem.”

Consequently, in Bhaskaran’s experience, there are not as many hurdles for women wanting to join and continue their career in STEM-related industries in India, in comparison to Australia.

The challenge does exist, though, when women try to rise through the ranks, as there are “a lot of societal biases against women”. This is an issue all too familiar to Australian women in STEM.

Your surroundings matter

Bhaskaran says that she has been fortunate enough to have not experienced gender-based discrimination in her workplace due to her colleagues.

“In my department of engineering, I think there were 50 staff altogether, and maybe 5-10 women among them. I’ve been in meeting rooms where there were 20-25 people in the room, and I was the only woman in the room. But I’ve never felt I was treated differently due to being a woman or woman of colour, thanks to my colleagues,” she says.

But Bhaskaran knows this discrimination does exist in the industry more broadly because of the exposure she’s had to it in meetings with professionals outside her workplace.

She says, “I have been in national-level meetings and meetings with collaborators. There, I can see the difference sometimes in how I’ve been treated and how my opinions have been considered. I know the difference. I may brush it off, but I know the difference.”

What would he do?

As well as her leadership roles at RMIT University, Bhaskaran is also on the Board of Directors at Women in STEMM Australia, and is the Node Director, Chief Investigator, and Equity & Diversity Director at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Transformative Meta-Optical Systems (TMOS).

Bhaskaran’s achievements and leadership across the industry and in academia are undoubtedly impressive, and she does not take for granted the impact of her home environment on the successes she has made.

She explains, “I’ve realised my situation is quite unique. My confidence has grown gradually over the years as I have watched how people operate differently and get different results in a male dominated field. My husband and I co-lead the group [at RMIT] together. Decisions made around my career growth have been influenced by him to some extent.

“Sometimes when I hesitate to make a decision, send an email or put my hat in the ring for something, I tend to look at him and think, ‘What would he do in this situation? If he’s going to do it, what’s stopping me from doing it?’ So having that like for like comparison right in the household and in the workplace, it keeps it front of mind. I can see myself making decisions very consciously differently because I’m looking at it from that perspective.”

Just ask, just go for it

Due to her upbringing in India, Bhaskaran believes she has grown a thick skin and resilience which she has been able to use in the workplace. She says it’s important for women to speak up and ask, and not be held back by fears that everything they say will be recorded on file and held against them.

She says, “I learned quite early that more often we just don’t ask. When you don’t ask you don’t know what the answer is. If you don’t ask, in a sense, the answer is always no. So I learned in the initial stages of my career to let go of my reservations and ask a little more. And it doesn’t hurt as much when the answer is no. Unlike in other places, where people may hold things against you, that doesn’t happen as much here. Some people hold grudges, but you learn to deal with that.”

Bhaskaran continues to explain that diversity in the STEM fields is critical and can have significant impacts on both the industries themselves and the people those industries impact. In her experiences, the impact of true diversity goes beyond having women involved.

For example, when she’s been on leadership committees and had to make decisions that impact hundreds of PhD students, she has experienced first-hand the benefits of having people of different financial conditions, family environments, and research capabilities around the decision-making table so that different types of students’ needs were heard and actioned.

In her research, Bhaskaran’s work is often closely related to the development of medical devices. In the aged care sector as an example, she says it’s important to have people of different cultural backgrounds involved to ensure the medical devices suit the needs of different families. In India, she found people hesitant to put their elderly in aged care homes, in comparison to Australia where this is considered something normal to prepare for. Furthermore, in Singapore and China, cameras for monitoring people in aged care for their health and safety is considered normal, though would be frowned upon in Australia.

To ensure all of these nuances and cultural differences are understood and respected, Bhaskaran encourages more diverse voices to join, stay and rise in STEM fields.

“Just go for it,” she says.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned since coming here is there are not so many women in STEM. Not because they don’t want to be in STEM, but because they don’t know what STEM is. Especially, they don’t understand what the difference is between engineering versus science versus other fields, and how broad engineering truly is. We need to ensure people are truly educated about the choices they make. Once you’ve made that choice and truly understand why you’ve chosen a particular branch of engineering and you’ve chosen it for being passionate about it, you will stick to it.”

About the expert

Professor Madhu Bhaskaran co-leads the Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group at RMIT University. Madhu is an electronics engineer and she has won numerous awards and fellowships for her research including 2017 Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Researcher and was also named as Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers by Engineers Australia. In 2018, she won the Batterham Medal and the APEC Aspire Prize.  The discoveries made at micro/nano-scales by the research group are transformed into prototypes often in partnership with industry. Her work seeks to transform conventional hard electronics into soft and unbreakable products, thin enough to create electronic skin.  

Image description: Half-body headshot of a woman with long, black hair and brown skin, wearing a pink cardigan over a white blouse, and small gold earrings and a long necklace. She is smiling.