Lessons from an extraordinary woman

What Ruth Gall's career can teach us
Ruth Gall (1923-2017) had a trailblazing career in science at the University of Sydney. Jump back some fifty years to when Ruth was in high school, and you'll find that Ruth's rise to the top was anything but straightforward.
Photo of Ruth Gall

Associate Professor Ruth Gall led an extraordinary and unpredictable life. An Associate Professor in Chemistry and the Head of School for Chemistry at the University of Sydney, she was the first woman in the field to be appointed to either of these positions.

To celebrate Ruth’s life, we took a look at her career to pinpoint just some of the lessons that could be learnt about education, resilience, change in direction, and determination.

1. Don’t let others dictate your future

When Ruth was selecting school subjects, women were not encouraged to pursue careers in science. Her school didn’t offer physics or chemistry to girls. Though she was a top performer in the classroom she never formally studied subjects that would later be fundamental to her career.  

Ruth demonstrates that you can’t let hurdles get in the way of your future. There are alternative pathways available, and with more flexibility now than ever before, students should always choose the subjects that they are passionate about.

The University is extremely committed to achieving gender equity. With programs like SAGE (Science in Australia Gender Equity) promoting girls in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) it hopes women will pursue careers in every field, following in the footsteps of pioneers like Ruth.

2. Taking a gap year won’t jeopardise your career

Soon after Ruth finished her schooling, World War II posed a very genuine threat to Australia’s safety and security – Japanese submarines had arrived in Sydney Harbour.

Given the global climate, Ruth decided to enlist in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The role took her to Northern Queensland where she stayed until 1944 working in radar operations.

Whether giving back to the community in a capacity like this, travelling or working full-time, Ruth has shown that all opportunities in life are invaluable and will help you to learn more about the world and the people in it.

3. There’s no ‘right time’

As part of the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme which was initiated after the war, Ruth was permitted entry into the University of Sydney to study science. She was 21 years old and considered a mature age student.

Taking on tertiary studies is very personal decision. It requires hard work and dedication and is suitable for different people at different life stages. Ruth demonstrates that timing isn’t everything, studying later in life didn’t impact her success at all.

4. Don’t give up

Perhaps the most surprising part of Ruth’s past is her academic transcript. Ruth’s first year at University was tough – she didn’t flourish at chemistry, in fact she just scraped through.

Just three years later however, Ruth had completely transformed. She was taking advanced chemistry units and doing so with precision and skill. She attributes her performance overhaul to her lecturers, who really engaged her, however it didn’t happen without a little determination and vigour.

University is very different to high school. The course structure, learning environment and assessment schedule change and a lot is expected of students. It’s good to remember that everyone is in the same boat. Don’t get disheartened, learn from every assessment and ask questions! And don’t forget – this type of learning experience builds character.

5. Not every job will inspire you

Upon graduating, Ruth took up several roles, she even moved to London where she worked at British Industrial Solvents, but none of these positions truly inspired her.

The lesson here is that not every job is supposed to. Each role you serve throughout your career plays a purpose. Whether it builds your personal or professional skill-set or it simply helps you determine where your passions lie outside the role. Ruth demonstrates the importance of taking a leap of faith and following your heart.

Ruth’s combined experiences ending up putting her in the perfect position to return back to Australia and become a Teaching Fellow while pursuing her Doctorate in Organic Chemistry. By 1961 she completed her PhD and in 1962 she become a lecturer – a job she truly loved.

Ruth Gall (nee Lack) passed away on 10 July, 2017. She is remembered as an amazing mentor, lecturer, wife and daughter. She inspired everyone around her and had an exuberance for life. The University of Sydney celebrates her life at the Ruth Gall Memorial Lecture fittingly held on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2018. 

27 February 2018