Staying Connected with STEM

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11 months into her parental leave, Shirley Mayadewi couldn’t wait to get back to work. 

Nobody ever tells you about the isolation or the boredom that comes with being on mat leave,” Shirley says.

She works as a Reliability Standards Engineer at Manitoba Hydro, and has been in the field since graduating with a M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering from University of Manitoba. Shirley’s passionate about her work and loves interacting with people. She says the transition from being in an office full-time to not working for close to a year has been tough. 

“I love my family, but not working for 12 months is very difficult mentally,” she says.

According to social.mom, 80 per cent of millennial moms say they feel or felt lonely in the first years of motherhood. For women working in STEM, the challenge of finding other women who work in the same field and understand what they’re going through is even bigger. There are considerably fewer women in leadership positions in technology and finding a mentor can be tough.

Shirley says she’s lucky to have some amazing female peers and mentors who she’s kept in touch with during her parental leave. However, she recognizes that not everyone has that kind of support in their lives.

“I go for coffee or lunch with them and I always leave feeling energized and inspired. It gives me a little bit of boost,” Shirley says. 

This is why she founded Winnipeg Career Women. This non-profit organization is dedicated to career women who want to help each other navigate the challenges faced by female professionals advancing in their careers.

The organization offers free mentor-matching and conducts networking groups for women in STEM. Based on Lean-In Circles, the networking group meets monthly to build relationships and connect.

Shirley says it’s like meeting someone at a business conference but with the added opportunity to make lasting connections.

“At a conference, you introduce yourself, talk a little bit, and exchange business cards but that’s it,” Shirley says. “There’s no continuation.” 

At networking circles, every woman gets a chance to share her opinion and make a connection because they’re meeting every month.

Shirley says she’s come across many good male colleagues and role models in her career. However, the connections she’s made with women in STEM have always been incredibly meaningful. Not only it’s great to meet amazing driven women who understand the challenges women face at different stages of their career, but also learn about different strategies to overcome them.

“It’s important for women to understand that they’re not alone,” Shirley says. “if you can find people to guide you and help you navigate this journey, often time simply by sharing their experiences, you feel less stressed out and more supported.”

Staying connected to her career during parental leave was important to Shirley and she’s not the only one. This topic surfaced at almost all the Maven roundtables held across Manitoba. Due to current EI restrictions, people on parental leave can only work a certain number of hours before reducing EI benefits.

For some people, not maintaining skills can leave them at a disadvantage when they return to work. This can especially be a problem for women like Shirley, who have careers in fast-changing STEM fields. 

Shirley advises young career moms to inquire about possible professional development opportunities like classes and webinars while on parental leave. Volunteering is another way Shirley stayed connected on her leave. She was a debate competition judge at her daughter’s school, and a panel interviewer for Grade 11 and 12 students interested in going into engineering.