Kathryn Volter, cardiac scientist and territory manager at Boston Scientific, discusses women in science and the benefits of organisations giving their employees autonomy

by Liz Benson

Kathryn Volter, territory manager, Boston Scientific
Age: 40
Number of kids: 2
Age of kids: 5 and 7

This week the world recognised International Day for Women and Girls in Science. We met with Kathryn to discuss what it’s like to be a mother and professional in this field.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in science?

I got a good OP at school and I’ve always been interested in health and science. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at uni so I pulled out the QTAC book and worked out which course included the highest number of subjects that I liked. That turned out to be a degree in biomedical science.

I considered using it as a stepping stone into medicine but, in the end, I decided I wanted more control over my lifestyle, which I didn’t think I’d get with medicine. Overall, I was really interested in forensic science, microbiology, genetics, and clinical physiology; and I knew I wanted to work with people.

After graduating you spent a number of years working at St Andrews War Memorial Hospital as a cardiac technician. What was that like?

In this role I had a really close relationship with the physicians, helping them to operate electrophysiology equipment during patient procedures. I was often in the room with the doctors, seeing the patient for their initial consultation and then down in the lab. The physicians would tell me all about the patient, and involve me in the decision making to resolve the problem. For an allied health professional, it’s a really intimate relationship to have, with both the patient and physician, and it gave me a similar type of fulfilment I may have felt if I had pursued a traditional medicine career.

Now you work in a corporate sales environment, where you’re the supplier of equipment for St Andrews and various other hospitals. What’s involved in this job?

I often meet with physicians, technicians and nurses to educate them on our technologies, review previous patient cases or discuss patient care and procedures. Other days, I’ll be in the lab to assist with procedures as they’re booked by the doctor, or sending emails from our corporate office.

Just last night we had an information dinner with the hospital staff, a team of physicians and technicians. This involved putting together an information session to encourage discussion about our technologies, a professional development opportunity for the customer. I didn’t get home until 10pm, but that doesn’t necessarily happen every day.

How does your corporate role differ to your role at the hospital?

It’s very different. I like that I’m more in control of my time now. That was a big drawcard and part of the reason I moved on from my clinical job at the hospital. Back then, I would start at the hospital at 6:30am for a case, and had to stay there until all the work was done. I had no idea what time I was going to finish, it could have been 1pm, 9pm or after midnight. While that worked while the kids were at daycare, it all changed when the kids were starting school. Suddenly I had to work around set school hours, and there’s no normal full-time shift that accommodates a 2:45pm pick-up.

I had to find the right corporate job, where there was autonomy and flexibility, so I could choose when to do the crazy long days and when not to.

I was also getting very comfortable at my job at the hospital, which I absolute loved, but it got to the point where I had to ask if comfortable was where I wanted to stay. I realised I wanted to challenge myself.

How do you balance your work commitments with your husband’s own role and your kids?

For my job to work, my husband has to be flexible. I’m really lucky that he has a job that allows him to be autonomous with his time, and he can be around to pick up the kids from school or prepare them for bed.

I think that arrangement needs to be the future in the corporate world. As an employee, you should have your KPIs and however you meet them is how you meet them. I think that would give everyone a lot more satisfaction in the workforce.

What kind of flexibility have you had throughout your career since having kids?

In my previous role at the hospital, I needed to be present for procedures in the lab, and I was also managing a team of about seven other cardiac technicians. I did do some work from home, but I found that I was really judged for that. Other staff were very aware of my so-called ‘privileges’. That was really disappointing, because I work hard and would have never taken advantage of that situation. I felt like I needed to work more to make up for it.

That time working from home really opened my eyes to what my next career move could be, and helped me see that I didn’t have to be present in the workforce for my entire shift. That’s when I approached Boston Scientific. I had worked hard to build a strong personal brand and demonstrate my work ethic, so they took a major risk and hired me part-time. I think I’m one of the first part-time territory managers at Boston.

They’re still progressing and it’s very early days, but I feel that if you can prove you’ll bring value to an organisation, they’ll do whatever it takes to make it work for both you and for them.

What does your part-time schedule look like?

When I first started at Boston Scientific it was three days a week, with the idea that I would work up to more hours when I was ready. My eldest was just starting school and I wanted to be a little more present. Three days meant I could pick them up from school or go along to one of the assemblies.

The biggest challenge with being part-time was that my customers were aware that I wasn’t full-time. I often got feedback that they would hesitate calling me because they weren’t sure if I was working or not and they didn’t want to call me on my days off. I hated the idea that I was missing out on building a stronger relationship with my customers. Eventually I increased to four days a week, which I’ve been doing a couple of years now.

Having said that, I don’t think a day goes by that I’m not responding to emails. Part-time just means I choose when to be on the clock and when not. I also chop and change that day I’ve got off, based on my work commitments. For example, I’m currently working with a customer whose theatre time is on a Friday. Traditionally this is my day off, but if she’s got something scheduled, I want to be there with her, so I choose another day to stay at home. I find that’s the perfect balance, because I love my role, I want to be present and I want to do a great .

Do you find your field is male dominated?

It is definitely still male dominated. I’m very aware of how men in the workplace perceive my use of time, though, overall, I haven’t had a problem working in this kind of environment. I know women who struggle in their workforce because it’s largely male dominated; however, I’ve always felt if you can perform at a top level, put in everything, and create value, it shouldn’t matter whether you’re male or female.

Tell me about the award you recently won.

Last month at our annual sales conference I won the top sales achiever award, for growing my business by 29%. The award itself wasn’t even on my radar, I just worked really hard in 2019 and had some fantastic, engaged customers that reflected in my sales.

I’m so excited to have won it, but I’m even more excited to have done it while working part-time. I was considered for the award just as much as any other employee, regardless of my official work hours. Offering me flexibility and autonomy paid off for the business. Maybe there’s an opportunity for Boston Scientific to roll that approach out in other territories. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a woman in a part-time role, it could be a man in a part-time role too.

How did you approach maternity leave with your boys?

I took 12 months of maternity leave both times, however each approach was very different. The first time, I went in blind and had no idea what being a mother was going to be like. It was all very new and challenging and I didn’t want to be away from my baby. I definitely needed the 12 months. At the same time, I stayed engaged with the workplace through ‘stay in touch’ shifts. They were much shorter than a normal shift but it let me stay connected with the workplace. I would recommend that to all mums. It will help you maintain your brand, so you can continue to grow professionally.

The second time I was much more relaxed and, while I used the time to be with my babies, I was also able to stop and reflect on where my career was going. I was very comfortable in my previous role, but I knew I needed a challenge.

In my field there’s a big international exam you have to sit, which is the top credentialing for the field. This accreditation lasts for 10 years. During my second maternity leave, I hit my 10 years, so I decided to study for and re-sit the electrophysiology exam.

I had to sit the exam in Sydney, and that day happened to be my little boy’s first birthday, so we all flew to Sydney together as a family and celebrated his first birthday there (me by sitting this exam). I think I may have been the first person in Australia to voluntarily re-sit the exam.  I was really proud of that, as a mum of two kids, especially since I couldn’t study anywhere near the level I did in my 20s.

Do you find time for yourself?

Not particularly, though I’m trying to get better at it. I used to cycle with my Dad a lot in big community rides, up to 220kms sometimes, but, when I fell pregnant, I had to get off the bike; the risk was too great. Instead I’ve just joined the gym, for the first time in 20 years. Health and fitness is important to me. My husband and I love getting outside near water, whether it’s a lake or the beach. It’s really calming and centering.

I also have a ‘happy place’, which is my walk-in robe, where I can relax and admire my clothes and shoes. My husband will laugh his head off when he reads this, but it’s true, because if he can’t find me in the house, I’m usually in the wardrobe getting lost with my clothes. I can just get lost in there.

What advice would you give to younger women considering a STEM field career?

If science is your passion, go for it. You’ll need to work hard in the first few years, build your reputation, and brand yourself, but it’s definitely possible to pursue a career in this industry as a working mum.

If you go down the biomedical science route, there are both public and private roles available. You can work in a private doctor’s room or private hospital, or at a public hospital. There is a lot of flexibility that I see with part-time roles.

Traditionally in this industry, employers looked for a background in biomedical science, but now we’re bringing in more people from exercise physiology streams. A lot of it is on-the-job training, so you have to find an organisation that will be willing to train you up, but it’s definitely doable.

If you could do something different in developing your career, what would it be?

I would simply tell myself to be more confident and take more risks. I used to be very shy and didn’t like getting outside my comfort zone. You need to put yourself out there; life is short and don’t worry about people judging you. You get the most reward by putting yourself at the most risk.

What does the future hold?

When I turned 40, I sat down and worked out what I want in this upcoming decade. I now have my ‘five F’s’. I want to have fun, be fit, family-oriented, financially secure, and watch my environmental footprint. I can’t see myself in the exact same role for the rest of my life, so I’m looking forward to continually being challenged in my career and seeing where it takes me.