Rejected for being a woman: How times have changed in the field of science

Dr Pat Langhorne
Dr Pat Langhorne. Photo credit: Supplied

In 1976, Pat Langhorne applied for a job with the British Antarctic Survey to work down on the ice.

The scientist had an undergraduate degree and initially, the organisation seemed interested. But there was a snag when it was time for the second round of interviews.

Pat Langhorne was a woman.

Back in the 1970s, it was entirely possible for workers to be refused purely because of their gender.

The UK-born researcher was one of them.

"In modern day terms, that seems a strange concept," Dr Langhorne tells Newshub.

"But at that time they thought... it was some kind of disaster if you put [men and women] together. It's a bit mysterious to work out what that disaster is."

Dr Langhorne is now a professor of physics at the University of Otago, also undertaking research on Antarctica's sea ice. In the 2019 New Years' honours, she was awarded the New Zealand Antarctic Medal for her work.

It's a long way from that initial rejection.

"It's kind of hard to explain why people thought like that, but they did at that time,"  Dr Langhorne says.

"Attitudes have changed a lot, quite fast."

Dr Pat Langhorne.
Photo credit: Supplied

Mallory Sea is an assistant aquarist at Auckland's SEA LIFE Kelly Tarlton's, studying marine science at the University of Auckland.

She's far from alone. More than two-thirds of the people working in keeper or science-related roles at SEA LIFE Kelly Tarlton's are female (72 percent).

"It's such a cool job, you get that personal interaction with the animals," she tells Newshub.

"[The fish] expect their food source to come from you, so they're quite adamant about getting that food! Some kingfish like to engulf my entire forearm sometimes when they're hungry, and the eagle rays will bump into you to try and get food."

Originally from landlocked Iowa, and despite her thematically-appropriate name, Ms Sea had never seen the ocean until she was 13. She first went snorkeling for the first time, in Panama, aged 21.

It sparked a connection with the ocean that's now led into a dedicated study.

Mallory Sea.
Mallory Sea is studying for her master's in marine science, aiming for a PhD. Photo credit: Supplied

"I finish my master's degree in November and my ultimate goal is to get a PhD in marine science," she says.

Science may be seen as a traditionally male-dominated area, but things are changing.

"In particular New Zealand has been very forward-thinking,"  Dr Langhorne says.

"I think it was easier for me to work here, as a mother of small babies, than it would have been for me to work in the UK as a mother of small babies."

Dr Langhorne and Ms Sea have similar recommendations for any young girl or woman who's discouraged about entering the field - "follow your dreams".

"Don't be intimidated. Once you find what you love, just go for it - your passion's going to drive you through whatever adversity you may face," Ms Sea says.

Dr Langhorne urges people to keep persevering, even if other people tell them they can't do something.

"I was lucky in so many ways because while some people were saying, 'No you can't', there were other people saying, 'Course you can, just do it!'," she says.

"Sometimes a young person might find that they're all alone in being interested in science or enjoying science, and it is important to know that out there, there are people who are interested in what they're interested in."

The sea ice in Antarctica.
Dr Langhorne studies the sea ice in Antarctica. Photo credit: Breanna Barraclough / Newshub.

In 1976, Dr Langhorne was rejected from a field work position because she was a woman. Now she's one of New Zealand's leading sea ice experts, working hard in the coldest, most inhospitable place in the world.

"There are many things that have to line up in order to know if a project is going to work - it's always a bit challenging to know whether all your efforts are going to be for something or for nothing," she says.

"One of the most rewarding [parts of the job] is working with younger people and seeing them thrive and do well. We get to be around a lot of really smart, motivated young people; it's a real privilege."