QLD’s Pioneering Women in STEM: Valeria Blakey - Queensland’s First Female Chemical Engineer
Somebody had to be first.
In the realm of Chemical Engineering in Queensland, Valeria Blakey (née Blagonravoff) was the first woman to delve into this male dominated industry.
Blakey graduated with a Bachelors in Applied Science (Industrial Chemistry), from The University of Queensland, in 1950.
Although 20 years passed before the next female chemical engineering students followed in her footsteps, Blakey was the first, and she paved the way for the those who followed.
Between 1950 and 1977, there were 16 female chemical engineering graduates, and 15 more would graduate in other engineering courses, such as civil, mechanical, and electrical.
Blakey’s experience as the only female engineering student was mostly positive, she received support without judgement from her lecturers and was treated well by the male students in her class.
She was able to complete the work experience requirement of her course at United Metals Industries (UMI), Brisbane, where, after a great deal of deliberation, she was paid the same rate as her male counterparts.
A trend which did not stick, as there is still a wage gap between male and female engineers today.
As a recipient of a Commonwealth Scholarship, Blakey expected to work in a government institution for two years after her graduation, as this was a requirement of the scholarship.
Upon application, she received a discouraging letter from the Minister of Mines stating that there was a “surplus of Industrial Chemists in Queensland”, which would fill vacant positions for many years to come, and “the prospects of your obtaining a position are not very bright.”
Blakey married fellow engineering student, Brian, in 1949, who began work at City Electric Light immediately after completing his thesis in March 1950.
Although Blakey also began applying for work at this time, she had little success.
Some of the interesting reasons given for rejecting her applications included surprise that a woman was seeking employment, and a comment that the company in question did not have any toilets for females.
Blakey moved to Melbourne with her husband in 1951, where they both found employment with the Aluminium Production Commission, eight months after their graduation.
She worked on the Bell Bay Aluminium Smelter project as The Technical Assistant to the Chief Chemical Engineer until the project moved to Tasmania, at which point she had to choose between engineering and family.
Although Blakey chose family over engineering, her contribution to society and science did not stop there.
She became a science teacher and inspired the next generation of engineers.
Orangepeel Science Communications was contracted by The University of Queensland to assist in putting together the book: Celebrating a Century - 100 Years of Chemical Engineering at UQ.
Sources: Nix & White (Ed.) (2017). Celebrating a Century - 100 years of Chemical Engineering at UQ(pp52-55, 121-134) Australia: The University of Queensland
University of Queensland, (2016, November 1) Life as a Female Engineer in 1949