If you want to change the leather industry, get a female chemist on the job

It’s been nearly 60 years since the Australian Government repealed its “marriage bar”, which prevented married women from working in the public service.

This bar, which applied to the CSIRO, hampered or ended the careers of many Australian female scientists.

But even when it was repealed in 1966, it was still tough for women to stake out a career in science.

Leading leather scientist Catherine Money, who was born in 1940 and started working for the CSIRO in 1966, says “we haven’t come far enough with encouraging women”.

“It’s much better than it was, but it’s something that really should be considered all the time,” says Money.

Money is one of four Australian female chemists featured in a paper published in the Australian Journal of Chemistry, on International Day of Women and Girls in Science, written by researchers from CSIRO, Swinburne University of Technology and Monash University.

The paper also describes the stories of Dr Isabel Joy Bear (1927–2021), Enid Plante (1918–2007), and Professor Annabelle Duncan (1953–).

All four of these women worked for the CSIRO (or its predecessor, the CSIR), each in a highly male-dominated environment.

“The experiences of these women are not unique to any sector, and many of these sexist attitudes remain pervasive today,” says first author Dr Nicole McNamara, a researcher at the CSIRO.

“But there’s no question about the very real strides made by Joy Bear and other powerful women of her calibre to affect change. We owe them a great deal of thanks for that.”

Read more: Breaking down bias and barriers holding back mums from progressing in science

Money’s 40-year-long career led to huge leaps in the leather industry.

“It was a wonderful career for me, because I travelled the world for conferences and for consultancies, and we really did change the way leather’s processed,” she says.

“In Australia, they were salting all the hides for preservation and then tanneries would get the salt and that was going into effluent, and all the exports were salted.

“So I said, ‘well, we don’t need to have the salt, we can preserve them in other ways’. And we came up with short-term preservation. And now all the hides that are tanned in Australia go straight into processing – so you don’t have the salt for preservation.”

Catherine money smiling at camera
Catherine Money. Credit: Supplied

Money and her colleagues’ preservation techniques have made tanneries more sustainable.

“If you don’t use salt, then everything that comes in effluent from the tannery fertilises the land. So now we have wet-blue plants, they’re called, around Australia, where they process the fresh hides and all the effluent goes to irrigation.”

Read more: 10 awesome women in science you should get to know

Money had three children while she worked in this job, and says that the support of her forward-thinking boss, Gordon Lennox, was extremely valuable for her success.

“He had six males that applied, and he gave me the job on the spot,” she says.

Lennox made efforts to keep her in the position, allowing Money to work part-time when her children were born – she thought she’d need to quit.

“He said, ‘Why not come back?’, and I said, ‘Well, nobody does’. And he said, ‘I’ll arrange it’.

“I went back when the baby was two weeks old. My mother-in-law came from Geelong and looked after him. From then, I had three children and did the same thing each time. Gordon kept my full-time assistant, so we could ring every day and talk about results. And I’d go in two days a week until I wanted to work full time again.

“So I was very lucky.”

Money has won a series of awards and honours for her leather research over her career.

Paper co-author Helen Wolff, a researcher at Swinburne, says that Money’s experience makes it clear how important it is that people drive social and legislative change.

“But Catherine Money and others have earned their place in history for the barriers they knocked down,” says Wolff.

“They deserve to be remembered and celebrated, and that’s why our research and these stories are so important.”

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