Nick Smith

Interview: Athene Donald, Master of Churchill College, University of Cambridge

Image credit: Athene Donald

British physicist and Master of Churchill College, Cambridge, Dame Athene Donald wants more women to go into STEM and, when they get there, a bit more equality.

As the electric minicab makes its way to the railway station, its driver turns to me and, in the spirit of polite conversation, asks what brought me to the University of Cambridge today. As we thread past the famous skyline of King’s College, I reply that I’ve been for a meeting with a distinguished scientist, the Master of Churchill College. “Has he invented any cool stuff?” the cabbie enquires, and I reply that the master is a woman, and yes, Dame Athene Donald is one of the ‘coolest’ British physicists of the 20th century and beyond.

Although seemingly innocuous, this exchange highlights what Professor Donald calls the ‘bias’ in attitudes that surround women in the STEM fields. The well-intentioned minicab driver, who was genuinely interested in the science and technology that went into his smartphone and the power management system of his EV, simply assumed that the phrase ‘distinguished scientist’ referred to a man. It’s a reaction to an entrenched stereotype that Donald had earlier explained as being in part created by movies in which scientists are routinely serious-looking bespectacled white men in even whiter coats.

Then there’s the title of ‘Master’, which I suggested to the driver might be “one of those ancient university anomalies”. But, in fact, it’s a remnant of a fossilised attitude dating back to the not-so-far-distant times when it was unthinkable that a woman could hold a senior post in such an august institution as the University of Cambridge. Donald says she’s less bothered about her job title than most would assume, explaining that debating the term has already taken up a disproportionate amount of time that could be spent on more important things: such as science. Besides, “I don’t think I’d be any more comfortable with ‘mistress’”.

Careful not to use the word prejudice, and often stressing that the more accurate term is ‘bias’, Donald’s current academic title is Professor Emerita in Experimental Physics. She draws my attention to the grammatically correct use of the feminine Latin form of the more widely used ‘emeritus’, which seems like some sort of progress and yet remains an archaism that draws attention to its rarity. It’s another small but subtle bias and it all adds up, much in the way that the slowly disappearing term ‘actress’ implies something less than ‘actor’. When I ask how she’d like to be referred to in E&T, she gives something of a non-committal shrug as if to say, ‘You’re the writer’ before requesting, “Please don’t call me Dame Athene”.

At the age of 70, Donald can look back on a ground-breaking career of ‘firsts’ in which her scientific achievements run parallel with being the first woman to do so. She was the first female postdoc in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at Cornell University. She was the first female lecturer in Cambridge’s Physics Department, as well as being first female professor in any of Cambridge’s physical sciences and, of course, first female Master at Churchill College. She’s a Fellow of the Royal Society, has been awarded several prizes by the Institute of Physics (including the Faraday Medal) and, in 2009, was awarded the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Europe for Women in Science. In terms of outreach, she’s no stranger to the media, having appeared on ‘The Life Scientific’ and ‘Desert Island Discs’, as well as maintaining an active social media presence. The biographical notes that go with her latest book – ‘Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science’ – state that Donald “is considered by many to be a role model for future generations of young female scientists”.


Nick Smith

Image credit: Athene Donald


‘Not Just for the Boys’ is a book that the British physicist felt had to be written, and one in which Cambridge University’s former Gender Equality Champion has decanted her frustrations with bias in the world of science and technology. “Over the years, I’ve been thinking about gender-related issues specifically in the STEM subjects and I’d read a lot of the social science literature, and I felt that there was a reason to put all this together.”

Donald accepts that there won’t be much in her book that the social scientists don’t already know, “but the scientists – the STEM people – don’t pull the information together”. She goes on to explain that her book is intended to reach even further: “It’s not just for the practitioners themselves, but for parents and policy-makers, to help them try to work out what’s going wrong in a society that leads to these disparities.” By “these disparities” she’s referring to how “people too often stereotype what a boy and a girl should be, do, wear, think, behave. Mostly it is unthinking, but it has the effect that if you encourage girls to be passive and play with dolls, and boys to get out there and play with Meccano, their brains develop differently, and their expectations develop differently.” Donald thinks that many of the divergences that young people experience “emerge from these societal pressures”.

In making this wealth of academic research more accessible to the general reader, Donald hopes to talk directly to the parents especially, “who without much thought go into a toy shop and buy the first pink thing they can find. I want people’s eyes to be open to the fact that we know what the issues are and yet we still allow – not discrimination, it would be utterly wrong to call it that – subtle biases to persist at every stage from birth onwards.” And while ‘Not Just for the Boys’ presents a compelling analysis of how women are missing from the scientific historical record, “women in history is only a part of it”. Today, “it’s all about what goes wrong in early years, what goes wrong in our schools and universities”.

Donald takes it as axiomatic that there aren’t enough women in STEM and isn’t attracted by the line of thinking that if there are proportionately fewer women in STEM it follows that perhaps women simply don’t want to engage in the enterprise. It’s an argument that she “hears endlessly”. The reason it leaves her so unimpressed is because industry and education can only gain from a better gender balance and more even diversity in general. “There aren’t enough women, and that means we are losing the insight from people who have been brought up to think about these issues.”

Design engineering is a case in point, where Donald references Caroline Criado Perez (author of ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’) “who highlights what some of these challenges are. A simple one is crash dummies, where car safety was tested on dummies equivalent to the idealised American male. But the reality was that if you were 5ft-nothing and pregnant, the seatbelt design would damage the foetus. The fact that nobody stopped to think if the 6ft well-nourished male was all we needed to worry about, indicates that there is a gap.”

Conceding that this example is both old and well-known, Donald says that it’s also a “concrete example of how, if you have groups that all come from the same perspective, they will have a certain mindset”. She adds that for better outcomes in innovation you need “a more diverse range of views and different perspectives”. By bringing in more women, not only do you expand the talent pool, “you get better solutions. There are studies that show diverse teams are more innovative.”

‘You can be allowed to exist intellectually but be marginalised and excluded’.

Athene Donald

When writing the section of ‘Not Just for the Boys’, covering female historical figures in science, Donald admits that she “struggled” to fill the pages because “what was expected of women was to play the harpsichord and embroider”. One woman to make an appearance is the early 18th-century English writer Mary Astell, who advocated for educational opportunities and was known as a public intellectual and philosopher. “But no-one knew she had any interest in science. The reason I find her so interesting is that there was a woman who, in her spare time, stopped to think about [French scientist and mathematician] Descartes and comment on it in the same way as a PhD student would.”

Then there’s Émilie du Châtelet, best known for her translation of and commentary on Isaac Newton’s 1687 ‘Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica’ containing the basic laws of physics. “To translate a book like that, she must have had some inkling of what it was about and studied it quite hard. But of course she’s remembered as Voltaire’s mistress”.

Inevitably, the subject turns to Rosalind Franklin, whose work was central to the understanding of molecular structures such as DNA, and Marie Skłodowska-Curie, who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. It’s passed into popular science folklore that Franklin was somehow overshadowed by Crick and Watson, which Donald won’t be drawn too far into “because if you read much about Franklin beyond the double-helix, she was highly regarded. But nevertheless she was regarded as an oddity and her life was made incredibly uncomfortable. One should not forget that you can be allowed to exist intellectually but be marginalised and excluded in ways that are incredibly detrimental socially.”

One of the most striking aspects of Donald’s investigation into historical figures is how complex and nuanced each individual narrative is. Today, we might be forgiven for simply assuming that Skłodowska-Curie is a role model for aspiring women scientists. But Donald thinks that because of the hardships and discrimination she endured, no-one should be forced to follow in those footsteps. “I think we should look at the young scientists of today,” says Donald, who recommends mathematician and TV presenter Hannah Fry as more accessible and “more normal” than the historical figures in her book. Likewise, the problem with Skłodowska-Curie is “she is so far off the scale and had such a miserable life” that she is not “imaginable”, which Donald thinks is more important: “I’ve never been convinced of the importance of role models.”

Despite which, Donald has literally stood on a soapbox on London’s South Bank as part of a novel public outreach platform for promoting women and non-binary scientists and the science they do. “It’s an unnerving experience – but it’s not a solution.”

One aspect of the STEM professions that Donald doesn’t specifically focus on in ‘Not Just for the Boys’ is compensation, a sidestep she explains by stating that the pay issue “applies to men as well as women”. She is explicit in her agreement that there is a need for more engineers and scientists of any description, and she thinks that they should be remunerated fairly and rationally. But “some people will say that there can’t be a shortage of engineers because, if there was, they’d be paid better. Which I think is an insane argument.” To demonstrate her point, she detours to the teaching profession, where “there is a chronic shortage of teachers, and they get paid peanuts”. But the scenario is not gender-specific, “although I would accept that probably in engineering women are paid less than men”. The obvious solution to which is to compensate everybody more generously and, in the process, even out the gender differential. “Well, good luck with sorting that out.”

When Donald arrived at Churchill College a decade ago, she gave a speech at a matriculation dinner where she looked around the hall and wondered where all the women were. Digging around in the statistics revealed that “there were 28 per cent women in the college at that point. We are now 50-50,” she says, which on the surface appears to satisfy basic numerical equality. Only “we are by statute a college that admits 70 per cent STEM students” with a mandate to commit to technical subjects. “But, in that 50-50 there are still more women in arts courses than there are women in engineering.” Donald says that by currently having three women engineering fellows, the college is working hard to address this. “We want to attract more women to do more STEM. The way to do that is to present the college as one that welcomes diversity on all fronts.” But the problems, as ‘Not Just for the Boys’ vividly demonstrates, “start much earlier. And that’s what I find frustrating.”

Donald recalls when former Prime Minister Liz Truss was parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for Education, “she had some initiative to get more girls to do physics. But she was targeting 14-year-olds. And I asked: ‘Why are you targeting 14-year-olds?’ And she said: ‘Because we can measure that.’ Yes. It’s good to have data. But at 14, it’s too late.” For a college admitting students who are 18, “there’s only so much you can do”. If STEM really is, or should be, as the title of her book suggests, not just for the boys, “you have to start by eradicating stereotypes, as well the obstacles, blatant and subtle, faced by women in science”.

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