Quietly Pushing Barriers Aside

Every student attending Hamilton High School photographed standing outside school building in 1953

This photo of Hamilton High School in Victoria was taken when my mother was in Form 1 (year 7) in 1953.

This week came the disappointing news that the participation in Maths by girls in their final year of school in New South Wales is declining significantly.  In 2001, the first year when students were no longer required to study a Maths or science subject in year twelve in order to qualify for university entrance, 90.5% of girls studied Maths whereas 96.9% of boys did.

The disparity between the genders in participation in Maths was already noticeable in 2001.  Ten years later this disparity has worsened.  By 2011 girls participation in year twelve Maths had dropped to 78.2%.  The participation of boys had also decreased but not to such a degree.  In 2011 90.2% of boys studied year twelve Maths.

Rachel Wilson, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at University of Sydney noted that this problem is partly due to the attitude about girls and women being bad at Maths.

There are many, many examples of girls and women excelling in Maths.  Jane Gleeson-White has highlighted the stories of three Australian women who are clearly brilliant at Maths.  She could have listed many more.

Unfortunately some dismiss these women as being ‘unusual’ (which is often code for ‘weird’ or ‘abnormal’). Yet the story about Clio Cresswell, senior lecturer in mathematics and statistics at University of Sydney, caught my eye.  It is not the tale of success in maths one would expect.  Cresswell told Jane Gleeson-White that she struggled with maths at school.  What led Clio Cresswell to ultimately succeed in maths at a high level?  Read Jane Gleeson-White’s post to find out!

In this post I want to highlight a story of an ordinary woman and her quiet determination to participate in science and to study Maths.  She was not brilliant at Maths but she enjoyed it and wanted to pursue it. Her story demonstrates some of the subtle and not so subtle barriers that dissuade many women from studying Maths and Science.

This woman is my mother.


My mother’s memories are of growing up in south-western Victoria in the 1940s and 1950s where girls were expected to be just as good at Maths and Science as boys and where girls participated in these subjects at the same levels as boys.

When my mother attended high school in the 1950s there were three academic streams which high school students were assigned to in Victoria – professional, commercial and domestic arts.  Mum was placed in the domestic arts stream by the school despite her parents requesting her to be enrolled in the professional stream.  According to her the first her parents knew about it was when she brought home her report book.  Her father went to the school and requested that she be moved to the professional stream.  She was moved at the beginning of Form 2 (year 8).

“It meant that I had to make up a year of French, Algebra, and Geometry, as the Domestic stream only did Arithmetic” Mum recalls. “However, I was really excited about the three new subjects. I had found Arithmetic boring, but the more theoretical stuff was enthralling, and French was good too. So I worked hard. No-one breathed a word about girls being no good at Maths and Science.”

Her father had left school when he was fourteen but devised a good way of helping her with the things he had not learned. “If I had a Maths problem” Mum remembers, “instead of just saying he couldn’t help me, he would ask me to show him how to do it, which I would proceed to do. Inevitably, in the telling, I would see my error. It was an ingenious method!”

My mother and her family moved to Bendigo towards the end of Form 3 (year 9).  She was surprised when she found that there were only about four girls in her large Form 4 Maths class at Bendigo High School.

After just nine months in Bendigo her family moved again.  She completed Form 4 at Cohuna High School on the Murray River.  Cohuna only had a small population at the time and opportunities at the local high school were limited.  She wanted to do science at university but the Maths subject that she needed to complete at high school in order to prepare for university was not available at her school.  She studied Maths and French by correspondence but was not able to study Form 5 Physics at all.

By coincidence Mum’s future husband had been to school with the teacher at Cohuna High School who supervised Mum’s completion of her Maths correspondence subject.  He laughed – the teacher had not completed any Maths or Science beyond form 4 level.  Mum was on her own.

As Cohuna High School only offered classes to fifth form my mother transferred to a larger school in a neighbouring town sixty kilometres down the river.  The problems caused by her disrupted education manifested themselves during her year at Echuca High School.  She struggled due to the inadequate education she had received the year before.  While she passed some subjects she did not pass her final year.

In 1959 my mother moved to Melbourne with ambitions to work and study at night.

She wanted a job in science.  Her supportive father took her to see a careers counselor.  “I told him that I wanted to be a Geologist. He said that was not possible for me because of having to go out in the field and camp alone with men.” The Careers Counsellor suggested that she try for a job at the Defence Standards Laboratories (DSL) at West Maribyrnong.  At DSL she was given a choice between a job in Metrology (which concerns measurement), or Spectroscopy.  My mother thought measurement sounded boring so she chose to work as a Technical Assistant working on emission spectroscopy for metallurgical analysis.

Next step was to enrol in a Diploma of Applied Physics at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).  The enrolment staff were not used to women seeking to enrol in Physics.  My mother remembers the staff trying to persuade her to enrol in the diploma of Chemistry – maybe that was more ladylike?  She stood her ground in a quiet but obstinate fashion.  She did not want to do Chemistry.

My mother successfully enrolled in Physics – the only woman in her year to do so.

The lecturer read the roll at a lecture but Mum’s name was not called out.  He then asked those whose names had not been called to state their name.  At that time male students were referred to by their surnames at school, not their first names.  “Love” Mum yelled from the back of the lecture theatre, for that was her surname.  You can imagine the mirth in the room full of men.

She was not a star student but passed her first year – three subjects in Physics and two in Maths.  Her subsequent years were badly affected by the death of her father to whom she was close and she dropped out of the course.


The story does not end here.  My mother continued to work in the laboratory doing Spectroscopy and went on to further study in Maths and Science, but I will leave that for another post.

There were so many points in my mother’s early life when she could have easily given up on her ambition and stopped studying Maths and Science, yet she persisted.  An important part of her story is the encouragement she received from her father and the work of her teachers.  Men have a vital role in developing a society where women are treated fairly and given opportunities.

Some women become publicly noted for their achievements and quite rightly so, but there are many women who also push the boundaries in less spectacular ways.  The contribution of these women is important too.  My mother’s story is not unique.  There are others like her but you won’t hear much about them.  You might even know such a woman yourself.

Women have been working successfully in maths, science and technology for a long time.  Their stories should be told.

This is the first of three posts about my mother’s career in science and technology. In the next post I share the story of my mother working in laboratories between 1959 and 1963. The final post is about my mother going to university as a mature age student and working as a programmer.

7 thoughts on “Quietly Pushing Barriers Aside

  1. What a fantastic story, Yvonne. And you are SO right, these are the really important and inspiring stories, the stories of the ‘ordinary’ women (your mother does not at all sound ordinary!) who quietly and determinedly pursue their interests regardless of obstacles – in your mother’s case, in maths and science.

    I’m especially interested to hear there was no distinction between what was expected of boys and girls in terms of maths and science in the 1940s and 50s in Victoria! Amazing. Can we have gone backwards? And of course love the support her father gave her and the way he ‘tutored’ your mother by leading her to realise she knew how to do it herself.

    Most of all, I LOVE fact that while your mother found arithmetic boring as a year 8 student, she found the more theoretical stuff – algebra and geometry – enthralling! This completely concurs with my own experience of maths in high school. I think this is massively important and completely overlooked in current dumbed down syllabuses which seem so intent on making maths ‘fun’ and ‘relevant’ and … experiential? – but only end up making it BORING!

    • My mother’s comment about no distinction being made between girls and boys with maths and science applies to her time in Hamilton in the Western District of Victoria. When she moved out of the area to Bendigo she was surprised at the lack of girls in her maths class because at her previous school there wasn’t a noticeable imbalance. It would be interesting to examine Victorian Department of education enrolment figures for the high schools in the 1950s to see if the regional variation noted anecdotally by my mother is noticeable in the statistics. My gut feeling from having lived in so many places in four states is that there are many cultural variations in Anglo-Celtic Australia and consequently there are variations in attitudes towards girls and maths/science.

      I am very different to my mother. I could not relate to maths unless I could understand how it was applied to help me do stuff in the real world. Aside from geometry I could not understand a lot of maths I learned because it was taught theoretically without connecting it to real-world applications. Once I could understand how I could get maths to work for me I enjoyed playing around with the numbers. I missed the numbers when I was doing my Bachelor of Arts degree.

      The point is that everyone (including boys as well as girls) have different learning needs. A one size fits all approach to education is always going to fail a group of capable students. I agree with you that some students need to be challenged and will thrive on the more abstract material, but others do need methods of teaching that hammer home how practical maths is.

    • I agree! I reviewed the book, Seduced by Logic by Robin Arianrhod which includes an account of Mary Somerville’s contribution to maths and science last year. You can read my review here. What did you think of this book?

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