On International Women's Day, we want to celebrate the achievements of women and there is none better to spotlight than our very own President and Chairman, Leonie Walsh. A true leader, Leonie has provided integral support for women in science and used her own personal experiences to help others in the fight against cancer. Continue reading to find out more about Leonie's incredible achievements.
Tell us about your professional background.
A Mildura Technical School education proved to be a great foundation for an Applied Science career topped up by further Applied Science studies at Swinburne University of Technology. Although I had an idea that I wanted to study science and technology I had no real grasp of the type of careers available. I was fortunate to have picked well in Dow Chemical as an employer and couldn’t have asked for a better early career experience with a strong focus on technology leadership, customer relationships, multi-functional teamwork and international collaborations. Luck does play a part and I joined Dow Chemical at a time when they had developed a breakthrough technology platform and I was fortunate to help develop this technology at a global level in applications including food packaging, elastic fibers and personal care products with three years in a Pacific Area role and the last four years based out of the US. On return to Australia I experimented with a few roles in sales and marketing but landed back into Science, Technology and Innovation with a role at Visy. Changes in leadership were most often the cause of moving on from different roles particularly if I felt the fit was no longer there.
As an industrial scientist a role with Government was never on my radar, however the Lead Scientist role was quite unique in that the Government was after a voice of industry within Government, and the focus was aligned with the strategic priorities I had focused on in prior roles. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to contribute in this role from 2013 to mid-2016.
I continue to draw from this broad experience to support government, academia and businesses on strategic science and technology issues including innovation efficiency, technology commercialisation and the future skilled workforce through a range of related boards, advisory and advocacy activities. It is fair to say that my career has far exceeded my expectations with the friendships developed being the most rewarding aspect of my career.
For those that don’t know how did you come to be involved with Fight Cancer Foundation?
In 1988 I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia and underwent a transplant from my sister’s bone marrow in 1989. Whilst in hospital I visited another patient, Karen Opie, who was waiting on a transplant. During the visit Karen’s father, John Opie, explained his concern for the patients who were not fortunate enough to have a family match and that he intended to do something about it. I was inspired by John’s vision and after several months of recovery I approached him to see if and how I could be of help. I spent three to four years as honorary secretary of the then Bone Marrow Donor Institute (BMDI), a member of the ethics review committee and established and ran the Leukemia Family Support Group.
I stepped down from the BMDI Board in 1995 due to work and travel commitments. In 2009 as my workload had started to stabilize I reconnected with several Board members of the newly renamed Fight Cancer Foundation, sadly at John Opie’s funeral, and rejoined the Board. In February 2015 I was asked to take over as President and Chair of the Fight Cancer Foundation.
Working with the Foundation is and has always been a rich and rewarding experience due to the incredible altruistic people you meet and engage with. The reward comes from hearing the stories of those that have benefitted from the services and support.
What would you say you are most passionate about professionally?
The area that I have been most passionate about in my career regardless of the role or organisation that I have been in is developing and utilising our talent pool to its full potential, particularly as it relates to gender, diversity in general and very importantly, leadership.
Even though we live in an incredibly dynamic period where technology seems to be driving everything, people are still at the core of how we use that technology to the best effect. We have some remarkable talent within Victoria/Australia and I believe we need to do better at focusing on developing that current and future generation of talent and leaders to cope with the dynamic work environment we are operating in. Leadership rarely comes up in conversations around our skilled workforce and is often an afterthought rather than the priority it needs to be.
Added to that, we are currently experiencing skill shortages in many new industry and business sectors whilst in some areas we have an oversupply of potential employees. We need to work harder on initiatives to get better communication flow on job and career opportunities for our young workforce coming through and at the same time help transition the talent that we have into new and emerging occupations.
This is even more critical for young women coming through the education system so that they are not cheated of great career opportunities due to lack of good advice and lack of exposure to mentors and role models. Needless to say, we will need their skills and talent in the future.
International Women’s Day celebrates a gender equal world; can you explain your experiences in championing women scientists?
During the earlier part of my career in Industry I gained a level of acceptance that there were few women in manufacturing in the chemical sector. I was fortunate to work in a very supportive environment with strong leadership however it wasn't until I took an assignment in the US that I had my first female manager and a significant number of female peers. This experience made me realise that I had been missing out on a different type of connection and relationship from a professional female network, one that I have come to really appreciate and enjoy.
The challenges facing women developing careers in industry differ to those experienced by women in life science related careers however there was/is no doubt to me that helping to remove some of these barriers would help more women reach and contribute to their full potential.
It wasn't until I took on the role of Lead Scientist that I had an opportunity to do something significant about this imbalance. The first project I worked on in this role was the Inspiring Women program which funded several fellowships for high caliber women experiencing career interruptions, a portal to help communicate and connect a range of women's support services and internships for Bachelor's and Master levels female science and engineering students in industry. This program was delivered by Veski who continue to develop and nurture the talent identified through the fellowship program. I have had the opportunity through the activities of the Office of the Lead Scientist to become a strong advocate for women in STEM and communicate why improvement in this area creates positive outcomes for society and the economy.
In late 2016 I was honored to be named as the inaugural Ambassador for Women in STEMM Australia and continue to support developing our female talent in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. I continue to mentor several young scientists and hopefully help them at least as much as I get back from the experience.
What word of advice would you give young women starting their careers?
My advice to young women starting out on their career is to seek broad advice from trusted advisers to ensure that you make informed decisions about your career choices. This is also a valuable practice throughout your career as these trusted advisers will more than likely have more confidence in your ability than you may have and give you that much-needed nudge when you are ready to take on a new or bigger challenge.