Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Women in Chemistry: Then and Now

By Jenny Bennett

Women have come a long way in chemistry since Marie Curie won her Nobel Prize 100 years ago.

On my notice board at work, I display an article (1936) from The Herald newspaper with the headline “University Training Does Not Spoil Girls”. While the article’s primary purpose is to convey that a university career is beneficial for all students, it also mentions that the examination results of female students at university vary in an inverse relationship to their attractiveness. Pretty girls get the worst results, while plain girls win awards for their academic achievements. Some of you reading this will be amused, while others will be genuinely horrified that such inequality once existed.

As you would be aware, 2011 is the 100th anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Madame Marie Curie. To celebrate this, and to celebrate the contributions of women to science, the Australian Journal of Chemistry published an issue dedicated to women in chemistry. It contains contributions from some of the many distinguished female chemists from Australia and New Zealand.

One inspiring essay from the issue, published in June, is by Margaret Sheil (see p.31), the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council (ARC), a statutory authority within the federal Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research that provides advice to the government on research matters and manages the National Competitive Grants Program.

Sheil opens by saying: “In my high school chemistry class it never occurred to me that chemistry might be a male-dominated science because there were no boys in the class!” She once believed, along with many others, that it was just a matter of time before women rose to the top of chemistry in reasonable numbers. However, there is still a long way to go.

Sheil discusses the scarcity of women in chemistry in general, particularly in the ranks of leadership of academic chemistry. In fact, the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI), the main professional association of chemists in Australia, has only had one female national president, Doreen Clark, in 1994.

This noticeable lack of female role models is not confined to Australia. Prior to 2009, when Israeli chemist Ada Yonath was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her studies of the structure and function of the ribosome, the last female chemist to be awarded a Nobel Prize was Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964. These two chemists, along with Marie and Isabel Curie, comprise the entire honour board of female chemists to be recognised in this way. (You may be interested to know that this ratio of 4:155 male winners is more than double that of the ratio in physics!)

RACI female award winners are also rare. But to win prizes, women must be working in chemistry in the first place, and there have been significant improvements in this area in recent times. In 1992 just 16 women out of 483 chemistry academics were employed in Australia. By 1995, this number had almost doubled. From two female professors of chemistry in 2000, there are now more than a dozen, and outstanding women chemists are now leading research groups and university faculties and departments. There are also now significant numbers of women who hold senior executive positions within universities and in the private sector.

Sheil concludes on a note of optimism. Women planning on chemistry as a career now have access to many brilliant female mentors and role models.

Jenny Bennett is Publisher – Chemical Sciences at CSIRO Publishing.