Overcoming barriers in male-dominated world: an interview with Ann-Christine Davis MAE

Overcoming barriers in male-dominated world: an interview with Ann-Christine Davis MAE

As part of our work with the CALIPER project we interview people passionate about gender equality. In our latest interview, Ann-Christine Davis talks about making history as the first female Mathematics professor at Cambridge, the challenges she’s faced, and the positive effect of support from male colleagues.

About Ann-Christine Davis MAE

Professor Ann-Christine Davis is a renowned British theoretical physicist who’s left an indelible mark on science and championed gender equality. She earned her doctorate in 1975, later becoming the first female theoretician at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and conducting research at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Since 1983, she’s held significant positions at King’s College and the Faculty of Mathematics, University of Cambridge.

In 2009, Professor Davis was elected to the Academia Europaea, and in 2019, she received the Institute of Physics Richard Glazebrook Medal and Prize in recognition of her leadership in the field of physics. Notably, she made history as the first female professor in the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge and acted as the University Gender Equality Champion in STEM before her retirement.

Professor Davis’ research spans cosmology, astrophysics, and string theory, with recent work focussing on particle cosmology including screened, modified gravity theories like the chameleon theory and f®. Her latest work explores testing general modified gravity theories in the laboratory, in cosmology and astrophysics.

Read the interview

Becoming the first woman to be appointed a professor in the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge is a remarkable accomplishment. Could you share your thoughts on the significance of this achievement and how it has impacted your career?

“When I was promoted to professor, people said, “You do realise you’re the first female professor in the whole of the Faculty of Mathematics?” I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing”. And then I actually felt very angry because there were those who came before me, most notably Mary Cartwright and Bertha Jeffries. When I gave my inaugural lecture, I dedicated it to those who came before me and who never achieved promotion to professor.

It impacted me in many ways. I suddenly found myself on an awful lot of committees, which was a lot of work. Attitudes towards me suddenly changed. I remember my Head of Department and I were discussing various problems in the department, he asked if me I was ok and if I had any problems. Suddenly you find that they really take note and they treat you with a lot of respect.”

Could tell us about some of the challenges you have observed or personally faced as a woman in a predominantly male work environment, and how you have worked to overcome them?

“Being female in a male-dominated world, you do face a lot of challenges. When I came out of my PhD viva, one of the lecturers asked if there was anything left for me to do now I’d got my PhD, but to get married? I’d hoped to go on to a postdoc, and I was staggered by this.

A senior colleague was advertising a postdoc role and I asked if any women had applied. He said he would never appoint a woman if a man applied, because a man had a family to look after, whereas a woman had a husband to look after her. I just could not believe this attitude. So yes, there’s been a lot of barriers of overcome.

When I first arrived in Cambridge, I couldn’t quite believe how we were stuck in the past, with an entrenched attitude. They just didn’t understand that the world consisted of 50% men and 50% women, and it should be the same in the workplace. It seemed to be a place where women were regarded as the secretaries, not the academics. So, the first few years were quite tough. I stayed around in Cambridge for personal reasons, and then eventually I found myself a position here.

I faced a number of obstacles very early on in my career. When I was applying for lectureships, I somehow seemed to be number two on the list. I wondered, “well, why is it?” But eventually I came through, and here I am.

How did I overcome these barriers? I think I’m quite stubborn and determined, and I had the help of some very good colleagues and collaborators over the years. I’ve had two very good mentors. One was the late, great Tom Kibble, a theoretical physicist. I knew Tom as a postdoc at Imperial, and when I had problems in Cambridge he certainly helped me. I also bumped into Dusa McDuff, a pure mathematician who was organising a programme at the Isaac Newton Institute. She was very supportive, and she helped me through some difficult patches.”

During your time as University Gender Equality Champion for STEM, how did you engage with and involve male colleagues in the efforts towards gender equality? What role do you believe men play in creating a more inclusive environment?

“I was the University Gender Equality Champion in STEM for a few years before my retirement. We will never achieve gender equality in academia – and in particular in STEM – without the help and support of our male colleagues. Frequently, this is regarded as a woman’s role, but if you really want to support women, the men have to do it. You can engage them, by reiterating just how certain things are very good practice. There are various courses that colleagues have to do to be on committees, which helps them engage in topics around unconscious bias, for example.

Our previous vice Chancellor was Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, who said that to achieve academic excellence you have to engage the whole population, not just 50% of the population, and that’s exactly right. If you’re always concentrating on 50% – unconsciously, probably – you are never going to achieve your full potential as an institution. Male colleagues have a big role to play, and we’ve had some outstanding leaders like Sir Leszek, and one of our previous Pro Vice-Chancellors, Jeremy Sanders, who were so supportive of female colleagues. But we need more of them. We can’t just wait for change to filter down. It’s got to be a change of awareness in order to achieve real gender equality in the academic workplace.”

What advice do you have for young women aspiring to pursue careers in STEM fields, particularly those who may face gender-related obstacles or biases?

“For young women starting out on a career in a STEM subject, they will find that they are in a minority, and there are many more male than female colleagues. The situation is improving, but girls and young women are still in the minority. It can be quite hard, but you just have to stick with it.

These days, it’s no longer OK to put up with minor sexual harassment. I think that anything inappropriate should be reported to someone senior. You shouldn’t put up with inappropriate behaviour or comments from male colleagues – that is no longer acceptable.

If you want to be involved in STEM, concentrate on your own work. Sometimes it can be quite hard because there can be a culture of, ‘Let’s go and have a drink’. But you might not like a drink. The pub might not be the place for you. That can be difficult to overcome, because if all your colleagues are male, you don’t really have a companion you can talk to. But there are other women you can talk to, such as a mentor. There are various organisations now that assign mentors, and the University has a mentoring programme. That will help, and even if you don’t get on that well with a mentor, it will give you an outlet to find someone to talk to.

Keep at it, be determined, report inappropriate behaviour and find somebody to talk to – not necessarily even about your subject, but just about being in an academic environment.”

Gender balance in academic leadership positions remains a challenge. What steps do you believe universities and research institutions should take to encourage and support more women in obtaining senior positions in STEMM?

“Over the years there’s been a dearth of women in academic leadership roles. This is slowly changing – for example, our new Vice-Chancellor is Professor Deborah Prentice, from Princeton. And this is our second full-time female Vice-Chancellor, the previous one being Alison Richard. But most of the other academic leadership roles in the University are quite male-dominated.

So how do we encourage more women? It’s partly a question of ensuring that women who might be interested are actively encouraged to consider senior roles, such as Head of School or Pro Vice-Chancellor roles etc. We also need to persuade selection panels that women are as good as male candidates. It can be hard for appointment committees to really see the qualities that women would bring to the job.

We can often see qualities in other people that we ourselves have, and it’s easy to think, “Well, that’s a really good person, because they would do the job just like I would do it.” That’s not the way to think, and this unconscious bias can make you ‘self-replicate’. The more training an appointment committee has, the more likely it is for an excellent female candidate to get to the top, as well as an excellent male candidate.”

Posted 17th October 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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