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Women at the top - part one: Athene Donald

9 June 2011

Dame Athene Donald, DBE, FRS is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge. She has pioneered research into soft matter physics and its application to living organisms. She recently received a lifetime achievement award in the UKRC's 2011 women of outstanding achievement awards.

Congratulations, you must be very proud?

Yes, it's quite an achievement. Although it feels a bit funny to receive a lifetime achievement award whilst I'm still working, I'm not dead yet!

Dame Athene Donald receiving her award. Copyright: Reeson/UKRC

Dame Athene Donald with her portrait as part of the Women of Outstanding Achievement Awards 2011.
© Philip Reeson/The UKRC

Did you receive a copy of the photo? Where did you put it?

I have a small copy which is sitting on my desk at home. I might bring it into the office, I haven't decided.

So it goes without saying that you've had a successful career, how did you get to where you are today?

I was a physics undergraduate at the University of Cambridge at a time when there were very few women studying physics. At the time I had no intentions to follow a career in physics; I just found it really interesting.

I stayed in Cambridge to complete a PhD and then moved to the USA as a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University where, for my second postdoc, I moved into the polymer research field. At that point I met and worked with Professor Ed Kramer, who was a really inspirational person. He persuaded me that I should think about an academic career; that's when my career really started to take off.

After that I came back to Cambridge with my husband as he had secured a College Fellowship. I was lucky enough to be awarded a SERC Fellowship in the Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science. Two years later I was awarded a Royal Society Fellowship at the Cavendish Laboratory and then, at the age of 33, I was offered a lectureship, the first female lecturer in the Department of Physics. Coincidently it was around this time when I found out that I was pregnant.

How did starting a family affect your career decisions?

I remember Sam Edwards, a former Council member of the AFRC (BBSRC's predecessor) who was Cavendish Professor of Physics at the time, and another hugely inspirational character, telling me that 'intelligent women should have babies'. That really stuck with me and encouraged me.

I was also fortunate that my husband was prepared to give up his career to be the primary carer of our children and so I steadily progressed, moving into food physics as part of a large AFRC-funded project with the Institute of Food Research. My work became increasingly focussed at the biology interface and now has included studying proteins, polysaccharides and cellular biophysics – areas that, at the time, were considered odd for a physicist but are now more mainstream.

In making these decisions I was able to carve out a distinctive position, both as a female scientist and in my chosen field.

And you're now a Dame Commander of the British Empire, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a L'Oreal/UNESCO science laureate, all prestigious accolades...

The appointment as dame came as a complete shock.

The great thing about the L'Oreal award was that, with it being such a large company, they are very good at interacting with the media. This led to me appearing, for instance, on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, which was a good platform to talk about the subject of women in science and I felt well qualified to do so being a visible female scientist and having had a family myself.

So what's next?

I want to seize opportunities to get across the message that science is creative and is a key part of life. Some people have preconceived notions that science is sterile, I find this idea quite dangerous. I also feel passionate about getting across the notion that scientists are not a peculiar breed of people.

I was involved in two debates, with philosophers and bioethicists, at the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival at Hay recently – one on human enhancement, the other on homeopathy – as well as giving a solo talk on unconscious bias and the impact on women entering science. I started a blog last year where I can develop some of these ideas – both about the joys of interdisciplinary science, but also about science culture and particularly how it affects women. This has become a useful platform and I have been very encouraged by how people have reacted to it.

I also Chair the Royal Society Education Committee, where we work with a variety of people – the government and other opinion formers – on the importance of science, both for an individual's success in life and to sustaining a thriving economy.

You're also trying to engage with science teachers...

I always worry that when kids are wheeled in to big science events that a proportion of them will be completely switched off. Perhaps it would be better to engage directly with, and hopefully enthuse, their teachers. Teachers don't get much of a chance for continuing professional development.

I'm speaking at two teachers' conferences over the next few months, which will provide great opportunities for teachers to step back and get a fresh outlook on science.

What is preventing girls from choosing science careers?

It appears that subtle messages can strongly influence career choices, particularly when it comes to the physical sciences, where female undergraduates still only represent about 30% (more in chemistry, less in physics), compared to maybe 75% in life sciences. This starts at birth: the way we handle and talk to newborns and babies is determined by their gender. Take advertisements for toys and a recent word cloud analysis for example. This showed that the two words used most heavily in advertisements for boys' toys were battle and power, for girls the corresponding words were love and magic. Any girl who thinks she is going to sail through life on the basis of magic rather than power is in for a nasty shock.

At school, girls are bombarded with messages like 'girls can't do maths' and they tend to underperform in tests as a result. By the age of 14, their career choices are pretty much set. You may have heard the story last week of a couple who are refusing to state what sex their baby – called Storm – is, to try to overcome this. Whether this will work or just cause confusion in the adults around as well as the growing child is of course unclear. But it does raise a valid point that each and every one of us should scrutinize how we perceive those around us – be they women scientists or male nurses – to check our unconscious biases are not taking over our rational thoughts.

Why does this matter? Why do we need more girls entering the sciences and staying there?

Many people have argued that diversity means exactly that – not just a diversity of constitution of boards or workforce or whatever, but also a diversity of approaches and mindsets. It has been claimed that companies with a higher proportion of women on their board fare better, so one could produce an economic argument for companies to employ more women scientists.

Secondly, there is a shortage of skilled workers in STEM, as reported by – for instance – a recent CBI study. If we are discouraging half the population from entering the workforce – or even university – in these areas, we are creating a massive and unnecessary problem for society.

Finally, there is the issue of fairness for the individual. Is it reasonable that talented young women are not being assisted to fulfil their potential due to out of date thought processes and unconscious bias? None of this has anything to do with the issue of families and children, or even overt hostility, or harassment. But, cumulatively, we are disadvantaging half the workforce in ways that are fairly systematic if unintended.

As a community we must do better. We need to start at the earliest stages – as parents, teachers and friends – to make sure we are not subliminally giving off messages that say girls can't do science, engineering and maths. We need to be sure working practices don't discourage women who do enter the scientific professions. That we support and encourage those who do, where necessary providing mentoring and confidence–building exercises; that we celebrate women who do succeed and ensure that young women can see visible role models. We need to get the best talent performing to the best of their ability.

Compared to when you were starting out in the 1970s, with changes to maternity leave and the increased availability of childcare, do you think that women starting a science career today have got it easy?

In some ways it is harder because their choices are more explicit.

When my husband took a career break it was really difficult for him, it was very uncommon back then. It is more common to share childcare responsibilities now though. The changes to paternity leave that came into effect this year will make a big difference to men who feel constrained by social norms and also to employers' attitudes to flexible working and equality for both sexes.

What's the biggest piece of advice you could give to a woman at the start of her science career?

Have courage; don't allow fears to undermine you. The indicators are that women are more often risk–averse, less adventurous than men, more fearful that if they attempt something new they may fall on their faces and make a fool of themselves.

Too often individuals, not only women but perhaps more of them than men, don't feel able to jump off the edge off the cliff believing that their parachute really will open and let them take flight serenely. My advice would be that constantly shivering at the edge will itself be at least as likely, if not more so, to lead to bad outcomes – be it disappointment, resentment or stagnation – than taking the risk that seems so terrifying.

If we analyse each opportunity to death, do the sums (consciously or otherwise) so that the 'play safe' option always wins, then we are defeating ourselves.


Tracey Duncombe

tel: 01793 414695