“I always feel young folk are told, you’ve got to have a career plan”
Professor Dame Athene Donald is a scientist working at The Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. Amongst many other roles, she is Master of Churchill College at the university and she was their Gender Equality Champion from 2010 to 2014.
In 2010, she was surprised to be asked to chair the Education Committee for The Royal Society.
Donald said, “I would like to propose we use the focus on the challenges facing women in science to drive forward real change. I challenge individuals to commit to ‘just one action for women in science’ (#just1action4WIS).”
“Back in 2009, I was asked by the Royal Society to chair its Education Committee in 2010. I’d always taught in my university but that was graduates and undergraduates, this was education from aged five to 19.”
She continues, “They wanted someone, not so much an expert but someone who could pull people together. But of course if you do that role you absolutely have to get stuck in. That was at the time of the all the reforms initiated by Michael Gove.”
“We went and talked to civil servants, to policy makers and real educators. Now if I had wanted a role that would be good for becoming Master of a Cambridge College, I couldn’t have chosen a better one. But that wasn’t why I did it. It was an interesting thing to do. It was important. It wasn’t intended, but boy, was it useful. That’s why I say you should never have fixed plans.”
“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 [College, University of Cambridge]. 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. University was always on the horizon, despite the fact that my family hadn’t been to university. My mother left school at 14. She did do a School Certificate, sort of self-taught, from home. She always minded not having an education.”
“The night before I went up to Cambridge, we were invited to a party of a family friends. He was housemaster at Harrow, and he wanted some young girls at his house party. The sixth formers came up to these young girls and asked, ‘what are you doing at university?’ and then they would recoil in horror. I had gone to a girls’ school, so I had no idea how odd it was for a girl to go to university, let alone do physics. “
Recently changes have been made at the Royal Society, where Donald is on the committee. The society has replaced portraits and busts of some of Britain’s most renowned male scientists at the entrance to its 18th-century, Romanesque building in Carlton House Terrace, with artworks depicting leading women. As you enter there are portraits of four women including Professor Athene Donald, and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell; a bust of Lucie Green, the television astronomer and of Mary Somerville, the 19th-century astronomer who became the first female member of the Royal Astronomical 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 eight girls out of total a 100 in a year, so I was very aware that I was the only girl in practical classes of 16 people.”
“As chair of The Royal Society Committee on Education, I consider that the early years are hugely important. More specifically to science, the crucial point is the transition to secondary stage education. This is where a lot of kids lose interest. They go from having hands-on, exploratory experience in science, to being stuck in rows and have the teacher do something. It becomes divorced from their reality.”
“If you look at the recent referendum, there is this mistrust of experts. This idea that the elite has nothing to do with the poor people who are suffering unemployment. They don’t understand how the things we do are hugely relevant to whether they get a job.”
“It comes back to what we were saying about early years, and our societal values. Society doesn’t value science enough. It is nervous about girls stepping up. It just appalls me the messages:“Maths isn’t for girls,” or t-shirts saying, “I’m too pretty to do Maths“. I just don’t understand it. It’s the same papers saying girls should bare it all and not use their brains.”
“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 generation didn’t have pink Lego. It’s marketing and the media.”
“As to where I am now, I just feel my life was so unexpected, something that you don’t quite believe, or not quite real. Something people think is rather mysterious. 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.”
“Imposter syndrome is everywhere. I think imposter syndrome is like stage fright, you use the adrenaline. That’s why I say, ‘don’t believe that other people are better than you just because they are more confident. We all fake it. I’m a great believer in faking it.’ One should not let lack of confidence paralyse you. If you try it and it works, then you’ve got the confidence.”