Professor Dame Athene Donald has quite the list of firsts under her belt: first female postdoc in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at Cornell University, first female lecturer in Cambridge’s Physics Department, first female professor in any of Cambridge’s Physical Sciences and first female Master at Churchill College.
She is considered by many to be a role model for future generations of young female scientists. She’s a Fellow of the Royal Society, has been awarded several prizes by the Institute of Physics (CV Boys Prize, Mott Medal, and Faraday Medal), and in 2009, was awarded the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Europe for Women in Science.
So it may seem surprising that when asked what attracted her to study physics, she says simply that it just made sense to her: there was no moment of inspiration, no female scientist that served as a role model, just a young girl who understood.
She acknowledges that she was fortunate enough to attend a girls’ grammar school where she was taught by a teacher who had qualified in physics at Oxford, but says of her teacher: “She was always capable of answering my questions, but it wasn’t so much she inspired me, it was that she didn’t turn me off.”
From Camden to Churchill
After studying at Camden School for Girls, Donald arrived at Girton College, Cambridge in 1971 – at the time an all-women college – Donald was not the first in her family to go to university, though most had studied subjects such as Law.
She would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Natural Science (Theoretical Physics), followed by a PhD in 1977 for research on electron microscopy of grain boundary embrittled systems. This meant trying to understand why some trace elements would migrate and segregate to the boundaries between individual crystals in a sample.
“Because there were no mixed colleges, there was essentially a cap on the number of women in the university,” Donald says. “There weren’t many girls.”
After heading to Cornell University in the United States, where she spent four years as a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Donald returned to Cambridge and has been here ever since.
“I did not know at the time I was the first female lecturer in the department.”
At the time, Donald thought little of being in a minority, and it was not until the late 1990s that she realised that being a woman might be a disadvantage.
“People didn’t necessarily take me seriously, and at first, I assumed it was because I was working in an area that wasn’t mainstream physics,” she says. “I worked on food, on starch, so I was accused of doing domestic science.”
In the late 90s, Donald saw a report from MIT about the status of women in their science faculty and started to question how much being a woman had put her at a disadvantage.
“I suddenly realised all the things that were happening to me were very similar, the sense that you were not quite taken seriously, or that your voice wasn’t as persuasive, or the feeling that ‘I’m just not good enough’, that it’s my fault. I realised the problems were perhaps systemic, and that was very uncomfortable.”
She recalls several instances that demonstrate the bias experienced by women in science: a driver collecting her at a railway station saying “I was expecting a man”, letters addressed to “Sir Donald…”, a meeting of a research council’s grant giving committee, where she was greeted by a disgruntled member complaining that the meeting papers were out late. “Obviously, they thought I was part of the secretariat,” she reflects.
In October 2014, Donald became the first female Master of Churchill College.
Science… not just for boys
Later this year will see the release of Donald’s first book, Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science, which highlights the obstacles faced by women in science and explores historical attitudes towards women doing science, and what progress has, or has not, been made.
There is a widely-recognised shortage of women in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). According to a report released by the Institute of Physics in 2017, for more than two decades only a fifth of A-level physics students have been girls.
Tackling the problem means starting far earlier than you might think. “You have to start really early, because this idea of gendering of subjects starts incredibly early. So, get rid of boys’ and girls’ toys, for instance,” she suggests.
Front cover of Professor Dame Athene Donald’s new book: Not just for the boys: Why we need more women in science
As an example of quite how ingrained attitudes are, Donald mentions Katharine Birbalsingh, head of the Michaela Community School in north-west London and (until very recently) the chair of the government’s Social Mobility Commission. Birbalsingh raised eyebrows in April 2022 when she told MPs that the low uptake of physics at A-Level was because girls did not like hard maths.
At the time, Donald told the Guardian that the comments made by Birbalsingh were “terrifying” and “quite damaging” and that it is not “a case of campaigning for more girls to do physics, it’s a case of making sure that girls aren’t discouraged by remarks like this”.
“We want girls to be free to pursue what they are good at,” she says, “and, equally, boys should also be able to go into professions like nursing. We are not in a society like that.”
Part of the problem is the ingrained unconscious assumption about what a stereotypical scientist looks like, she adds, “such as the myth of the lone scientist with sticking up hair and holding a test tube”.
A 2020 report published by Teach First, a charity aimed at addressing educational disadvantage in England and Wales, found that only half of British adults (49%) can name a female scientist, dead or alive. They also point out that not a single female scientist is mentioned in the GCSE science curriculum.
“If you are a 12-year-old girl and you’re not being exposed to this, then you may think I don’t belong”, Donald points out.
Where are the scientists like Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, whose discovery of radio pulsars changed astronomy? Why are children not learning about people such as Fabiola Gianotti, Director General of CERN?
There are also inherent problems with the system, including the age at which young people make decisions about their GCSEs and A-levels, she adds.
“You are very impressionable at 14 and the pressure and recognition from our peers is important at that age,” says Donald. “If a boy in your class says ‘That’s a bit nerdy’, then you may choose not to do [science] and then regret it later. I think it’s tough unless you’ve got parental support or teacher support.”
“You have to tackle the problem in schools to give those girls who want to do science the courage to do it.”
A female future
To see what is possible, we should look to the way STEM subjects are viewed in high-income countries versus low- and middle-income countries.
A study by Drawing the Future released in 2018 suggested that the most popular job for children in the UK was either a sportsman or sportswoman and that “the general trends suggest that in some developing countries children have more practical and high professional ambitions such as a Doctor or Teacher.
Donald points out that in low- and middle-income countries, the formal lines of female and male jobs are different and much less apparent. There, children see science and engineering as a way of improving their own lives and country.
A series of conversations with distinguished professional women, hosted by the Master of Churchill College, Professor Dame Athene Donald
She is hopeful that attitudes here may change, though. “The young today are so concerned about climate change that attitudes may be changing, and the pandemic may be instrumental in that shift, too.”
When Donald’s book appears on bookshelves in May, she hopes it will make people stop and think about the shortage of women in STEM and how we might address it. While the issues may not be new to some, there will be others – including those who can effect change – who do not appreciate how ingrained and systemic the problems are.
“If we’re going to change society, we need these people to think harder,” she says. “I hope this book is not only read by young girls hoping to study science but also by those who can really make a difference – policy makers, teachers, and parents. These are the people who can help change attitudes and encourage more girls into science.”
“If we’re going to change society, we need these people to think harder.”
Published: Friday 10th February 2023
With thanks to:
Dame Professor Athene Donald
Words: Zoe Smith
Photography: Lloyd Mann
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License