Would Ruby Payne Scott have got further in her career today?

Credit: Peter Hall

These days, when we talk about equality for women in physics and science in general, the subject of subtle, unconscious gender bias is a hot topic.

But in the middle of the last century, gender bias was about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Coming up to the birthday of Ruby Payne Scott, one of the first female radio astronomers, it seems timely to reflect on her career and on how equality in physics has changed since. How much more would Payne Scott have achieved today?

Ruby Payne Scott was born on 28 May 1912 in New South Wales. She completed high school in Sydney and, in 1933, became the third female physicist graduate from the University of Sydney. So far, so good.

FROM LIBRARIAN TO RESEARCH PHYSICIST

In her first post at Australian Wireless Amalgamated, an organisation that typically only hired women as typists or cleaners, Payne Scott was hired as a librarian, not a researcher. But with persistence and academic brilliance she transformed her role and became a physicist.

With the start of the Second World War, the Australian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the predecessor of the CSIRO, established a radio physics research division. It was secretly focussed on the improvement of radar technology for the war effort. At the time women weren’t hired in typically ‘male’ jobs, but Payne Scott, along with two other women, was recruited to the organisation as a research physicist.

“She’s a bit loud and we don’t think she’s quite what we want and she may be a bit unstable, but we’ll let her continue and see how she works out,” said the head of the Radio Physics division, Taffy Bowen, in a probationary report on Payne Scott’s first few months at CSIR.

In fact, despite Bowen’s reservations, Payne Scott went on to play a pivotal role in the division, including after the war when a radio astronomy group was formed that was to make Australia a world leader in the young field.

A ‘SUPERNOVA’ OF A CAREER

Payne Scott’s achievements included the discovery of three out of the five categories of solar bursts and the development and first use of a radio interferometer for astronomy.

But at the same time as this pioneering work there was a problem, a gender problem. At the time a woman working in the Australian Public Service was required to resign from her permanent contract when she got married and, at best, could only continue on a temporary contract.

Payne Scott married in 1944, but rather than disclose her marriage, she let it be known instead that she was living with her partner, Bill Hall. It was a brave move for the time. The now CSIRO found about the marriage in 1950 and Payne Scott was transferred to a temporary contract, though no disciplinary action was taken. She told the CSIRO at the time:

“Personally I feel no legal or moral obligation to have taken any other action than I have in making my marriage known… the present procedure with regard to married women… seems to go far beyond the simple statement in the Act … [it] is ridiculous and can lead to ridiculous results.”

The following year at the age of 39 and pregnant with her first child Payne Scott resigned. With no maternity leave available, she had no choice. Payne Scott had a second child two years later and devoted herself to raising her family. Once her children where grown she returned to work, not at the CSIRO, but as a high school teacher.

This was in spite of the promise of a new, though presumably temporary, post from the CSIRO and colleagues who were keen to have her back. “She may have felt that the juggle between work and family would be too difficult, and that the CSIRO was an unsympathetic employer, no matter how congenial her colleagues were,” says Claire Hooker, a specialist in gender in science at the University of Sydney and author of a book on the history of women in Australian science.

HAS THE WORKPLACE BECOME MORE EQUAL?

Equity in the lab in Australia has certainly improved since Payne Scott’s time. Marriage as grounds for the termination of permanent employment was abolished for women in the Australian Public Service in 1966 and unpaid maternity leave became a legal entitlement for all female employees in Australia in 1979.

Gradually, more family-friendly practises such as back-to-work schemes have been introduced to level the playing field in a society where the mother still tends to be the primary carer. Like the UK, Australia certainly compares favourably to the US where there is no mandatory maternity leave entitlement.

Maternity leave is only part of the story, though. There is still less financial appeal for fathers to stay at home, given that paid paternity leave is offered for much shorter periods than paid maternity leave. On the plus side, Australia does have a relatively generous mandatory unpaid entitlement of 52 weeks, for either parent. Payne Scott’s ex-employers offer one of the more generous parental leave allowances that allow fathers four weeks of full pay.

Inequity still exists in the science workplace and research posts are not bountiful. “These days it’s gotten really hard to find a job in physics in Australia again, for both men and women – at least in academia. This has particularly limited women’s careers,” says Hooker.

According to a 2007 survey by APESMA, Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia, “at nearly every level of responsibility female professional scientists are earning on average significantly less than their male counterparts.” This echoes findings made in other, international studies described in this Nature special report.

A MALE-DOMINATED SENIOR WORKFORCE

Work conditions are just one part of the complex puzzle that contributes to the continuing low numbers of senior female physicists in particular. Data for Australian academics in natural and physical sciences from 2007 showed that from postdoc level, parity was dramatically lost between the genders and once above senior lecturer level, men made up around 90% of the workforce. A quick count of physics fellows in the Australian Academy of Science reveals a similar statistic: around 8% of physics fellows are female.

Would Payne Scott have made progressed further in her field had she been born 60 years later? Sadly, we can never know. As a woman, her career path would have been easier, for sure, but she would still have encountered obstacles, albeit more subtle than the ones she faced in her lifetime.

You can read more about Payne Scott’s achievements and colourful life here. For more detail, see Miller Goss’s biography.

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