We cannot afford to ignore the under-used potential of women

Lesley Brennan

13 November 2013



Williamina Fleming, a young Dundee schoolteacher and her husband James were married in May 1877.

They sailed to America in December of the following year to live in Boston, Massachusetts.

 A few months later, James Fleming abandoned his pregnant wife.

 23 year-old Williamina Fleming became a single parent in dire straits, thousands of miles from her native home, and the only suitable employment she could find was that of a housekeeper; housekeeper for Charles Pickering , the director of Harvard College Observatory.

He soon noted her undisclosed aptitude and offered her a part-time post as a copyist and as a “computer”.

 That was her first step in a truly remarkable career.

 My friend and colleague, former MSP Marlyn Glen, acclaimed that career with this motion in the Scottish Parliament :

 “This Parliament celebrates in this, the International Year of Astronomy, the outstanding contribution made to the study of astronomy by Williamina Fleming, born in Dundee in 1857 ; notes her remarkable work in cataloguing over 10,000 stars, discovering 59 gaseous nebulae, over 310 variable stars, 10 novae; and notes with great pleasure that she shares the distinction of having the Fleming crater on the Moon named jointly after Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, and herself.”


click on the image below for an enlarged version

And so a teacher from Dundee who emigrated to a new life and found herself in the depths of turmoil, and who took on a low paid job to feed herself and her son eventually had a career trajectory that led to academic recognition that was, quite literally, out of this world.   

Williamina Fleming’s exceptional skills were revealed because she was given an opportunity by chance to do so.

Today, however, the talents and skills of many thousands of women remained unused and undiscovered, thus stunting the economy, lowering their standard of living, leaving them and their families with less control over their daily lives and diminishing their career prospects.

It does not have to be this way, as, not for the first time, Scandinavia shows.

 The Resolution Foundation think-tank revealed that Sweden, Norway and Denmark are amongst the top ranking countries in the OECD for female employment while the UK trails behind in 15th place.

This Scandinavian success has been achieved through large-scale investment in affordable childcare.

Raising Britain’s place in the OECD table to the ranks of Sweden, Norway and Denmark would see around 1 million more women in work in the UK.

We cannot afford to ignore the under-used potential of women today.

A sustainable economic recovery depends upon higher female participation rates in better-paid work.

Earlier this year, Eileen Dinning (UNISON), the Chair of the STUC Women’s Committee, said, “Making childcare free at the point of use would be good for families and for public finances as universal childcare would bring a net return to the government of £20,050 over four years for every woman who returned to work after one year of maternity leave.”

Moreover, this would result in a higher quality of life for very many families, with the return of financial security that allows a future to be planned rather than to be dreaded. 

Every woman has her own particular aspirations.

These can be supported by opportunities, not through an opportunity by chance such as Williamina Fleming experienced but created as part of a deliberate pathway towards a fairer society.

written on the occasion of the STUC's Women's Conference in Dundee