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Book review: ‘Not Just for the Boys’ by Athene Donald

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Efforts to increase the number of women in science and engineering are making slow progress, but there are reasons to be optimistic.

A decade ago, 9 per cent of engineers were women. The years since then have seen numerous well-funded campaigns attempting to chip away at this shocking sum. Yet today, nothing has changed. Still, only 9 per cent of engineers are women.

Professor Athene Donald of Churchill College, Cambridge, a renowned physicist and former University of Cambridge Gender Equality Champion, tackles this persistent problem of the lack of women in science, and in particular physics and engineering, in her lively, provocative new book ‘Not Just For The Boys’ (OUP, £16.99, ISBN 9780192893406). "We’re losing half our talent," she bemoans, arguing that good science needs diverse scientists. Yet the very best we can say is that the hurdles to women in STEM, once hidden, have now become ‘less invisible’.

The book opens with a gallop through the centuries of women’s contribution to STEM, from Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), in 1667 the first woman to attend a Royal Society meeting, to Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), who, like so many, was obscured by her male collaborator. It’s important to record these forerunners. In 2014, a Europe-wide survey found only 25 per cent could even name a female scientist, alive or dead.

But how can we shift these stubborn statistics? Donald admits there’s “no simple fix”. Role models are of limited use, she argues. Not everyone can aspire to be a Curie. "‘Portrayals must change at all levels and in all settings," she says, and need to be “more plausible”. The wide range of scientific activity needs to be reflected in the images we see of scientists, not just those who’ve won a Nobel Prize. Parents and teachers need to contribute. Toy choices for girls and being given attention in class are both factors that inhibit girls’ science education.

Donald documents times when, despite her academic success, she hasn’t been regarded as ‘normal’. Male colleagues are often reluctant to invite a female colleague to dinner after a conference, fearing boundaries would be blurred, while men will go on networking in the late-night bar. Men are also 56 per cent more likely to cite their own papers, leading to a ‘female citation deficit’. Even without taking childcare into account, women have to work harder with the housekeeping dumped on them.

“If a committee is required to have a quota, say 40 per cent, of women, in a subject such as my own (physics), where typically there will be 20 per cent or fewer women on the faculty, it inevitably means those women end up doing twice as much work,” she says.

Donald calls for “amplification” and “allyship” to turbocharge change. Amplification is the calling out of discriminatory practice wherever it is found and praise for good work. Allyship goes one step further, by not only identifying bad behaviours but actively promoting positive inclusion, offering support and mentorship.

Despite numerous examples of the challenges facing her and other women scientists, Professor Donald remains optimistic. We need to start with the very youngest children, she says, and build an education system in which girls and boys both flourish at STEM. As throughout ‘Not Just For The Boys’, this is both a professional assessment and personal plea. The book is dedicated to her granddaughters.

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