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Celebrating women in a traditionally male environment

Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria happily celebrates a long history of women, who have made a significant contribution to the organisation. Initially, only men were employed at the Botanic Gardens, as one would expect during the Victorian era - a male Director coordinating a pool of male gardeners and labourers, who transformed the Indigenous landscape into a curated botanic garden. Coral Skewes was one of the first female employees, appointed in 1949 as a Herbarium Assistant and later, Assistant Botanist. She was soon followed by Nancy Elsom, Herbarium Assistant 1954, Marie Allender, Herbarium Assistant 1957, and Helen Aston, 1957 who began as a Technical Assistant, but by 1965 was Senior Botanist and then Curator of the Herbarium from 1982.

Women have always played an important role in the botanical world working as artists, collectors, botanists and horticulturists. From Victoria for example, Euphemia Henderson – a 19th century artist and collector, Enid Mayfield – botanical artist, author and collector, Doris Sinkora –phycologist, Helen Aston – botanist, curator of collections and Jean Gailbraith – collector and author.

Today the Gardens employs women in a diverse array of roles. Land managers, horticulturists, executive directors, curators, signage specialists, botanists, librarians, educators - just to name a few. A particularly well represented area within the Gardens is our Science Division, where 54% of the staff are women!

Meg Hirst – Seedbank Officer for the Victorian Conservation Seedbank (VCS), located within the National Herbarium of Victoria. Meg’s work involves seed collecting, seed cleaning, germination testing, and databasing all resulting information. Meg’s research focus is the genus Brachyscome (Asteraceae).

Elizabeth (Liz) James – Conservation Geneticist. Liz uses molecular techniques such as microsatellites and DNA sequencing to gain an understanding of the genetic health of rare and threatened plant species. Her work uncovers whether populations are genetically diverse, and therefore assumed to have a good chance of survival and adapting to future environmental changes, or whether there is little genetic diversity, i.e. inbred, and therefore vulnerable to decline, especially if challenged by changes in environment.

Dr Teresa Lebel – Senior Mycologist. Teresa specialises in native truffles. Little is known about these fungi, which are buried underground, but interestingly they form the major food source for some of our endangered mammals, so if you want to conserve the cute and furrie's, you’ve got to understand their major food source! Teresa has done the foundational work of describing many new species of truffles and other fungi thereby providing the key for other sciences and fields to communicate about and research particular species.

Dr Pina Milne – Collections Manager and Bryologist. In addition to her research projects, Pina ensures, together with her staff (the majority women), that all specimens within the Herbarium are curated to the highest standard. Pina is also responsible for improving and facilitating accessibility to the collections for global use.

Dr Noushka Reiter – Botanist (Orchid conservation). Noushka manages the Orchid Conservation Program, which has an exciting capacity for large-scale conservation projects. Working closely with community groups in both the Orchid Conservation Program and in the field to achieve tangible positive outcomes for threatened orchids, some significant Orchid recovery programs have been successfully developed and executed. Noushka has a particular interest in threatened flora ecology, mycorrhizal associations and re-introductions.

There are so many more! Please browse our website for more inspiring and encouraging stories.

Happy International Women’s Day from us at the Gardens!


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