Astronomy Educator, John Rowe, reflects on the past, the present and the future of New Zealand women making their mark in science. 

Although many New Zealand women have made significant contributions to science over the years most of us are blissfully unaware of even their names.

These ladies’ achievements have occurred despite the historical inherent sexism of our society that manifested itself in different opportunities for girls and women, and in some respects, still does.

Who are the women who have and are successfully navigating the shifting landscape of education in New Zealand? Of those who are living, what are they doing now? Who were New Zealand’s early pioneers? Who are the ‘space geeks’?

As mentioned, for most of us, very few come immediately to mind. A quick internet search reminds us of some of the giants of the past.

Past giants:

In 1877 Kate Edger became the first woman in New Zealand to gain a university degree and the first woman in the British Empire to earn a Bachelor of Arts (BA). Kate and her three sisters received most of their early education from their father, Reverend Samuel Edger. Some months after graduating, Kate, as did many female graduates following her, entered the noble profession of teaching. Some years later she was appointed the first principal of Nelson College for Girls, which opened in February 1883. She passed away in 1935.

Kathleen Maisey Curtis (later Lady Rigg), a mycologist, was the first New Zealand woman to gain a Diploma in Science, conferred at the University of London in 1919. In 1936, she became the first female fellow elected to the Royal Society of New Zealand. She died in 1994 aged 102.

Beatrice Hill Tinsley, a Stardome favourite, became an influential cosmologist known for her ground-breaking work on the formation and evolution of galaxies. Dux of my own mother’s alma mater, New Plymouth Girls High School (though unfortunately not quite from the same time), she went on to graduate from Canterbury University. In 1963 she and husband Brian Tinsley relocated to Dallas Texas where Brian worked for what later became the University of Texas. Anti-nepotism rules in the U.S. were strict, preventing Beatrice from working at the same university. However, it was at UT-Austin where she began the work she is so well known for. Later in her all too short life she became the first female professor of astronomy at Yale University. She passed away in 1981 aged 40.

Invisible Women:

Cultural historian, Kate Hannah from Te Pūnaha Matatini at the University of Auckland, said that women’s contribution to science has been overlooked because the history books have been written by men. No doubt there is truth in this! Having set about doing a paper on Ernest Rutherford, she soon realised she knew relatively little about New Zealand female scientists. Instead, she began to research “Invisible Women of NZ’s Scientific History” for her Ph.D., her focus being the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

According to Hannah, for women in the 19th century, an ‘acceptable’ branch of science to be involved in was botany. New Zealand was a new country where new species were being discovered. It was important to create accurate drawings of new species, and since girls were encouraged in the arts, it was not uncommon for women to be proficient with pencil and brush. One can imagine picnics in the countryside with ladies of the middle class combining their passion for science with their artistic abilities. 

One of the challenges of identifying who the early women in science were, is the fact that their university degrees were Bachelor of Arts. Significant extra digging required! Furthermore, in the early days, women scientists were not always defined as such. Rather, to quote Hannah, they were sometimes known as technicians, administrators, wives, sisters, or lovers of the famous scientists who were recognised for the work.

A Brief History:

A brief look at the history of education in New Zealand is useful. Primary schooling up to year 8 became free and available from 1877. However, in the late 19th century, secondary schools were few, highly academic, and charged fees. Some scholarships were offered, but in the main, only children from wealthy families made it to secondary school, and many more boys did so than girls.

The first girls’ secondary school opened in Dunedin in 1871, 15 years after the first boys’ secondary school. Coincidentally, about the same time, women were able to attend the brand-new University of Otago. Nevertheless, girls remained less likely to attend school, particularly secondary school, until this became compulsory in 1944. Those attending universities remained an elite for many years, although for a time in the mid-late 20th century, tertiary education was essentially fee free.

Interestingly, free or not, the proportion of females participating fluctuated throughout the 20th century. Fast-forward to today, and we find for a variety of reasons that significantly more women graduate from universities than do men. In 2015 61% of those enrolled in bachelors and postgraduate qualifications were women. They were, however, still under-represented in what we now identify as STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

This is particularly interesting and disappointing. In the late 20th century, certain groups arose in response to growing concern among women science educators at the low participation rates of females in science education. For example, Women in Science Education (WISE), was set up in Wellington in 1985. It was disbanded in the mid 1990s, and as of today, it appears there are no groups of this kind dedicated to the task. The reasons are manifold, not least being the fact that many of their key ideas had been incorporated into the mainstream. Evidently, it hasn’t quite been enough.

It was encouraging to learn that more than half of the newly inducted fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand Te Aparangi in 2016 were women. However, tempering this, the new intake took the proportion of female fellows to just 12.5 per cent. Dr Nicola Gaston, former president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, noted that the development was ‘hugely important’, but clearly only a first step.

More recently, the Suffrage 125th anniversary in 2018 created a great focus, not only highlighting, but also providing impetus for further steps to help improve the lot of women and inspire girls to follow their passion to participate in science.

We have many wonderful people in the teaching profession whose desire is to inspire young women. I hope we can further support them. We’re also fortunate to have passionate science communicators like Nanogirl regularly featuring in the media. Michelle Dickinson (her other name) is a senior lecturer and engineer who runs New Zealand’s only nanomechanical testing lab at the University of Auckland and is the co-founder of charity OMGTech!. How could you not enjoy her column in the New Zealand Herald?

So, who are our New Zealand women in science? Marking its 150th anniversary, the Royal Society provided a treasure-trove of easy to read information online. Their “150 Women in 150 Words” celebrates women’s contributions to expanding knowledge in New Zealand. I encourage all readers to delve into this!

Finally, I have a thought for those who finished school some years ago. You may not have a scientific career but may have an inkling that science is where you should be.

Melanie Grant:

I remotely interviewed Melanie Grant, a kiwi woman working in Washington D.C. as a cancer researcher. A late bloomer to science Melanie quotes Thomas Edison “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work.”

Asked what she would write in a blog such as this she said she “would talk about career transitions, particularly about people making significant career changes later in life and transforming themselves from one thing to something completely different, trying something new, doing something they always wanted to do or something that was really hard”.

Melanie always loved biology but attending schools in the ’70s and ’80s was encouraged to ‘stick to the Arts’. So, she did what all good scientists do when a life-path is closed – she experimented! Wanting to see the world she started out as a Flight Attendant. Here she learned that it was not so much the travel she was drawn to but rather the dream that she could branch out with the intention of doing something important and useful. Her next experiment saw her owning/operating three small businesses in New Zealand and Scotland. This experience stretched her, but of more significance, her concept of ‘important and useful’ changed – from building a stronger business enterprise, to directly trying to help others instead. This led to a further experiment: studying for a diploma in human nutrition. Here she realised that she could ‘do science’ and, working as a nutritionist, she then felt compelled to return to University to earn a degree. So, at the tender age of 35, she was granted dispensation to enrol in Otago University’s First Year Health Sciences programme. Imagine her fear and trepidation in 2008 as she fronted up with 2,000 eager 18-year-olds!

There were difficulties and setbacks along the way but fast forward to 2016 Melanie graduated with a PhD in Cancer Immunotherapy and had her first postdoctoral fellowship lined up before her thesis was submitted. In July 2016 she began working as a Research Postdoctoral Fellow at Children’s National Medical Centre, a Top 5 Paediatric hospital in Washington D.C.

Asked what good things are happening in New Zealand to encourage women and girls, she was unsure but noted that her nieces and god-daughters are excelling and being actively encouraged by their teachers and parents. She also said that as a woman, being allowed to ‘play the game’ is a good thing!

Her experience in the U.S. has been mixed. Boards of scientific directors of biotech companies, for example, are overwhelmingly composed of males. The ‘old boys club’ mentality, whether intentional or due to honest obliviousness, remains entrenched and although things are changing, the pace seems glacial. If young girls who are aspiring to be in science only have white male faces staring back at them, they may feel ‘What’s the point?’  It may inspire a few brave ones to fight for their place at the table but why should they have to fight any harder than their male peers?

Nelson College for Girls

Above: Nelson College for Girls 1889, six years’ after it first opened and Kate Edgar became their first principal. Original photo is from the Tyree Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, 181886/3.


For a special New Zealand Herald project, a list of 125 trailblazing kiwi women who changed the world, was put together for the 125th Women Suffrage (sourced from NZEDGE). From that source, I’ve identified below the kiwi (but not necessarily kiwi-born) women in science.

  1. Kate Edger (b. 1857) – the first woman to earn a university degree in New Zealand
  2. Winifred Boys-Smith (b. 1865) – New Zealand’s first female university professor
  3. Margaret Cruickshank (b. 1873) – New Zealand’s first female GP
  4. Lady Victoria Plunket (b. 1873) – pioneering child welfare advocate and namesake of the Plunket Society
  5. Kathleen Curtis (Lady Rigg) (b. 1892) – pioneering scientist and the first female fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand
  6. Edith Farkas (b. 1921) – pioneering meteorologist who helped discover the hole in the ozone layer
  7. Mira Szászy (b. 1921) – pioneer for Māori women’s rights and the first Māori female university graduate
  8. Joan Wiffen (b. 1922) – history-making palaeontologist, who discovered the first dinosaur fossils in New Zealand
  9. Rina Moore (b. 1923) – the first Māori woman to become a registered doctor
  10. Dame Margaret Sparrow (b. 1935) – trailblazing doctor and advocate for legal abortions in New Zealand
  11. Pamela Young – pioneering researcher and one of the first women to set foot on the South Pole
  12. Beatrice Tinsley (b. 1941) – world-renowned astrophysicist and trailblazer for women in science
  13. Rosemary Askin (b. 1949) – first woman to undertake an Antarctic research programme
  14. Margaret Brimble (b. 1961) – ground-breaking chemist and champion of women in science
  15. Ingrid Visser (b. 1966) – world-leading expert in Orca whales and animal welfare advocate
  16. Dr Siouxsie Wiles – ground-breaking microbiologist


This Monday 11 February is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It’s a day designed to promote the full and equal access to and participation of women in science. To celebrate, Stardome is hosting the event, Her Story – Defining Women in Astronomy.. Tickets have already sold out, but due to its popularity, keep an eye out for another event similar in nature later this year.

Homepage tile blog image: Beatrice Tinsley. Credit: Wikipedia Commons.