PHYSICAL SCIENCES, CHEMISTRY, MATHEMATICS
Interest in the exact sciences has not always been considered a
predominantly male trait, as often is the case. Before the rise
of science and technology around the beginning of the 20th
century, many physical and natural sciences could be among
the interests suitable for young women of the upper classes.
After women gained the right to enroll at the University of Helsinki
as students in 1893, as many as half of the female students
entered the Faculty of Science. Even before that,
Lydia Sesemann was the first Finnish woman to complete a doctoral
degree in chemistry in Switzerland.
As a result of the strengthening of the position and esteem
of physical sciences, women's career prospects started to grow bleak.
At the beginning of the 20th century, women were learning to avoid
exact sciences, which had few other job prospects to offer
besides teaching in schools. Academic jobs were reserved for men,
and even the most talented female students had to seek positions
with industry and trade, or in schools. For example, Signe Malmgren
finished her doctorate in chemistry and applied for a new,
second professorship in chemistry that was created at the University
of Helsinki in 1908. We know next to nothing about her career
beyond that point. As late as in a retroactively comprehensive
register of people with academic degrees in physical and mathematical
sciences, published in 1960, the women listed in it were normally
school teachers - only a handful of them had succeeded in creating
themselves careers elsewhere.
This did not, of course, mean that women's contributions were not
needed in scientific work. There was a need in the area of exact
sciences to have access to a competent, cheap work force for demanding,
but routine tasks. The Professor of Astronomy at Helsinki, Anders Donner,
imported the idea of using women as computers. Between years 1893 and 1930,
a number of women employed in measuring and computing tasks were,
according to Donner, responsible for some 72 percent of the whole
workload of the large astrophotographic project in which the Helsinki
Observatory participated in.
Only a few women in exact sciences were thus able to do scientific
research of their own before the latter half of the 20th century.
Among those few were Liisi Oterma (astronomy), Eugenie Lisitzin
(physics, marine research), Anna Hietanen (geology) and
Salli Eskola (chemistry). These women were lone toilers,
with exceptional talent and dedication to help
them to face adversity.
Of all exact natural sciences, chemistry attracted the largest amount
of women. By 1969, both the chairs of the Chemical Society of
Finland and its secretary were women. As for mathematics,
the association European Women in Mathematics was started in Helsinki
in 1986 and has been run from there everc since. Physics and geophysical
sciences have, on the other hand, offered quite a challenge for
women interested in them. Even in those fields, however, there
has been some progress towards the initially hopeful situation
that attracted a large number of women to enter the
Faculty of Science a hundred years earlier.