'The problems start so early in life’


December 11th 2023

Athene Donald talks to Dr Jade Hall about her new book on how to attract and retain women in science

Dame Athene Donald DBE FRS FRSB is Professor Emerita of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge and Master of Churchill College, Cambridge. Alongside her research on soft matter and biological physics, she has been a long-time champion of women in science, contributing to many organisations and initiatives focused on gender equality and writing about everything from girls’ toys to harassment in STEM. 

She was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2010 for services to physics and received the UKRC Women of Outstanding Achievement’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. She has recently joined the Science Education Policy Alliance, a science education partnership between the RSB, the Association for Science Education and several other learned societies, as its chair.

Dame Athene is also well known in the STEM community for her prolific blogging, having posted regular musings on science culture and academic life via the Occam’s Typewriter blog since 2010. This year she published her first book, Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science, the culmination of decades of thinking on the topic. The book explores how society has historically excluded women from the sciences, the systemic disadvantages women still operate under, and how to ensure science appeals to a far wider swathe of people, especially women and girls.

Senior policy officer at the RSB Jade Hall caught up with Dame Athene to talk about the book and ask her about her own experiences as an academic whose career began before there were mixed-sex colleges at Cambridge University.

What compelled you to write Not Just for the Boys and what would you say is the main message you want to get across?

It had been in my mind for quite a long time. I’ve been active in the gender space since the mid-2000s and I’ve done a lot of reading around it. I’d been approached by an agent to write a totally different book, which didn’t go anywhere, and it got me interested in writing something. This seemed an obvious place to go.

The key message is that although there are no formal barriers for women any more, they are still held back by a system that has a lot of invisible hurdles, barriers, societal expectations and stereotypes.

I could have written a very different book that was about how to survive as a woman in academia. However, it seems to me that if we are trying to solve the problem of getting more women into science, we have to tackle it much earlier on. I mean, yes, there are all kinds of problems within universities – women drop out of subjects such as biology at much higher rates than men, but in my subject, physics, they don’t start. So too in engineering or, computing. The problems start so early in life, almost from birth, and we haven’t worried enough about that.

Athene Donald book promo

You write about some historical female scientists and thinkers, some of whom readers may not have heard of. Why was it important to highlight these figures?

There is a bit of a ‘Marie Curie factor’, where you think, surely there are some other interesting female scientists out there [other than the usual ones people discuss]. I was intrigued by the situation with female composers: there always were female composers, but they just weren’t rated or nobody took any notice of them. And now people are waking up to them.

I don’t believe there were lots of female scientists we don’t know about – the barriers were just too great. Most women were illiterate or were stopped from getting a good education, and science wasn’t seen as something for women, like playing music was. But someone like Mary Astell [an 18th-century feminist writer and philosopher who discussed natural science, among other things, despite no formal education] is proof there may be more women who thought about it.

It is useful to ask: what was it like then? What is different now?

It is hard for young girls to aspire to be women who had to overcome so much. In the book you say that we need to find better role models if girls are to believe that science is for them. Did you have a role model in your career?

Not really. I had a good physics teacher who had been to Oxford. But I came to Cambridge when no colleges were mixed, so it was only about 10% women across the entire university. Churchill went mixed the year after I came up.

When I went to do my postdoc in the States I was the first female postdoc the department had ever had. So I was forging a lonely path. And, you know, in some ways I didn’t think much about it: I knew it, but what could I do? I just got on with it. Later on I came across Julia Higgins, a professor at Imperial who was in my field. I didn’t think of her quite as a role model, but she was proof it could be done.

You reflect on it all and you think: “My gosh, I survived that.” I think it’s okay as long as the environment is quite supportive. It’s when things start to go wrong and you’re on your own that it gets really hard.

If you’re supported, you will feel you belong without necessarily thinking about it. Anything that makes you feel different, or ‘other’, is likely to make you feel uncomfortable. It can spur you on, as I suspect happened at various points in my life, but it may also just make you feel: “No, I don’t want to be part of this.” If you’re doing research and it goes wrong – which it will – you may think: “Why am I bothering?”

How did you get into science? Because you touch on the fact that you didn’t have any scientists in your family.

I’ve no idea. I’ve never had a good answer for why I became a physicist. I think because I had a good physics teacher, really. As a child my hobby was birdwatching on Hampstead Heath, but I had a terrifying biology teacher so I dropped biology as soon as possible.

I was at an all-girls school, and you do find a large proportion of female scientists [went] to single-sex schools, which I find depressing. I had no brothers, so no one told me it was odd to do physics – I just didn’t know.

What would you say a good female role model should look like?

One of the things that worries me when [younger] people say: “Oh, you’re such a role model.” I think: “No, I’m not. I’m 50 years older than you… how can you relate to me?” The best role models are maybe five to 10 years ahead of you, so you can see what you’ve got to do next if you want to be like them. If it’s someone 40 or 50 years older, it’s so different. When I say to people that when I started here none of the colleges were mixed, they gasp in shock.

I think mentors are really important but finding them is not necessarily straightforward. I got quite emotional writing about my mentors because I had two really brilliant ones, but not everyone will be so lucky. And, you know, I think you do have to sometimes go out and be quite forceful in terms of asking people for advice or help.

And I strongly believe that a woman does not need to be mentored by another woman. 

How important is it that we really start thinking about inclusion in science from a young age?

I think it’s vital. I said to my six-year-old granddaughter last week: “Do you do much building at school?” She said: “Oh, there is a building area, but the boys…” And she’s moderately forceful! If she really wanted to, I’m sure she’d barge in, but it shouldn’t be like that. It cuts both ways – if you’re a boy and you want to be a nurse, for example. Teachers have to actively think about this. And that’s why it is so difficult, because everything is about those small nudges, practically from birth, that cause divergences.

We talk often in biology about the leaky pipeline – the fact that there are lots of women at undergraduate level and then the proportion gets lower and lower throughout the academic career pathway. What can be done about it?

One of the issues people always home in on is childbearing, but I think that’s far too simplistic. Precarity is a real issue: if you’re wanting to have a child and you don’t know if you’re going to have a job in six months’ time, then that is different to a position where you feel valued and have a permanent position. Thinking about the shape of the research pyramid is something that would benefit everyone – but is, I suspect, something no one’s going to be willing to touch. Are there too many PhD students? Are we informing PhD students that there may not be a job at the end of the day when they start? Probably not sufficiently.

Also there is still toleration of bad behaviour – where a certain person brings in multimillion grants, but they are protected. There have been some high-profile cases of people who’ve clearly been serial predators, or have created toxic atmospheres, and eventually sufficient evidence is gathered so they are actually booted out. But that’s rare. I think we tolerate behaviour that can make women feel unsupported, alone, like they just don’t want to hack it. We let that go on.

That’s why I talk a lot about men being allies. It is much easier for someone who isn’t the victim to say: “Hang on, you can’t say that”, whether it is to the professor or to a fellow student.

Are you optimistic about the pace of change?

No. When I came back from the US about half the Cambridge colleges were mixed and I just assumed everything would be transformed. The number of women in physics by proportion was better, but not by much – and it still isn’t better by much. Everywhere you look there is… misogyny is probably too strong a word – but it’s just easier for men in almost all situations and they are too often oblivious. And there are only so many jobs in the world, and so some people will always resist change. If you look at the attitudes of social media, any woman who speaks out about a topic gets absolutely hammered. That’s not going to change anytime soon.

What about the role of learned societies? How important are they to elicit change?

In many ways they’ve changed massively – far more than universities to some extent – because they have more flexibility. I was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1999 and I think I was one of the first mainstream female physicists to be elected, although there were certainly astronomers before me. I always found them so welcoming and so keen to involve me – that wasn’t (and isn’t) what people might think of the Royal Society.

Furthermore, the fact that [in 2019] the three presidents of the three subject learned societies [the RSB, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics] were all women, shows a real change. It’s not just as if there’s been one, there has been a succession of them. They are also good places to gain experiences of committees and have influence.

The research councils now try to have a certain proportion of early career researchers on every grant panel, which I think is very good, too.

We’ve touched on the importance of making women feel supported and part of the team, not isolated or vulnerable. But it’s also about equipping scientists with the tools to do that, isn’t it? 

Yes, this university has just introduced training for bystanders, and there is of course lots of EDI [equality diversity and inclusion] training in universities now – although there is this concern that the very brief anti-bias training is worse than useless. It takes a lot more than a half-hour online course, followed by six silly questions.

There are lots of conversations that need to be had, in many different places to try to work out what is going on. And, let’s face it, women are biased too. You need discussion about what it is that makes other people feel uncomfortable. And you need to recognise that sometimes you’re going to get it wrong.

Professor Dame Athene Donald FRSB is Professor Emerita of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge, and Master of Churchill College, Cambridge. She was interviewed by Dr Jade Hall MRSB, senior policy officer at the RSB (equality, diversity, inclusion and culture).