"Go to the top": women at the Australian weather bureau

24 March 2010, 22:59

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in science and technology.

Women made up 24% of the Bureau of Meteorology’s staff at the end of 2009. But even within the Bureau, the numbers differ widely from classification to classification – women make up 16% of the IT Officers, 14% of the Technical Officers, but over 55% of the Administrative Service Officers. (2008-09 Annual ReportAppendix 3)

Somewhat surprisingly, to me at least, The Bureau has the lowest proportion of women of all the federal government agencies – even lower than the Department of Defence, which manages some 40% female participation. (APSC State of the Service report, 2008-09)

Chart showing gender breakdown amongst all the federal government agencies. Image from the 2005-06 State of the Service Report (things have improved slightly since then).

It was only 1966 that the marriage bar was lifted in the public service – a law that women employees had to resign once they married.

During World War II, as in many industries, women began working at the Bureau as the men were out at war. The Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF)

Members of the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force prepare a weather analysis chart in the Central Forecasting Room of the Bureau of Meteorology, Melbourne, Victoria, on Monday 9 November 1942. The woman seated at right reads out the weather observations to her colleague, who plots them on the chart. Image from p211, “The Weather Watchers: 100 Years of the Bureau of Meteorology” by David Day. Source: BOM image catalogue reference “general78”.

One of the met members of the WAAAF was Beryl Bedgood, who later married and was known as Dame Beryl Beaurepaire. She is generally better known for her fundraising and charity work, and her work for women’s rights, and she was reportedly at one point the most powerful woman in the Liberal party.

Sergeant Beryl Edith Bedggood, WAAAF Meteorological Observer serving at No 1 Operational Training Unit RAAF. RAAF Station east Sale, Vic, 25 October 1944. From the Australian War Memorial website.

From a 2005 interview, she talks about her experience in the WAAAF:

Well, I went to join up and it was in a car sales place in Russell Street, and oh, I was questioned like mad. Was I unhappy at home? And so many things. And I said, No. And I remember saying to them, Look, my father’s in the Air Force, that’s why I chose the Air Force, and also I’m science-interested, and I believe soon there will be places in the meteorological section. ‘Oh no, they won’t allow any women into that’. I said, ‘Well look, I’d like to get into that section and find out.’ So anyway, I started off as a drill instructor, of all things, because it was the only way I could get in. and so soon after I finished that course, I was able to re-muster, as it was called, to a meteorological assistant, and there were three of us in a class of forty, the rest were men. And we of course topped the class, because we’d had to have either a Matriculation or a University year to get into it, and the men had only had to have the equivalent of Intermediate. And of course the men were all posted out to interesting active stations, and my two friends and I, we were posted to the Weather Bureau in Drummond Street, Carlton. And we just worked alongside public servants, and we got paid about a quarter of what they got paid. We had to work shifts, which included Saturdays and Sundays, with no extra money. If they worked Sunday they got time-and-a-half, or three times, and we got a bit jack of it. And one Saturday afternoon, my friend Lois and I were sitting in there, and we both got mad, because we were sitting there and we were running the whole place and only getting paid, I don’t know, 2/10d a day or something. So we took ourselves off and went down to call on the Director of the WAAAF, which was terribly naughty. We could have been court-martialled, but we went. And after we’d talked to her for about ten minutes, she sent for a cup of tea for us, so we thought, Well, we must have been received all right to be offered a cup of tea. And we just said, ‘We didn’t join the WAAAF to be public servants.’ And that was what it meant. And then about three months after that, I got sent to one operational training unit, East Sale, and my friend got sent to South Australia, Glenelg. And so I think that was when I started to realise that if you went to the top you sometimes got there, and since then, all my life I’ve endeavoured to go to the top to get what I wanted, and I think that if a lot of people went to the top instead of being put off by the clerks in the office, they’d have got more.

A very sensible philosophy!

The chapter Airwoman in the book “Beryl Beaurepaire”
by Michael McKernan has more detail about her time in the WAAAF.

The first major intake of women into the Meteorologists Course was in 1965. Image from p328, “The Weather Watchers”. Source: BOM image catalogue reference “general95”.

Despite the pioneering of the WAAAF, it took some 20 more years for women to get into the met course, and it was the mid 70s before observer positions were fully open to women. In 1980 there were just two women observers, to 430 men!

I also wanted to find an Australian woman who was an atmospheric scientist, and after a while I discovered Dr Jean Laby. I think there is a bio on her in Irresistible Forces: Australian women in science by Claire Hooker. (There’s also an interview online.)

So — go to the top!

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