Professor Dame Athene Donald

Professor Dame Athene Donald
Champion of Women’s Equality

If I had one action to change the world,  I would worry about equality.   
I think we ignore it at our peril.   That’s not just gender,  its ethnic,  it’s  socio-economic.

The Women's Equality Champion from 2010 to 2014

The Women’s Equality Champion from 2010 to 2014

Professor Dame Athene Donald is a scientist working at

The Cavendish.  Amongst many other roles she is  Master of Churchill College at Cambridge, where she was Cambridge’s Gender Equality Champion from 2010-2014.   She also chaired the Education Committee for The Royal Society.

I don’t’ consider myself to be a feminist    I associate the word with the sort of 60s culture, man hating.    I believe in Equality absolutely, but I don’t like the word Feminist.   I know that the modern use is different, but I still feel uncomfortable with it.
Anne Marie Slaughter speaks of strong women, who did stay in the house, but they did have dreams and wanted their daughters and grand daughters to go on to great things, but if you have  a mother who is says don’t do that, you’ll break your nails, it’s hardly encouraging or supportive.

It just appalls me the messages, Maths isn’t for girls, or  T-shirts saying I’m too pretty to do maths .

Society doesn’t value Science enough and is nervous about girls stepping up.  I just don’t understand it.    It’s the same papers, that  girls should bare it all and not use their brains.

Few women

women's Equality champion at Cambridge 2010 to 2014

Professor Donald at the Royal Society

“Cambridge has an odd education system, in that you all do natural sciences in the first year structure, so you don’t know who is studying physics until the final year.  There were 8 girls out of total of a whole year of 100, so I was very aware that I was the only girl in practical classes of 16 people.
There’s a difference between physical sciences and biological sciences  which have a preponderance of women,  so the problem is, men are a minority.     I think that senior professors and scientists, are  more men, than women   The numbers are changing, not fast enough.    I find now that it cuts both ways.   When I was mid career, people did not know what to do with me and they discounted me.    Now being a woman is an advantage, they like to feel that I’m encouraging women and they’re listening to me more and I’ve had opportunities, not offered to young run of the mill, male Oxbridge professors.
The men in my life .
I have a supportive intelligent,  caring husband who  gave up his career.  That’s getting commoner now.   At the time, it was difficult for him, to be an academic who’d stopped. He didn’t like to go to Academic dinners.     It is getting better,   my daughter is having her first child and they are going to have 6  months off  each.  We really need more men talking about this.  Child care is often at a more crucial time of life and you can get completely derailed.

When I was in the States, I switched fields fairly significantly, still within broad discipline, but it was a post doctorate  year which was catastrophic, and I went around looking for someone to take me on.
Ed Kramer was the guy who was prepared to take a punt on me and who really made me believe in myself, at a time when I had no self belief at all.

The other one was Head of Department,  when I came back to the Cavendish after a period of being away.   Sir Sam Edwards was always there, as I progressed up the system.   Someone who gave me challenges.  Twice he got very large grants, and then said right you run this.   They were immensely challenging,  not my field.   I had to learn on the job, but because he had confidence in me, it was possible.
Being a role model
People look up to me in ways that make me feel very uncomfortable. They put me on a pedestal.    You’re so successful.   How did you do it?   Well, I somehow muddled along.   I think a key thing is to learn from when things go wrong, and things so wrong quite often.  Just because I‘m successful doesn’t mean that things haven’t gone wrong.   One should not let lack of confidence paralyze you.  If you try it and it works, then you’ve got the confidence.

Imposter syndrome
I think imposter syndrome is like stage fright, you use the adrenaline.  We  all fake it.  I’m a great believer in faking it.   Don’t believe that other people are better than you just because they are more confident.

I didn’t really think about careers. 

Girls of that time were expected to get married.      Once I was introduced to physics I knew that was absolutely what I wanted to do.  I knew I wanted to go to University.  I knew that I wanted to go to Girton. But I thought I would go to university and life stopped.  I would get married have a family, but a career? No. I didn’t think like that.
Early years education is absolutely important .
Why don’t more girls become engineers?   Right from birth we start to differentiate. It is massively bad for both, boys have plenty of careers they would feel uncomfortable pursuing.
We are to some extent going backwards  to a world  when boys wear blue and girls wear pink   and toys are divided.   My generation and my children’s didn’t have pink lego.    It’s marketing and the media.
“If you only do one thing.”
Athene Donald is a great role model, successful as a scientist, but also raising awareness and calling out sexism at every opportunity.   It is worth following her blog at Occam’s Typewriter.   What she has to say applies to women everywhere, not just women in science, or even women in STEM,(Science Technology, Engineering and Maths) but even more necessary for Women in the City, where the culture can be just as demeaning, heels and all.  Wearing heels in the lab could be a safety issue!

More of this Interview with Professor Dame Athene Donald can be found at CityEye



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