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Girls to train as weather observers

A Press article from January 1967 focused on Yvonne Summers and Rosslyn Shanks, two young women taken in to the Meteorological Observers training programme in Christchurch.  Although the Meteorological school opened in 1962 it was five years before any female observers were accepted.

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Women in Weather

The first woman understood to have been accepted into the New Zealand Meteorological Service (NZMS) in Kelburn, other than in a clerical role, commenced work in 1938.  Colleen Dee (later Wilson) passed her University Entrance (Matriculation) exam at the end of 1937; however, family circumstances meant she was unable to attend university.  There is no record as to what led Colleen to join NZMS although the book, Doing our bit : New Zealand women tell their stories of World War Two gives a good account of her service both in Kelburn and later in Fiji.

Finding herself breaking barriers at the age of 18 cannot have been easy for a young woman who, by her own admission, “had been so sheltered in my school and home life” and some of her male colleagues were not welcoming. “I arrived to find notes left on my desk saying, ‘We’ll soon get rid of you!’ and that attitude carried on.  It wasn’t from the hierarchy but more the male workers ….” 

By the time New Zealand went to war in 1939, Colleen had a good grounding in meteorological work and continued to work as a civilian, taking over a lot of the work previously done by the men as they became involved in other aspects of war work or signed up.

Colleen Wilson (nee Dee), January 1942

She joined the WAAF in 1941 and worked as a Meteorological Observer.  It was at the instigation of the then NZMS director Dr Miles Barnett that WAAF personnel were enlisted for observation duties.  As the war in the Pacific grew and more men enlisted, WAAFs were posted first to RNZAF stations in New Zealand and, in Colleen’s case, later the Fiji Meteorological Section at Lauthala Bay.

“Observers were expected to acquire skills in taking surface weather observations, the use of the theodolite and slide rule in the calculation of upper winds by observation of pilot balloons, and the plotting of observations on charts for analysis by the forecaster.”  (Sails to Satellites p68)

Despite having gained a great deal of experience in meteorology work and spending the earlier part of the war training others, Colleen felt she and other women did not get the recognition or responsibility they deserved.

“We still weren’t allowed to do the forecasting, although I know we were capable of doing it.  We did all the hard work.  Climbing up the tower in a stormy night to get readings and launching balloons and so on.  The male officers still did the forecasting and the division was always there ….” 

Even when she made Sergeant, Colleen found some of her male colleagues had difficulty accepting her authority.  Despite this, she enjoyed her work and returned briefly to the NZMS at the end of the war.  She left in 1947 to marry and raise a family.

Post World War Two, a number of WAAFs who had been employed in observer roles were taken on by the NZMS.  Retired staff member Keith Burgess remembers that when he joined the service in January 1948, there were as many as five women employed as observers.

Most had left by early 1949; however, Colleen Mitchell and Esther Cochran continued working at Mechanics Bay in Auckland and are still remembered by those who were employed several decades later.

Former staff member Alison McGill recalls: “Esther told me she joined the WAAF and one day was called in and asked if she would be a meteorological assistant. Esther said she had no idea what that would mean, but was too scared to say anything at all, so she just nodded and she was in! She retired when she was 65, on 15 March 1980. I recall her saying she had been in Fiji for a while during the war.”

In the early 1950s three women with scientific backgrounds were employed in technical roles:  Ann Hamlin (nee Row); Elizabeth Porter; and Edith Farkas.

Ann remembers: “I joined the met service in 1950 after being recruited at Otago University by Dr Simmers, if I am remembering correctly. I did the weather observer training course and then the forecasting training and joined the Research section. In early 1952 I married and when I became pregnant I left mid year. No maternity leave in those days …Betty Porter trained at the same time and I have vivid memories of her and her enthusiasm for rock climbing.  Her death was a real tragedy.”

Elizabeth Porter worked for the NZMS between 1950 and 1953 when, tragically, she lost her life in the Tangiwai disaster.  The NZMS Quarterly Bulletin for early 1954 reported: 

“It is with regret that we have to record the death of Miss EM Porter.  Miss Porter lost her life in the Tangiwai train disaster on 24 December 1953, and is still listed among those missing. Miss Porter joined the Meteorological Service on 24 Feb 1950 and after taking a course in forecasting remained in the Research Section.  She was engaged largely on the upper air climatology and the special problems of high flying aircraft.  In addition she brought the Dobson Ozone Spectrophotometer into operation and made regular observations from July 1951.  She was author of fourteen Technical notes, gave a paper on the Jetstream at the 7th New Zealand Science Congress, and contributed papers to two meteorological conferences and four staff meetings.”

In 1953 another young woman, Edith Farkas, was recruited into the Research Section of the NZMS head office in Kelburn.  Having arrived in New Zealand after the war as a refugee from Hungary, Edith was to go on to undertake world-leading research in the field of ozone monitoring over more than three decades. 

At the 1963 International Symposium on Tropical Meteorology held in Rotorua, Edith was one of only two female attendees in a group of 76.  She presented a paper on long-period fluctuations of upper-level winds and temperatures over the South Pacific.

Just over a decade later, in 1975, Edith’s research took her to Scott Base, Antarctica for ten days.  While not the first woman to visit the ice she was the first women from the NZMS.  While there, she undertook surface ozone and turbidity measurements. Photographs from Edith’s trip show she seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed the experience and found it no hardship despite the conditions.

Edith Farkas in Antarctica

In 1986 Edith became the first woman to be awarded the Henry Hill award - an internal NZMS award made “In honour of those who have demonstrated enthusiasm and dedication to weather and forecasting in the spirit of Henry Hill” (a former forecaster). 

Sylvia Nichol, who was mentored by Edith, recalls that in 1988 Edith (along with 25 other ozone researchers) received special recognition at the Quadrennial Ozone Symposium, recognising her contribution to ozone research over the preceding 30 years. Throughout her career Edith published regularly, either individually or with international colleagues.  Her last paper was published post-retirement.

Despite Edith’s achievements and international recognition, working for some parts of the NZMS still remained challenging for a woman.

In 1967 two young women were taken in to the Meteorological Observers training programme in Christchurch.  Although the Meteorological school opened in 1962, it was five years before any female observers were accepted.  A Press article from Jan 1967 focused on Yvonne Summers and Rosslyn Shanks, acknowledged by the instructor of the school as having “…better qualifications than most trainees ….” 

The reason given for not employing “girls” was that night shift was often a sole charge position: “We could hardly expect girls to work that shift” said Mr White, Chief Instructor of the meteorological school”

Shiftwork and the right of women to work it had been a bone of contention at the NZMS for some years.  Throughout the organisation, night shift was deemed as unhealthy and unsuited to women.  Concerns were raised about the safety of women working alone at night on an airfield.  The situation was also a catch 22 - not being able to do nightshift work meant women could not work at airfields.  If they couldn’t work at airfields, they were not able to gain upper air station experience, which was in turn limiting to their career paths and meant they were not eligible for remote station postings.

At some point in the early 70s, one women was able to gain permission to be able to work on Wiroa Island, the upper air station at Mangere airport in Auckland.  This in turned paved the way for others.

Joanne Cowern (now McDougall) was one such adventurous spirit.  Having joined the NZMS as a trainee in the Auckland office, she quickly took advantage of the relaxing of the rules and sought a posting to Mangere airport, work she enjoyed. She soon moved on to become one of the first female relieving technicians, covering the North Island as far south as Waiouru and New Plymouth.

“The position was created to cover annual leave and meant short stints in many small offices, so it required a wide range of skills. I loved the airfields with their pilot balloon fights, aviation work and relaxed style – just get the job done, accurate and on time. … I never felt unsafe, though people did keep an eye on me, sometimes phoning to see if I was OK.”

In time Joanne applied and was accepted for a twelve month posting to Campbell Island in the role of Senior Meteorologist.  Until then the domain of men, the NZMS also employed a female cook (who was also a qualified nurse) and in November 1981 the two of them became the first female expedition members amongst a team of ten to be stationed on Campbell Island, 700km south of New Zealand.

Joanne and Diane’s appointments met with some resistance from male colleagues and co-workers but they undertook their assigned roles with professionalism, dispelling any doubts their male colleagues had expressed about their ability to endure the conditions on the island.  The head office personnel responsible for ordering the year’s supplies did not, however, factor two women into one important equation.  Part way through the stay it became apparent the assigned supply of toilet paper was not going to last the year.  Emergency supplies were called for and delivered, with someone back in Wellington eventually working out that women used 12 rolls to every one used by a man.  This was factored in accordingly in future supply deliveries. Overall, the women enjoyed the rare opportunities that a year spent on Campbell island offered.  Says Joanne,“We watched auroras, and tripped over sea lions when hurtling back from observations at three in the morning. It was a fantastic year.”

It was this year on Campbell that allowed Joanne to break through another glass ceiling – in the summer of 1986-87 she became the first NZMS woman to be posted to Lake Vanda station in Antarctica.  Ten years earlier, when Edith Farkas briefly visited Antarctica, she had stayed at Scott Base with a side trip to Vanda.  Joanne, however, was stationed at Vanda for the summer as an NZMS officer.

“It was quite cold at Vanda when we arrived, but nothing like Scott Base. There is no snow so our clothing was completely different – salopets to begin with, woollen trousers later. Woollen tops and a new fabric called polypropylene was being trialled (it got very smelly back then). Wind proofs rather than big snow jackets, and sneaker-type tramping boots. I converted the boys to Elizabeth Arden N30 sunblock after they lost the skin on their faces. Goggles and balaclavas were necessary in the strong winds – it was like being in a sandblaster. Vanda is the driest place on the planet, and feels warmer than the temperature would suggest.”

There still remained one final outpost denied to women and it was not until 1988,  when Karen Olsen was appointed to the Meteorological Officer role on Raoul island, that an NZMS woman finally got to work there.  At over 1000 km north-east of New Zealand, Raoul is a tropical island of around 11 square kilometres.  Despite women having served successfully on Campbell,  Head Office objected to women being posted to Raoul primarily for the reason that, because it was a warm environment, a woman posted there would be wearing less clothing than in Antarctica or on Campbell Island and ran a greater risk of getting pregnant!  If that happened a ship would have to be diverted to Raoul to retrieve the mother-to-be at a cost of thousands to the Service. 

Although her initial applications to serve on Raoul were rejected, Karen persisted and was finally accepted into a once male bastion.  The year she was to go coincided with a cost-cutting exercise and the crew size, previously 12-20 staff, was pared back to just four, with Karen the only woman for the 13 month stint. Along with undertaking meteorological duties, Karen was also provided with training in bread making at a Wellington bakery and spent several weeks at Wellington Hospital’s Accident and Emergency department learning emergency first aid skills in order to serve as the medical officer for the team. 

Despite the objections from NZMS management and the reduced size of the crew, Karen encountered no problems other than frequent earthquakes and outsized rats and cockroaches.  She remembers her time on Raoul fondly, describing it as “one of the best years of my life”.  Along with weather observations, baking and first aid duties, Karen also assisted with the building of an air strip on the island, learned arc welding from one of her colleagues and single-handedly cleaned out the septic tank. 

It was not until preparing to return to New Zealand that Karen encountered a problem due to her gender.  Although unaware of it at the time, the navy frigate scheduled to pick up the team on completion of their tour of duty, had a policy of not allowing women on board.  There was some hasty rescheduling by the NZMS and the Navy in order to allow the staff to be collected and transferred back to New Zealand by the navy supply ship, Endeavour. As a result, their return to New Zealand was via Niue and the Cook Islands before berthing in Auckland.

Many things have changed since those days, not least society’s opposition to women being employed in non-traditional roles.  MetService NZ no longer posts staff to remote stations (apart from the annual servicing of equipment carried out by the engineer team); there is greater focus on technology and automated processes, and as a result career paths have developed differently.  At the Kelburn office, forecasting staff report that, ”there are seven on night shift but now it would be rare to be the only female – sometimes as many as six night shift staff are women”.  That these changes have occurred is due in part to the women of the previous decades who wouldn’t accept no and paved the way.


The author would like to thank all the MetService staff and former staff who have contributed to this article.  Thank you for your patience as I asked endless questions, and for your willingness to talk to me.  Not all information I have been provided with has been used in this story, but it is hoped that follow-up articles on various aspects raised here will utilise many more of the stories that have come forth.

Ref: Sullivan, Jim (ed.).  Doing our bit : New Zealand women tell their stories of World War Two.  Auckland : Harper Collins, 2002.




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