“There’s a lot that needs to be done but it’s up to the powerful, not the powerless. It’s the obligation of the powerful to be civilized.”

Celebrating Ursula Franklin: pioneer in materials science and trailblazing feminist

First female University Professor among the leaders honoured at Women of Impact symposium

University Professor Emerita Ursula Franklin is one of several inspirational figures being celebrated at Women of Impact, a symposium organized by the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum.

The event on Aug. 26 includes panels, presentations and working groups and is free for students. (Register here.)

Educated in Berlin, Franklin came to the University of Toronto as a postdoctoral student in 1949. After 15 years as a senior scientist with the Ontario Research Foundation – where her research on strontium-90 in baby teeth was instrumental in achieving a moratorium on atmospheric nuclear weapons testing – she rejoined U of T in 1967 as the first female professor of what is now known as materials science and engineering. (Read more about women in engineering at U of T.)

Franklin pioneered the field of archaeometry, applying modern materials science to the dating of archaeological artefacts. In 1984, Franklin became the first woman to receive the title of University Professor, the highest academic rank at U of T. She delivered the Massey Lectures in 1989 and holds more than 40 honorary doctorates. In recognition of her humanitarian work, Franklin received the United Nations Association’s Pearson Peace Medal in 2002.

How did your family background influence your interest in science?
I had very good, very serious parents. My father had four sisters, all of whom led their own life in the terms of that time. My mother was an academic. There was no question I could do whatever I felt I was able to do and interested in. There were no barriers. There was a very strong emphasis on thoughts, ideas, intellectual life rather than material things. My family was political. I had a very appropriate upbringing to end up in science, but I could have done anything else as far as my family was concerned. I went into science largely because of other things that were foreclosed to me.

My mother was Jewish and so another thing for me, being born in 1921, was that I was a young child when the Nazis came to power and with them the Nuremburg Laws and all it entailed. So, going into politics, going into law, was out of the question. What attracted me to science at that time was that it appeared to be objective. I remember being at school and seeing physics experiments and seeing a cathode ray tube and the magnet and the beam being bent and I suddenly had this feeling of great joy that even they, those people in government who were after us, couldn’t make an electron beam bend in any other direction. So, science seemed to be the field where I could escape politics.

Where do you feel you have made the biggest impact in your field?
The question of my own impact is hard to answer. I think that my most important contribution was, in fact, being there: my ongoing presence, the fact that young women knew where to find me, that I was ready to be consulted, and that my own career evolved clearly and openly. I do not think that any single thing that I did was unique, but the trajectory of a consistent professional life gave a sense of reality and possibility to others.

What did it mean to you to be appointed the first woman University Professor at the University of Toronto?
I was very pleased about it. There is such a profound difference in being the first and being the only. If you are the only woman, people can treat you like an oddity; if you are the first, then it is quite different. When you enter as the first, you begin not to feel so much personal discrimination, that cold blast of air that comes, “Oh dear, there they come and they may know something and they may want a job and they may want to change things.” There’s a profound difference. So being the first woman University Professor, I was really happy because it meant there would be others.

The one great joy I felt in my academic life, seeing the promotion of women, is that they got younger and younger. These incredibly long waiting times before competent women could be promoted would become progressively shorter. To see young women who have a life ahead of them be in a position that they deserve, that they have the scope and the recognition and the responsibility that they could carry, that, is real achievement. The next ones can be younger, more joyful, have more productive lives ahead of them, after they have been given recognition and some elbowroom.

Have you felt a responsibility to be a role model and mentor?
I did very much feel a responsibility with regard to mentoring, to see that the younger women wouldn’t get hurt or bruised. Many of my friendships with other women came out of that wish to see that the young women don’t drop out. I have now a number of good friends who were senior women in various positions; we met and worked with each other almost entirely by trying to find jobs, accreditation, and opportunities for women students or women engineers who came with offshore qualifications or women who ended up in community colleges because they couldn’t get other jobs. We tried to keep an eye and be in some way an extra protective coat for the younger women who had to go through the difficulties of an engineering education or the workplace.

How can we best nurture female leaders?
By hitting the guys on the rump every once in a while. There’s nothing wrong with women. In one of my papers that I wrote for Monique Frize after her remarkable efforts on women in engineering, I said how leery I am of attempts to make women fit into the male world. I call that weightlifting for girls. I don’t want to adjust women to the rough, tumble rudeness that used to be the world of engineers. I want to change the world of engineers so that women, while being practicing engineers, can also safely and cheerfully be themselves.

I’m one for setting some standards in the workplace so that it makes it unnecessary for women to look for protection. Again, it’s not a private opinion, it’s a structure: the structure of the workplace that contains men, women, and minorities has to be safe. The safest have to look after the least safe. There’s no other way of doing things.

What can we do now to promote women in science and engineering?
If you want to make this a civilized environment for women, it has to be a civilized environment for all. Women will and may change from being the obvious minority. It may be somebody else who’s next, who will be discriminated against. It must be a civilized workplace in which all who are competent and qualified can work without fear and without embarrassment. I think there’s a lot that needs to be done but it’s at the side of the powerful, not the powerless. It’s the powerful’s obligation to be civilized.

I can only say the same thing again and again: there’s nothing wrong with women and there’s nothing wrong with feminism – to say that it is essential to build one’s relationships on collaboration and not on rejection. It’s unpopular but it’s the only thing that works. I have no magic formula for how to convince the powerful to see that except it’s them who get hurt, and it’s them whose lives are deprived because they believe that hurting is legitimate. What’s left for them? They’re feared.

The Q & A above was excerpted from Women of Impact in the Canadian Materials, Metallurgy and Mining Field by Anne Millar and Mary Wells. Reprinted with the permission of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM). Copyright © 2015.

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