Meet Professor Athene Donald, Professor of Biological Physics at the University of Cambridge. She joined the Cavendish Laboratory in 1983 and became a Professor in Experimental Physics in 1998. In 2009, she was described by the New Statesman as one of ten people who will change the world. The Guardian featured her in the top 100 women in science and medicine 2011 and in 2010 she was made Dame Commander of the British Empire.
Professor Donald was awarded the L’Oreal UNESCO for Women in Science award for Europe in 2009 and she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the UKRC’s 2011 Women of Outstanding Achievement Awards. She chairs the Gender Equality Group at the University of Cambridge and is the University’s Gender Equality Champion. She was personally involved in the recently published book “The meaning of success: Insights from women at Cambridge“, which she talks about here.
OBR’s Hephzi Tagoe had the pleasure of speaking to her about what it’s like to be a woman in science.
You are very passionate about women in science. What is your take on the lack of girls taking subjects such as physics?
We are very culturally stereotyped. The problem starts in the home and at school when kids are very small. I think the way we bring up young girls, the toys we give them, the messages we give them, except for the most determined, may put them off looking at subject like engineering. There is a lot of work coming out of the Institute of Physics which shows how very differently different schools perform in the number of girls who go on to study physics at A-levels. It’s the case that single sex schools are more likely to see girls progress than co – educational schools and it seems that the teachers themselves are subtly encouraging the boys more than they are the girls [to pursue subjects like physics]. I’m sure it is often completely unconscious but just the way they interact. Furthermore, the messages that the media give out all tend to discourage girls from doing subjects like physics.
What in your experience are some of the obstacles facing women in science? Have you experienced any personally and how did you overcome these?
The problems that face women now tend to be subtle. There is evidence to show that identical CVs are regarded less favourably if they have a woman’s name on them rather than a man’s. It is still all too easy for women to be ‘heard’ less on committees, or to find their work is less cited. In the face of these problems all one can do is remain strong and forceful and do the best science that one can. Being a woman in physics wasn’t a particular issue for me when I started out. I went to an all-girls grammar school so I guess that no one discouraged me so it all seemed quite straightforward. I was very aware, though, when I was an under-graduate how few girls there were [in my discipline]. But again there were enough support systems around that it wasn’t a problem. It’s been a lot harder for me as I’ve become more senior, not in the science itself but in places such as sitting on committees and stuff like that, that I have been aware of it. The first time I went to a research council grant-giving committee some of the men there thought I was a secretary and that was irritating. So it’s there.
What in your opinion is the way forward to eradicating gender bias in the work place?
Clearly providing equality and diversity training, including the discussion of unconscious bias, is a good start. Making sure that people realise they have their own internal but unconscious views can make them much more self-aware overall. Having good role models, and images of successful women on the walls, can help too. And making sure that no one tolerates ‘bad’ behaviour – be it talking over women, making casual sexist remarks or allowing verbal aggression to pass without remark.
As a champion for equality and diversity, what initiatives have you / are you putting in place to promote equal opportunities for women in science?
Within the University we have been modifying the procedures we have around promotion and recruitment to make sure they are fair, transparent and that all involved understand the issues. We run workshops to support women across the University and talks by senior women scientists and career talks for those setting out. All STEM departments either have or are in the process of applying for the Athena Swan awards, which means that they have to look closely at their own departmental statistics and practices and draw up an action plan to resolve the issues they identify for women. We have to put out the message that it is not the women that need fixing but the structures and processes that do.
Do you think that academia is doing enough to accommodate women who want to have both a family and a career? And what advice would you give to women looking to balance work and family life?
I think academic life is actually very flexible and in principle should work well if you want to combine a family and career, but I think it is important to move towards the position where families feel children are a joint responsibility and not just a problem for women. I hope shared parental leave will facilitate this. In my University we have professors who work part-time and we work hard to combat the myth that taking time out or working less than flat out means you can’t progress. Of course compromises have to be made about where time and effort needs to go if you have children, but it is perfectly doable and women should have the confidence to go ahead.
Finally, what advice would you give to early career researchers looking to find their niche?
Do not worry if you don’t know exactly what you want to do. Do what looks like the best thing at that time and gain experience. You can then find out what it is you want and what doesn’t work for you, but it might well be that the first things you do are not right for you. It is an illusion that people you have succeeded have always known what they wanted to do. That’s untrue of the people I know. If you’re unsure don’t let that hold you back.
[In terms of whether or not to stay in academia,] those starting out should think very hard if it is the right thing for them. If, at the end of the PhD, they come to the conclusion that they don’t like it, they should not see that as failure. I think it is very easy for people to imagine that anything other than academia is failure and that is absolutely not so. We need scientifically educated people right across the board be it as teachers, journalist, MPs etc. There are so many opportunities out there that they shouldn’t feel they couldn’t hack it as an academic; rather they should just think academia wasn’t right for them.