IWD 2020: Natalie Hannan on the importance of support at the right time

I was born in the early 1980s in Salford, Manchester, which was then in economic freefall. I was girl No. 4 and my brother came after me.  That was fantastic for my mum – she could stop now, right? Then she conceived a sixth child, another boy.

My mum, a brave and bold woman, decided to move the family to Australia. She wanted better opportunities. Australia needed tradies, and my Dad was a carpenter. I had a good childhood, but as an adult I realise how underprivileged and poor my family and school really were.

Associate Professor Natalie Hannan
Associate Professor Natalie Hannan with Charlotte

My sister, a nurse, told me, “You’re not doing nursing – you ask too many questions.” So I completed a Bachelor of Science, and then was accepted into a Diploma of Education at Melbourne University, lining up what I thought would be a pretty stable career as a teacher.

I met my future Honours supervisor because of an offer of free pizza and wine. I needed a lift home and my friend wanted to go to a talk on the way. As well as pizza, there was a presentation from Professor Lois Salamonsen, about pregnancy, fertility and contraception – how unfair it was that one woman desperate for a baby can’t conceive, while another woman has more children even while taking contraception. That was the lightbulb moment for me. I thought, “That’s not right, what can we do about this?”

Lois was a bit puzzled at receiving an email from Nat the Brat – I didn’t think to use my student address. She took a chance on me, even though I didn’t have the best marks. In the end, she decided, “This girl is passionate”. Lois was an amazing mentor throughout my earlier career, encouraging me to apply for an NHMRC Early Career Fellowship to support my research on embryo development. That’s when my journey shifted to the University of Melbourne.

When I found out I was pregnant, I thought I’d take six months off and return to work, but my son was born with a serious heart defect. It wasn’t clear for a while whether he would live or die. It really shook me. He had to have two open-heart surgeries by the time he was two weeks old. Around the same time, I met Professor Stephen Tong and joined his group, the Translational Obstetrics Group at The Mercy Hospital for Women.

I will never forget the support I was given at that incredibly vulnerable time, a time when most women’s careers fall by the wayside. For me, this included a University of Melbourne career interruption fellowship. But there are some people who don’t have the same voice, confidence, supervisor or mentor.

We’re hearing more and more stories and lived experiences of what it means to have the right support. As the recently appointed Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, I want to make sure MDHS has systems and programs in place to stem that attrition of women at level C or D. We want those leading women to rise to level E and beyond, as well as people who are in an underrepresented group and might not feel that they have a voice.. ‚Äč

Sponsorship is essential for women to get to leadership positions. Mentors will help and support nurture and guide, but sponsors will put your name forward, they’ll get you in the room, a seat at the table. Many women don’t get there because they’re part-time and unable to go to conferences, or travel or do what a full-time working male colleague may be able to do. But with the right support they can get there and they can thrive.

Those of you that can sponsor someone you think is amazing, do. And those of you that want a sponsor, seek them out. I definitely would not be here otherwise.

I think seeking ‘balance’ may not always be possible and I don’t even strive for that. What I strive for is happiness and feeling that I’m equal in my passion for both my job, my work and family and friends. Sometimes I’ll rush home to my son (feeling guilty to be late home), who is now eight years old, and he’ll say, “You’re doing really important things mum; you’re making sure some more mums get to go home with their babies.”

Associate Professor Natalie Hannan is a mid-career researcher who is developing new approaches to combat major complications of pregnancy, such as pre-eclampsia. This is an extract from Natalie’s presentation at the Melbourne Medical School Research Symposium in December 2019.