Why we need more women in science: An interview with Dame Athene Donald MAE

Why we need more women in science: An interview with Dame Athene Donald MAE

In our latest interview, Dame Athene Donald talks about her recently published book which examines the modern way of working in scientific research and how gender bias operates within it, drawing on the experiences of leading women in science.

About Dame Athene Donald MAE

Dame Athene Donald is a prominent British physicist and member of several distinguished scientific organisations including the Royal Society and Academia Europaea.

As the director of WiSETI (Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology Initiative) at Cambridge University from 2006 – 2014, Donald spearheaded initiatives aimed at supporting and empowering women in STEM fields. She also chaired the Athena Forum, an organisation focused on promoting the career progression and representation of women in STEM within UK higher education.

Dame Athene is a vocal advocate for women in science in mainstream media and through her personal blog. She has written extensively on the topic of gender equality, highlighting the challenges women face in STEM and offering insights into fostering inclusivity.

Dame Athene has been recognised with numerous awards and honours. She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2010, received the UKRC’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, and was honoured with a THE Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.

She has recently published “Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science”.

The interview

Congratulations on the release of your book, “Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science” Can you tell us why you felt it was important to write this?

“I’ve written the book with several very different audiences in mind, but the audience most likely to pick it up is aspiring and early-career scientists. That’s great, but I do feel very strongly that it should be read also by parents, teachers and policymakers – all of whom will be shaping the next generation. Policymakers particularly, because I think what happens in our schools is pretty gendered, and people don’t want to recognise that to some extent. There is quite a lot of talk about the fact that our toys are gendered and so on, which is true and I feel very strongly about that, but I also think the way teachers interact in the classroom with boys and girls can vary. I very much want the people who decide what an Ofsted inspection should consist of, or how we train our teachers, to think about it.

What worries me is, how do I reach that particular audience and the general public? I’m not convinced that’s terribly easy. If there are systemic cultural issues it needs everyone to buy in, and not just people like the head of the Physics department or a young woman who thinks maybe STEM is not for her. It needs to be read more broadly, and I worry that it won’t be.”

Can you share a personal experience or turning point in your career that inspired you to become such a passionate advocate for women in science?

“There was a 1999 report from MIT on A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science that went into the systemic issues. In the US, it’s slightly different from the UK in that salaries and lab space are done much more by negotiation, so can be absolutely quantified. Nancy Hopkins, who was a leading biologist, gathered all the data and took it to the President of MIT, who then instigated a formal report. He was shocked and recognised that whereas he had thought that MIT was really supportive of its young faculty, many mid-career women said they felt more supported when they were younger. This idea that mid-career is a problematic career stage was something that resonated with me. If I felt I wasn’t being treated as seriously as my colleagues, maybe it wasn’t my fault. It was not because I was less good at arguing in a committee meeting, it was actually a systemic issue. That propelled me forward into thinking that women actually do have barriers that men don’t necessarily face.”

What are some of the main barriers that continue to hinder the progress of women in science, and how can we overcome these barriers to create a more inclusive scientific community?

“There are issues that affect professional women in any sphere, and issues like systemic bias are part of that. The fact that your CV needs to be better than that of an equivalent man – something that has been shown by sending out identical CVs under male and female names. So there are problems that are common across the professional sphere, but I think there are also issues that are STEM-specific. As a physicist, you can find you’re in a tiny minority and it can feel quite alienating if you’re the only woman in the group meeting, for example. And of course there is always the issue of harassment, be it verbal or physical.”

How can men contribute meaningfully to fostering an inclusive environment in STEM, and have you seen any notable examples of male allies making a difference in this regard?

“One of the reasons men have such a big part to play is because if a woman is being unfairly treated in some way, it’s much harder for the victim to say, “That’s not acceptable,” rather than having a man say it. Men who will speak up and point out problematic phrases, or draw attention to someone talking over the women in the room. There’s also the networking aspect – historically known as the “Old Boys Club”- and if women are de facto excluded, whether consciously or not, that’s very damaging. So having men who act as mentors and sponsors, who speak up when there’s a list of invited speakers and not a single one of them is a woman, for example, is very important. The men in the room often have a platform, so that is very useful. When bad behaviour is present, having men who will intervene and point out it’s not acceptable is very helpful.

I can give you specific example from my book. I was at a committee meeting where we were interviewing people from an engineering background, both men and women. One woman had several patents to her name and we considered if she had received any money from the patents, or if the patents had been taken up by anyone. Then it came to a man, but instead it was commented on that it was wonderful he had patents. One of the men in the room pointed out that the same questions asked of the female candidate weren’t asked for the male candidate, and it was a double standard. That kind of activity can be hard to spot, but having a man draw attention to situations like that is really important. There’s plenty of double standards applied in that way.

There’s another example I can think of, which I’d like to think wouldn’t happen now. I was on a committee, and the man chairing it started by addressing us all as ‘gentlemen’. I wasn’t the only woman in the room, there were several other women on the committee, and I thought it was unacceptable. I felt as though if I had said something at the time I wouldn’t have got anywhere, so after the meeting I wrote to the chair and copied in not just the other women on the committee, but some of the men who I thought were allies. The chair wrote back and apologised, and said he was just used to there being only men in the room. At the next meeting, he did exactly the same thing – addressed us all as ‘gentlemen’ – and one of the men I’d written to immediately pointed it out. This was very effective, and the chair never did it again. But I think if I’d pointed it out again, I’d have just been labelled as a troublemaker, so it’s really useful to be in a position where men will speak up in support.”

What were some of the challenges you faced during your time as the first Gender Equality Champion at Cambridge University, and what were the key achievements that you are most proud of?

“As the first Gender Equality champion, the challenge is naturally to get people to take you seriously. It’s about pointing out when there are issues that we as a university need to do something about. You then try to work out what levers you have; it was a formal role, but it had essentially no budget. Initially I sat on a group that was known as the ‘gender representation review group’ or similar, and I insisted I chair it. It was quite effective, but it takes time to work out what you can do. One of the good things about that committee was that although originally it started off looking at the gender pay gap, it expanded to cover lots of other things. For instance, we tried to work out whether promotion rates were comparable for men and women. That’s incredibly difficult to do because we could see that women were being promoted at a faster rate, but was that because they’d been so reticent that they’d waited until they were long past ready? You can’t pull that information out easily, it has to be more of a hypothesis.

One of the things I felt pleased about was pushing through shared and enhanced parental pay. When shared parental leave came in, we tried to make it more financially viable for the man to take leave, because otherwise, inevitably, men won’t. That was one very tangible thing I pushed and the university agreed to.

A lot of it was less concrete than that. We talked for a long time about potentially setting up a fund for people returning from maternity leave, to help them get back into the workplace. Imperial were already doing it and I thought it was a really good idea. Ultimately it was introduced but in a rather broader sense called a ‘returners’ fund’ or similar, so it applied if you had been on sick leave or had general caring responsibilities, not just for mothers. It has been rather effective, and I know it has helped some academics feel very supported by the university. It expressed the view that if you had to take time off whatever reason, the university was there to help you get back on your feet.”

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your advocacy and the impact you have seen on the lives and careers of women in STEM?

“Perhaps this is impostor syndrome, but I always feel there are lots of people doing great things, but because I am already visible as a female physicist and an FRS, I get the credit. Other people are doing hugely important things that may not get the same ‘wow factor’. During the time I’ve been active the conversation has changed massively, as when I was first putting my toe in the water there were some women who felt we couldn’t have men as allies. I think it’s really important that this has changed, and to some extent everyone is involved together. Not that I take responsibility for it, but I hope I have facilitated that move.

I am very conscious that young women look to me as an inspiration. There are many people who could be an inspiration, and it’s more that I’m visible whereas not everyone is. It’s both really nice to feel that people respond to you, but also sometimes I feel, “Oh my goodness, but it’s only me!”

I was at Hay festival last week talking about the book, and during the book signing three schoolgirls came up to me said how great it had been, which was really nice to hear. In many ways the book is aimed at parents and teachers as much as aspiring scientists, but to have these young girls come up to me, that was really nice. You can see it as the real face of someone responding to what you’re saying, and that’s always a good thing to hear.

When I took over as chair of the Athena Forum, I took over from Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and Dame Julia Higgins had been doing a lot of work in this space before me. It was partly through my blogging that I got a following; for a while I was blogging actively through the Guardian science blogs. It was a very conscious decision to write in my own name, and to demonstrate the experience of what I did. That made it more powerful at that time, certainly as more women were blogging anonymously because they were frightened of receiving abuse. I felt I was at that stage in my career where I thought, “There’s not much that people can do to me to knock me down. I am a professor, I am a Dame, I am an FRS, I should be fairly safe saying these things that perhaps others had less confidence to do.”

Posted 27th June 2023. For further information please contact AECardiffHub@cardiff.ac.uk

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under Grant Agreement No 873134

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