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Experimental physicist Athene Donald discusses her new book examining why there are still far too few female scientists

Published: 6 February 2023

Author: Richard Lofthouse


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The harsh truth is that boys and girls are divided up and treated differently from the earliest age even in supposedly equal societies such as the UK.

At the end of Dame Professor Athene Donald’s forthcoming Oxford University Press book Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science, she asks when her book will be redundant and she offers that the day will dawn when women don’t have to be ‘extra’ good to get what a mediocre man can get anyway –what she calls the ‘‘likeable versus competent’ conundrum’.

It's a huge theme of the book and it’s what Hilary Clinton faced as a presidential candidate, notes Professor Donald.

Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science could be read as the culmination of a remarkable career as an experimental physicist, because here we have a powerhouse scientist casting her gaze right across the enormous and troubled history of women doing science, having to break down or subtly negotiate the most chronic societal barriers, and then typically having their work traduced or stolen by men even when it was patently better, in fact especially if in that regard it become threatening to male colleagues.

Right at the start Athene throws out a note concerning Germany’s only Nobel prize-winning female scientist, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. She told Der Spiegel:

But some colleagues couldn't bear that I got the prize. I remember the day the news came out: I called the managing director of the institute and said: I got the Nobel Prize and we have to have a party.

The interviewer followed up with ‘How did he react?’ to which she replied:

He said: “‘Can you please organise the champagne yourself? I have no time to take care of that.’

Nüsslein-Volhard won the Nobel in 1995.

Professor Donald offers her own experience, from four years later in 1999:

In my case, I had a professor write to me on my own election [to the Royal Society] saying in a distinctly barbed tone ‘you never know how clever colleagues are around you until they make FRS’.

Athene however also restricts autobiographical content despite being present and alive to the book’s themes.

‘I didn’t want it to become a neat pile of ‘and these were my experiences…’’

The book begins with a wonderfully rich historical cast, and a reminder that in some places and times women seemed to do better, at least briefly and for particular reasons, and that the history of science as a contested, competitive structure is to some extent a function of modernity.

During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, things were a bit looser, at least for a while and in certain settings.

Professor Donald reminds us about Laura Bassi (1711–78), ‘the Italian woman who was awarded a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Bologna in 1732 and subsequently became the first woman to be appointed a professor there, a position she held till her death. Even more remarkably, two years before she died, she was appointed to the Chair in Physics, with her husband as a teaching assistant under her…’

But who remembers Dr Bassi?

Chapter two begins by reminding us that a big European survey in 2014 revealed that a quarter of Europeans couldn’t name a single female scientist, dead or alive. It seemed to be a vast blank in their heads.

‘The Royal Society didn’t admit women to its ranks until 1945, the Chinese Academy of Sciences admitted its first woman in 1955, while the first full member of the French Academy of Sciences wasn’t admitted until 1979.’

These grudging admissions of women to an intensely male fold are all incredibly recent, in fact within living memory.

In some ways it appears to have been the emergence of science as an intricate variety of specialisations that accelerated male-centric rules.

The other way to advance was by rank, so the aristocrat Margaret Cavendish (1623–73) in 1667 attended a Royal Society meeting. At the dawn of a familiar male reaction, she was remarked upon for her clothing by Samuel Pepys and referred to by other men as ‘Mad Madge.’

She, in turn, rejected her male peers as self-important, the emergent profession as suspect.

In an interview for QUAD Professor Donald says that of all the historical women she briefly narrates, perhaps her greatest affinity might be with the German astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750-1848).

‘She wasn’t well off or aristocratic. Everything she did she did from scratch or on the job – really as a spare pair of hands. And then she discovers several comets. I don’t see myself as her exactly, but she falls into that category of ‘my goodness me she must have been a remarkable women’.’

Who do we remember when the name Herschel comes up?

‘It’s invariably [her brother] William Herschel, and her nephew John – they became the FRS’. They’re still remembered.’

The book then opens up into different chapters, breaking down onerous stereotypes, some of them damaging to the whole profession, and studying data around the early year development of children.

The book fizzes with curiosity and the raw excitement of discovering things in science, reminding us that creativity does not belong in a box locked up and labelled ‘arts and humanities.’

Later, in chapters five and six, we are confronted by all manner of excruciating errors committed by journalists and peers and ‘experts’ that betray their own prejudice in favour of men doing science or encouraging women to avoid it, as though the profession or the work itself isn’t quite suitable for women.

Data shows how there is a ‘brilliance’ expectation that popular culture attaches to certain subjects like physics, that is frequently gendered to the benefit of men. ‘Genius’ is typically male, but of course it is also a cultural construct.

Additionally, there is a tired view that says that English literature is ‘creative’ where science is somehow less creative, and again it troops right into an underlying gender view, where women are creative where men are cold and logical.

It’s all a pile of nonsense. The solution, argues Donald, is that ‘Scientists must vocally reclaim creativity as part of their toolkit; a most important part at that.’

Professor Donald would have that science is for everyone.

There’s a lot of career advice in the book for anyone who is aspiring to a career.

Donald cites Ada Yonath, Israeli crystallographer and Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, 2009:

‘I have four tips: 1. Curiosity. Go after your curiosity. 2. More curiosity. 3. Even more curiosity. 4. Passion. It’s not enough to be curious—one has to really love what one does. For men and women, science is demanding and there are many, many dark periods, low periods.’

Professor Donald would love policy makers to read her book, but also anyone aspiring to be a scientist and especially young women and their parents, and colleagues past and present.

It’s a pity that such a book as this has to be written in 2023, but there is no one better positioned to state and re-state the issues than Professor Donald.

The book is a freedom mechanism. Once you have read it you have a clear head again. No, you’re not going mad: gender inequality is still a huge problem even when it was supposed to have been ‘solved’.

Not Just For the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science by Athene Donald (OUP, 2023) will be published in May 2023.

11 February 2023 is the 8th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly, taking place at UN Headquarters in New York.

Dame Athene Donald is Professor Emeritus Master of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge, Master of Churchill College Cambridge and was Cambridge University’s first Gender Equality Champion in 2010.