Women in science go under the radar: remembering Ruby Payne-Scott | Women's Agenda

Women in science go under the radar: remembering Ruby Payne-Scott

When you stop to think of Australia’s great scientific minds, do you think of Ruby Payne-Scott? Most people don’t know who this remarkable woman is, but they should.

We know as much as we do about the universe today because of people like Ruby. So it’s only right that we know more about her.

Ruby was a physicist, astronomer, war hero, equal rights activist and high school teacher.

She was the first female radio astronomer and a pioneer in the field, contributing to some of the earliest discoveries in radio astronomy research.

Initially, Ruby couldn’t find work as a physicist after graduating, so she became a teacher in Adelaide. This was a time when many thought a woman’s place was in the home, and certainly not in a research lab. But as World War II began to threaten Australia, our national scientific body CSIR (known today as the CSIRO) desperately needed smart people, so Ruby got her big break.

Ruby was also a vociferous fighter for equal pay and fair treatment of women in the workplace. When management told her women should wear skirts to work, she bluntly replied that if she was to be climbing ladders and inspecting aerials all day like the men, then she would also be wearing shorts like the men.

This might explain why, a few months after Ruby started, her boss wrote in a memo: “Well, 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 continue to see how she works out.”

She worked out pretty well. While others were gazing up at the stars, Ruby was listening to them.

During the war, Ruby and her colleagues developed the top-secret radar technology that helped defend Australia from Japanese attacks.

After the war, she made path-breaking discoveries in radio astronomy, including three new categories of solar bursts.

Her work at the CSIR signalled a new frontier for radio astronomy, transforming it from what was essentially considered a pseudo-science to an incredibly important field. With Ruby at the helm, Australia developed an international reputation as a leader in solar radio physics.

It seems extraordinary today, but back then, married women weren’t able to hold permanent full-time positions in the public service. So when Ruby married her partner Bill in 1944, she kept it secret. When she was found out in 1950, she was forced to resign and could only work in a temporary position, without superannuation or other standard entitlements. She left for good in 1951 when she was pregnant with her first child. There was no maternity leave. She later taught maths and science at a girls’ school.

So why should we remember Ruby Payne-Scott today?

Because 70 years after Ruby blazed the way, women in Australia are still struggling to achieve equal representation across all STEM disciplines.

Only one-third of university graduates in STEM courses are women. Only 28 per cent of Australia’s STEM-qualified workers are women. The number of students studying maths and science in high school is falling, and the gap between boys and girls is getting wider. In 2013, only six per cent of girls in Year 12 studied advanced maths.

The trend seen in primary and secondary schools continues within STEM careers, with women comprising just 17 per cent of senior academics in Australian universities and research institutes.

These numbers are even more troubling when you consider how important STEM is for Australia’s future prosperity. A recent Price Waterhouse Coopers report found that we could lose five million current jobs over the next twenty years to digital disruption. There will be millions of other job opportunities that young Australians can grab, but only if they are learning the skills these jobs demand – like computer coding, engineering and specialist mathematics.

We won’t reach our productive potential as a nation until we make sure women can reach theirs. And Australian women can’t reach their potential until we start focusing on teaching more girls skills in STEM.

The Labor Party has a plan get more young people – and particularly young women – learning about these vital subjects.

The next Labor Government will encourage more students to take up STEM degrees by writing off the HECS-HELP debt of 100,000 prospective university graduates in these fields, with the selection criteria for these places aimed at boosting the representation of women in STEM.

We will make sure every young person, girls and boys, has the chance to learn about computer coding at school, and ensuring our classroom teachers have the skills to engage students in STEM from a young age.

These are smart investments, and their benefits will multiply for generations. It makes sense to equip young women with the knowledge they need to get the jobs of the future. If we don’t, these jobs will go overseas, to countries whose governments are putting more resources into girls’ education. There are more Ruby Payne-Scotts in our schools, universities and community – we just need to find them and unleash their potential.

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