About this record
This letter, which forms part of the personnel file of pioneer radiophysicist Ruby Violet Payne-Scott, was sent to Payne-Scott by her employer, Dr Ian Clunies Ross, Chairman of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). The letter, dated 3 March 1950, is a response to Payne-Scott’s written objection to the treatment of herself and other married women in the Commonwealth Public Service.
- This letter and other documents in file record the battles of eminent scientist Ruby Payne-Scott (1912–81) against the discrimination and social attitudes that restricted the careers of women during her lifetime. Until the amendment of the Public Service Act in November 1966, women employed in the Australian Public Service were required to resign upon marriage and once married were obliged to accept temporary positions with poor career prospects and no entitlements.
- Payne-Scott and her colleague Joan Freeman had become the first women physicists to be employed by the Radiophysics Laboratory of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) at the University of Sydney in June 1941. Payne-Scott soon began classified ‘top-secret’ defence research. Australia had offered few employment opportunities for female scientists until the labour shortage brought on by World War II. CSIR became the CSIRO from 1949.
- Payne-Scott had a brief but extraordinary research career, marked by scientific milestones. During World War II she and her colleagues were involved in developments in radar that played a vital part in the war effort. In the 1950s she was part of the Australian team that pioneered a means of measuring radio emissions from the Sun and stars, a breakthrough that would in turn lead to the construction of sophisticated radio telescopes and the birth of radio astronomy.
- Payne-Scott’s situation was exacerbated by her passion for the independence of scientific research, shared by many of her CSIRO colleagues, and the suspicion by others that she held communist sentiments, which were considered a security risk in Cold War Australia. Her ASIO file indicates that she was 'a person of interest' from 1948 to 1959. Although she was a member of the Communist Party, ASIO was unable to confirm anything other than an association with the Party and commitment to international cooperation among scientists and to trade unionism.
- Like countless women, Payne-Scott hid her marriage from her employers. When her six-year secret was finally exposed in 1950, she was forced to retire as a permanent staffer. She was reinstated on a temporary basis. In July 1951, with the birth of her first child imminent, Payne-Scott was obliged to resign from her permanent position in the CSIRO. She indicated a wish in her letter of resignation to rejoin her colleagues at the laboratory where she had been so happy and productive.
- Payne-Scott never returned to the CSIRO and the only beneficiaries of her talents as a scientist from 1951 would be her children, the artist Fiona Hall and mathematician Professor Peter Hall, and the students at Danebank Anglican School for Girls, Sydney, who would remember her as an eccentric, challenging teacher. She is also remembered in the CSIRO’s Payne-Scott Award, which assists researchers who have taken career breaks to care for family to re-enter their field and an annual lecture delivered by a leading female scientist.
Learning resource text © Education Services Australia Limited and the National Archives of Australia 2010.