A life spent aiming at a higher education for women

05 June 2018
Emeritus Professor Charmian O’Connor, Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Leading educator and researcher Emeritus Professor Charmian O’Connor says she is “a bit overwhelmed” at being named a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours.

“Of course it was a surprise, it does feel a bit overwhelming but I am very grateful because this award acknowledges all the generations of women who have worked so tirelessly to create opportunities for women in higher education,” she says.

“That work has been a very big part of my life and a very rewarding one.”

Professor O’Connor spent more than 50 years teaching and mentoring students in what was then the Department of Chemistry (now School) at the University of Auckland. She discovered a love for chemistry early, as a student at Auckland Girls’ Grammar, but in her senior year was advised to drop it because there was no-one available to teach it.

She refused.

“It was one of those times when I probably showed a higher-than-usual level of determination; it was a personal trait I would need again,” she says.

As a young female science student in the 1950s, appointed a Junior Lecturer at the University in the same year she enrolled in her PhD, she found herself in a hugely male-dominated field - her interest in molten salt chemistry was quickly quashed because the male lecturer refused to take female students. Her field became physical-organic chemistry and in particular how the behaviour of a single molecule is influenced by its environment.

In a career that has included a long list of prizes and awards and more than 300 refereed publications, she achieved any number of firsts: first female and youngest recipient of a Doctor of Science; youngest Junior Lecturer ever appointed in the Faculty of Science; only female Professor of Chemistry at the University for many years; first person appointed to an equity role at the University (as Assistant Vice-Chancellor, Equal Opportunities and Staff Development).

It was while she was a junior member of the University’s staff – delivering lectures to 200 students without notes - that she discovered a passion for helping others.

“I thought that if I could deliver lectures without using a single written note then it would show students it wasn’t really very difficult and they could learn the work too. From the beginning I felt an affinity with those who were having difficulty of one sort or another and I very much enjoyed seeing students progress and do well.”

After years of involvement with the Federation of University Women she initiated the establishment of the Kate Edger Educational Charitable Trust and was instrumental in transferring Academic Dress Hire to the Trust so that it has become one of the largest NGO funders of women’s higher education in New Zealand. She continues to serve as Chair of the Trust’s awards committee.

Described for a Federation of University women memorial book as ‘a woman of pioneering strength who epitomised the values of those who had gone before her’, she served as an example of what a woman academic could be, says current School of Chemistry Professor Penny Brothers who was taught by Charmian in the 1970s.

“Back then, and certainly early in Charmian’s career, our idea of a senior academic was the sort of distant and unapproachable ‘Oxbridge’ male model - but Charmian was the very opposite of that.

“She was warm and approachable and genuinely cared about the welfare of her students, particularly anyone who wasn’t having an easy time. She was a senior woman academic at a time – the 1980s - when you could count the number of those in the Faculty of Science on one hand.”

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland Professor Stuart McCutcheon says that Professor O’Connor was a long standing and highly distinguished member of the University community.

“I am absolutely delighted to see her contribution across so many fields recognised in this way. Charmian has had a significant impact on both education and science, and of course the advancement of women across academia through mentoring, leadership, and the very practical provision of raising funding for tertiary grants and research and I offer her my very warmest congratulations on receiving this Honour.”

Professor O’Connor is named a Dame Companion for services to education and chemistry. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1989.

For more information

Anne Beston
Media Adviser
Communications Office

Tel: 09 923 3258 
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Email: a.beston@auckland.ac.nz