Roundtable Review

Hightable with Professor Averil MacDonald – Physicist, science communicator, mother: “You can have it all!”
Posted 27 January '14
Professor Averil MacDonald

Professor Averil MacDonald, University of Reading

When Professor Averil Macdonald decided to leave her teaching position to raise a family, she knew she would have to go the extra mile to get back on the career ladder when she returned. Going back to university as a mature student, she moved up the ranks steadily and is now a renowned professor of public engagement at the University of Reading. She is a keen advocate for supporting and advancing women in science, encouraging young people to study science, and engaging the public with science research. Averil believes in encouraging employers to change their attitudes and practices towards female employees. She also believes that women should not have to change their career priorities.

She is a fellow of the Institute of Physics and currently holds the position of Chair in Science Engagement at the University of Reading. She has been awarded the International Bragg medal and prize by the Institute of Physics, London for her significant contribution to Physics education; The Royal Society Millennium Award for her outreach work; The UKRC Women of outstanding Achievement in Science Award; the Plastics Industry Award for Personal Contribution to the Industry; and also an Honorary Doctorate from the University of York in recognition of her work supporting and advancing women in science. She has co-authored several school textbooks, produced a wide range of free teaching resources for schools, and is well known for pioneering Science engagement through a wide range of projects. Averil is a Trustee of the Science Museum and a Director of the Cheltenham Festivals. She is also an elected member of the Council of the Institute of Physics and a Board member of WISE.

OBR’s Hephzi Tagoe had the privilege of speaking with Professor MacDonald about her journey.

You began your career as a physics teacher and are now a very successful Professor of Science Engagement. Did your teaching background influence your interest in public engagement?

Teaching definitely influenced my interest in public engagement. I always enjoyed the challenge of enabling young students to get the ‘light bulb moment’ and to see physics as fascinating, rather than frightening. I learnt a lot about how to take my audience’s perspective and this helps enormously when engaging with the public.

So, why Physics?

I originally chose physics A – level when a maths teacher said to me that as a woman in science I would never have any trouble getting a job. This was a very important fact to persuade my father that sending his daughter to university was a good thing. There’s no doubt that my maths teacher was right!

Regarding the general lack of female physicists, what is your opinion on the current attitude of girls towards physics? Have you seen any positive / negative changes throughout your experience?

For a long time, the approach was simply to try to inspire the girls to find the subject interesting in the belief that they would choose it in the same way that boys do. There is a much more subtle level of understanding now about what girls are looking for – and it’s not simply jobs working with people. Research shows that girls are much more focused and pragmatic about their subject choices than boys and that simply being interested in a subject is not enough to make them choose it beyond age 16. Girls want to be sure that they can be successful in their chosen area, that their subject choices keep open as many career doors as possible, and that they will be able to make the life choices that they want while continuing in their chosen career. Unfortunately Physics has a reputation in girls’ minds for closing down their options and for requiring them to make sacrifices in their lives such as not being able to have a family or work part time while also being successful – hence it does not offer what they are looking for and they choose to go elsewhere. You can’t really blame them – they are simply making sensible choices based on the evidence provided.

Going back to you, you returned to education after taking a break from working to start a family. Did you find the transition challenging? If yes, what was your greatest challenge?

The challenge was the same as for anyone trying to juggle childcare with work – simply being really organised about how I used my time. In fact if I compare my experience with that of students who had come straight from undergraduate degrees, they certainly didn’t have the time management skills I had and so I made far better use of my time than they did (and had far fewer hangovers!). I returned to study when my youngest daughter started school in October 2000 – I was 42 at the time and I completed the PhD in 4 years 5 months. People returning to education as mature students often fear that the younger students will remember so much more about the subject. In fact I found that this isn’t necessarily true, and that the younger students don’t seem as likely to question what they read or are told as us ‘oldies’, which is an essential skill in a PhD.

How did you find your PhD experience and did it influence/ shape your career today?

The PhD experience was extremely satisfying. After my BSc I didn’t see myself as the sort of person who [would do] a PhD, However working alongside those who had PhDs I started to think, “If they can get one then why shouldn’t I?” Getting the PhD was proving something to myself and gave me the confidence to reach further in my career than I would have done otherwise. I think more people should be encouraged to take PhDs as mature students.

On a personal note, you have two daughters and a very successful career. Did you ever feel discriminated against as a female physicist?

This is a question that often comes up. I don’t really think I have felt discriminated against, but I now understand a lot more about “unconscious bias,” where people make unconscious judgements about what is ’suitable’ for a man or woman to do based upon their experiences and what they have seen happen in their lives. What this means is that it’s unlikely that women will see overt discrimination but may well have been subjected to unconscious bias, but as it’s so subtle it’s almost impossible to pinpoint. What usually characterises women who are successful in non-typical areas is that, if they encounter a barrier or something doesn’t quite work out, they simply take a different approach and get on that way. Most will point out that they have had a career that was unplanned and that their success happened by them taking often-unexpected opportunities as they arose. Men are more likely to have had a more linear career path. Perhaps that’s how unconscious bias shows itself and how successful women overcome it.

Aside from your day job, you also write, travel, lecture and sit on a number of boards and committees.  How do you juggle all your commitments?

That comes back to the time management again. People often say that if you want something doing, you ask a busy person. You will find lots of people do lots of different things and that time expands to accommodate what’s required. It is a bit like juggling but as they are all things I really want to do and get great satisfaction from doing, then I make them happen. I’m certainly never bored!

Bottom line is, you don’t put today’s task off till tomorrow, because tomorrow won’t have room.

One of your popular initiatives is “Science with coffee and hobnobs.” Tell us a bit about how that came about and its general response.

Science with Coffee and Hobnobs was a coffee morning scenario for carers of primary age children. When my two daughters were at primary school it was clear that parents were involved in listening to their children, reading to them, or reciting their times tables, to improve their literacy and numeracy. But the school did not seem to engage parents in supporting their children with science. These Science with Coffee and Hobnobs coffee mornings aimed to help parents and carers see what their children were learning, to realise how much they, themselves, knew and could help, and to provide ideas for science activities they could do at home with the children. The events were extremely successful with many mums saying how they hadn’t realised how much science they knew and how much more confident they were in helping their children.

You’ve been recognised as an influential woman, received numerous awards for your work, and are an inspirational role model. Did you have any role models growing up?

I’m not sure I had role models that I identified as such. I was educated in a girls’ grammar school, which had some very strong female teachers so this must have influenced me. However I do remember one teacher making a particular comment that “it is for you to pave the way for the girls that are to follow.” I didn’t really understand this at the time but it has certainly been borne out in my life subsequently and probably underlies and shapes all the activities that I have been involved in.

What advice would you give female graduates looking to pursue academic careers along with family life?

The first and most important thing is to realise they are entitled to both a successful career and a satisfying family life and are not required to make sacrifices to achieve both. The academic world needs creativity and productivity. Providing a work environment that excludes half the population simply reduces the overall average quality of the workforce. The academic system is now fully aware of this and realises that the work environment should be flexible enough to accommodate women’s and men’s life choices while enabling their quality to be recognised and rewarded, for example by enabling promotion to higher levels based upon quality rather than quantity of work. This means that those who choose to work part time should be promoted as readily as those working full time rather than the old fashioned approach of viewing part time working as somehow demonstrating a lack of commitment to the job. So my advice is to ask for what you need to ensure your work and home lives dovetail rather than accepting compromises. A good employer will provide what you need.

Finally, what does the future hold for you?

If only I knew! My career has been characterised by spotting unexpected opportunities and applying for them – some work out and some don’t. There certainly has not been a career ladder – more career snakes and ladders – every time something doesn’t work out I slide down the snake but usually find myself at the bottom of a better ladder that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. So I’m looking for more ladders but risking the snakes on the way.

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