pregnant woman working at a laptop, pregnancy

Sonal Bhadane is a clinical expert in developing and validating radiation therapy machines for cancer treatment at Elekta. She is also a mother to a five-year-old aspiring astronaut/garbage truck driver. However, when she became pregnant, Sonal admits to feeling ‘paranoid’ about how her colleagues would react and how being a mother would impact her career.

Sonal was born in India, but raised and educated in Canada, and has had a lifelong passion for physics. Having studied Medical Radiation Sciences, she become a radiation therapist and started her career at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. Though she enjoyed her job, she wanted to understand and learn more about the technology she was using to treat patients, often staying behind after her shift to watch engineers testing the machines she was using during the day. Before long, she had made the decision to go back university to study for a Masters in Medical Physics.

Sonal says that as a woman studying physics, she frequently found herself to be an anomaly in the classroom and that it was not always an easy journey as there were subtle differences between how she and her male peers were treated and taught. Fortunately, her parents encouraged her to pursue STEMM subjects from an early age as she enjoyed and excelled at them.

Whilst the gender gap in physics remains one of the largest among all STEMM subjects, within medical physics the percentage of women is actually around 40%. Despite this, and even though she was working at the very of top of her subject, when Sonal became pregnant, she was concerned about how it would impact her career.

Sonal works within Validation Process Excellence at Elekta facilitating change and continuous improvement of radiotherapy products at a global level. She ensures the validation testing process follows company procedures and reporting protocols to meet both industry and Elekta’s standards. She had been at Elekta for four years when she became pregnant with her first child.

Having experienced gender bias, both conscious and unconscious, whilst studying STEMM subjects, Sonal was predisposed to believe that perceptions of her abilities, productivity and usefulness would change because of her pregnancy. She was apprehensive that colleagues would treat her differently even if it was done with good intentions.

This initial anxiety was compounded by a longer-term concern that being out of the industry loop would mean she would be unable to keep track of the fast pace of developments and advancements in radiotherapy technology during her maternity leave and how it might impact her career in the future.

However, Sonal found being open about her concerns regarding the challenges of pregnancy and returning to work following maternity leave led to a more positive experience. She felt very supported by colleagues and Elekta HR was very flexible about her plans for coming back to work enabling her to do a staggered return.

She realised that she also had to confront her own mindset of how parenthood was going to affect her job and her work, and the fear that she would not be able to come back and work the way she had previously.

Sonal Bhadane headshot“One year is a huge gap from where you leave off to where the company will be, and I asked myself what can I do to keep myself updated? So, I would try to catch up with my boss once a month to discuss work and see where things were. However, she would keep trying to turn the conversation back to the baby when I wanted to talk about the company.”

Sonal says that she learnt a lot from the dynamic of these interactions, and she now uses her experience to mentor team members when they go on maternity leave.

To facilitate finding a balance between impending motherhood and the workplace she has compiled three top tips for her colleagues which can be applicable to all women in fast-moving tech industries:

  • Take a deep breathe: Things will have moved on while you have been away, but don’t feel that when you come back you must know everything that has happened. There are no stupid questions to ask to get you back up to speed and you may even be querying things that haven’t been previously considered.
  • Try to keep the imposter syndrome at bay: Be confident in your abilities, you’ll be surprised at how easy and quickly it is to bounce back.
  • Remember there is support: Tech companies like Elekta can be very good at understanding what to provide, but if you identify other needs or alternative ways to be supported back into the workplace don’t be afraid to ask

In response to how she felt during her pregnancy and maternity leave, and having realised that many women in STEMM careers may experience the same anxieties, Sonal has also gone on to co-found the non-profit organisation Mother in Science  to “support, connect, empower and increase the visibility of mothers in STEMM.”