History / Interviews / Publishing

Celebrating a centenary!

Bethan Phillips and Lucy Pullen chat with the editors of Special Publication 506 ‘Celebrating 100 Years of Female Fellows of the Geological Society; Discovering Forgotten Histories’.

The Geological Society was founded in 1807, but sadly female geologists wouldn’t be welcome as Fellows for 112 years. In May 1919 the first eight female Fellows were elected and in 2019, we celebrated 100 Years of Female Fellows. Throughout the year we highlighted the work of our pioneering early members, as well as celebrating the contributions females have made to the geosciences before and since.

Our newest Special Publication is a follow-up to the volume The Role of Women in the History of Geology. The book presents the often untold stories of pioneering female geoscientists from across the world who navigated male-dominated academia and learned societies, experienced the harsh realities of Siberian field-exploration, or responded to the strategic necessity of the ‘petroleum girls’ in early American oil exploration and production.

It uncovers important female role models in the history of science, and investigates why due recognition from their contemporaries and peers was not afforded to all. The work has identified a number of common issues that sometimes led to original work and personal achievements being lost or unacknowledged and, as a consequence, to histories being unwritten.

We had the opportunity to chat to the editors of the volume, Cynthia Burek, a Professor of Geoconservation at the University of Chester and Bettie Higgs, a Senior Lecturer in Geology in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University College Cork. We asked about their experiences in geology, raising awareness of female geoscientists, editing the volume and future plans.

‘Celebrating 100 Years of Female Fellows of the Geological Society; Discovering Forgotten Histories’ is available to buy from 15th March 2021.

Visit our online bookshop to browse our selection of available titles.


What motivated you to get into Geology/Earth Science?

We were both influenced by inspirational physical geography teachers at our respective schools. Cynthia’s teacher (Sister John, a Servite nun) supported her to study geology as a subject in school. This had never been done at the Convent before. Cynthia was involved in archaeological excavating with school friends throughout her teenage years, and her curiosity was sparked by family travel to Iceland in 1963 when she flew over the newly emerging Surtsey volcano. Bettie’s geography teacher (Mr Ernest Haswell) happened to mention a paper asserting that the Pacific Ocean floor was being thrust beneath the islands of the Western Pacific. This was in 1968. It had such an effect on Bettie that she went on to produce an undergraduate thesis, and later a PhD thesis on the very same topic. For both of us, many childhood holidays collecting ‘stones’ on the beach, and later school field visits consolidated our interests. However, during our undergraduate studies at university, neither of us were ever taught by a female lecturer! We saw geoscience as male-dominated and, perhaps for this reason, neither of us envisioned a pathway towards an academic career. Later there were role models that inspired us and encouraged us to take opportunities that eventually led us back to academia and the teaching of geosciences.

What advice would you have for young women today wanting to start out in geology? 

Go with what you are interested in. Be curious, conscientious and set yourself goals. Take the opportunities that arise as they come along. Have confidence that you can do it and you will achieve your goals. Know when to ask for help, and seek out mentors and positive role models. Remember that studying geology will give you transferable skills that you can apply in a broad range of professions, for example women who learned skills in the petroleum industry are now applying them to the next gold – fresh water! Fieldwork and practical laboratory work can build capacity to be resilient, self-reliant and inventive – good skills for life and leadership. Geology is central to Earth Systems Sciences and certainly applicable to future sustainable development. Geologists often work in interdisciplinary teams and importantly they develop the ability to tackle current local, national and global challenges by viewing them from multiple perspectives. 

In your opinion do you think geology has changed for women now? Are there any new challenges that they face?

In the past there was much resistance to women working in scientific laboratories, travelling on fieldtrips unchaperoned, travelling on oceanographic expeditions and even entering libraries. They were not allowed to join the most prestigious learned societies or study for a University degree. They could be accepted as skilled illustrators, as this was a help rather than a threat to their male associates at the time. There are challenges today, but mostly different challenges. Women have the right to be treated equally, but it doesn’t mean to say that they will be. There is a legacy that still influences attitudes today. One observation we have made is that women don’t always realize they are being discriminated against until they look back. They feel privileged to be working in an interesting area, whether academia, industry or elsewhere.  This is the challenge today. There are now initiatives to support women, for example into leadership roles, and woman can benefit from engaging in this type of peer-support. Support networks were important in the past for the first female Fellows and they are still of prime importance today. There may be additional challenges today, for example as some women balance their own career with that of a partner, and with their traditional caring roles. For some this is beginning to be overcome by flexible working arrangements in either location or time, but there is still a way to go.

Women were pioneers in geoscience, especially palaeontology. Why do you think that the field became so male-orientated? 

Societal and cultural traditions saw women as home-makers and not as scientists. Women had to step well outside of the box to become known as a geoscientist. Often it meant staying single and having a private income. There was a casual acceptance that women’s scientific work was incorporated into men’s work and published by men. Behind or beside some of the well-known male geologists was an accomplished woman. So, the ‘male-orientated’ perception was sometimes visual rather than real. As we said earlier, some women became skilled illustrators and others were valued for their patience and perseverance in the pain-staking roles of collecting and cataloguing.

What do you consider the key moments for women in geology? 

There are several societal changes that could be considered key moments for women in geology. Compulsory education for children was a crucial step facilitated by the Education Act of 1870. The provision and popularity of geology lectures attended by girls and women in the mid-1800s had demonstrated the demand for geological knowledge. Limited access to University began in 1875 and, although in low numbers, women began to be conferred with degrees. For some women it was developments like the introduction of the bicycle and the pneumatic tyre in 1888 that made a difference, allowing women more independent travel arrangements for fieldwork. In 1889 the opening of the Lapworth Museum in Birmingham was an example of another institution that allowed women to participate. New roles for women in the workplace during WWI gave them a platform to build on and finally the vote! The admission of the first women as Fellows of the GSL in 1919 was a key moment, as it would have inspired others to follow. It reflected a changing mood in society with the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act being approved that same year. There followed several important developments, such as the first woman to become an academic at a UK university in 1939. These developments began to change women’s aspirations. The British Geological Survey employed their first female field geologist in 1969 (though similar initiatives were earlier in other countries), fifty years after the election of the first female Fellows of the GSL. Women taking on leading roles in the geoscience community, for example Janet Watson as the first female President of the GSL, has been slow but is now reaping rewards in relation to experienced mentors and role models for younger geoscientists.

Do you have a particular female geologist who inspires/influences you either from history or currently? 

Catherine Raisin has influenced our work, as we discover how she supported women’s choices and equality during her time at Bedford College in late Victorian times until 1920. Another influence was Marie Tharp, born in 1920, who, while we were still students, produced remarkable maps of the ocean floor which we later went on to use in our teaching of geoscience. Looking around today, there are many women that inspire us, including Jane Francis, for her work as Director of the British Antarctic Survey, and several women associated with the Open University, UK, such as Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Monica Grady and Angela Coe, for their communicating of science to students and the wider public.

We noticed that you had both conducted a public awareness campaign that showed that 1 in 4 people could name no women scientists. That means a quarter of people in Europe could not name a single female scientist – how did this make you feel at the time and is it what further inspired you to start writing so extensively on these incredible geoscientists’ lives and work?

Yes, we were shocked. As we surveyed more and more people, the results did not change. By far the only female geoscientist widely recognized was Mary Anning. It made us realize there were almost no historical female geoscience role models visible to inspire the current generation at school or in their undergraduate scientific studies. There were many women carrying out important geoscience work in the past but their stories had been lost and needed to be re-discovered and highlighted. It is well known that relevant role models are necessary to help schoolchildren and students to see a pathway for themselves going forward.  We wanted to do something about it. We wanted to create a resource that allowed educators to use a more diverse range of role models. It motivated Cynthia to write to the BBC to suggest that they put more information on women scientists and geologists into their programming! The recently released film Ammonite (2021) on the life of Mary Anning, and the successful crowd-funding initiative to erect a bronze statue of her in Lyme Regis (suggested by a young girl) is further enhancing the fame of this geoscience icon. Building a resource is one of the objectives of the GSL Special Publication celebrating the centenary of the first female Fellows, to be published in mid-March 2021.

What’s next in your plans? Do you have any more books in the pipeline? 

The intention of this work so far is to reveal the role models that have always existed, but were hidden. We have uncovered some of them.  Our next step is to consolidate this work by creating useful and accessible resources to help educators and citizens to diversify and enrich their curricula for all students. We would appreciate any ideas and support in this endeavour.

The book is celebrating 100 Years of Female Fellowship and obviously lots has changed for women around the world not just in the Earth Sciences but in almost every aspect of society. But what, for you personally, do you think has changed the most for women in geology particularly?

In the 1960s and even the 1970s women studying geology were told there were no jobs for women in geology; in the 1980s they were told that women don’t make good scientists. No-one could justifiably make general statements like that now. Opportunities have opened up. Women are sought after in the geosciences, but we should not get complacent. There is still a long way to go. We are casting off the old male-dominating practices and there is an awareness that everyone, no matter their gender, has the potential to become an influential geoscientist.

‘Celebrating 100 Years of Female Fellows of the Geological Society; Discovering Forgotten Histories’ is available to buy from 15th March 2021.

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