Pioneering Female Physicist on Challenging Sexism in the Workplace

A pioneering female physicist who has had to overcome casual sexism as she has gone on to excel in her career.

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Pioneering Female Physicist on Challenging Sexism in the Workplace

This episode of Our Voices tells the remarkable story of pioneering female physicist Dame Athene Donald and how she has had to overcome casual sexism as she has gone on to excel in her career. 

Athene’s experiences show how males’ attitudes within the scientific community, and in society more generally, so often act as a barrier to women becoming involved in science. We learn how, as a result, Athene has become an advocate for women. She is using her journey and success to show young women that a successful pathway in the sciences could also exist for them.

Childhood observations and growing interest in physics

Athene’s first sense that a career in physics was meant for her came when she was a young child. She was sick and had to stay in bed. During this time, she describes noticing something that intrigued her.

 “I remember shutting one eye and then the other eye and seeing how my nose got in the way.” 

It would turn out that Athene had discovered how light travels in a straight line but she wouldn’t have the words to articulate this until she began taking physics at school. “My memory is that, as soon as I was off at physics, I just thought, yeah, that’s it… it just made sense to me.”

A natural physicist

It was clear that Athene had an interest in physics from a young age. She was particularly intrigued by “everyday stuff”, the sorts of things you could see around you but needed physics to truly explain.

Fortunately, she had a supportive physics teacher but it was extremely uncommon for women to pursue physics when she was at school. Talking about her other female classmates, she says “Nearly all of them went into the arts. That’s just how it was.”

Life-changing news

Despite the above, none of Athene’s male classmates or male teachers ever told her that physics wasn’t for girls. So she continued her studies with confidence until she received some truly life-changing news.

She was performing in a concert with most of her family in attendance when her grandfather entered the school dressed in an overcoat and pyjamas. He had got out of bed to reveal to the family that a telegram of acceptance from Cambridge University had arrived. She had been accepted to study physics.

Initial discomfort

Athene’s choice of studies would cause some discomfort to those around her. When she announced at a party that she was off to Cambridge to study physics, she says “that was just the end of the conversation. I certainly very strongly got the impression that this was just beyond the pale.

It wasn’t what they were expecting, and they weren’t comfortable with it.” This would continue to be the case throughout Athene’s career as a female physicist.

Facing further discrimination as a female physicist

Athene gained her bachelor’s degree and then went on to study a PhD at Cornell University in New York. She was the first female postdoctoral student in her department and her presence there continued to cause discomfort and confusion.

An example of this occurred when she went to the faculty library to borrow a book “ they looked at me, and they accused me of having stolen my husband’s faculty card… I was so incensed. I was so angry. But it was just that feeling that they could not imagine that I could be serious, that I was a proper researcher.”

Casual sexism

Other examples of casual sexism occurred when Athene became a member of a university committee. The chairman addressed those in attendance as “gentlemen”, such sexist language completely excluded Athene’s existence in the room.

Athene’s complaints about this example of casual sexism were ignored until another male in the committee challenged the chairman’s behaviour. “You need allies… I think it’s hugely important… When it comes to gender, men have a hugely important role to play.”

A humiliating encounter

Athene’s pioneering studies as a female physicist would lead her to polymers in the 1980s and ‘90s. Her research was unique in that it often encompassed elements of biology as well as physics. 

In the late ‘90s she gave a speech on the physics of food, which was an overall success. But, later that evening, one individual at the event accosted Athene while she was having a drink with a friend. “He just started having a right go at me for working in this area that ‘wasn’t proper science’.” 

He went on to compare Athene’s groundbreaking research to home cooking. Athene simply left the bar because she was so upset. “I’ve never walked out of a conversation like that any other time in my life…  it was quite clear, there was no reasoning with this guy. He wasn’t he wasn’t talking seriously to me. It was just a tirade.”

Athene’s friend attempted to stick up for her but he also ended up leaving the bar. It was clear that the attack had occurred just because she was a female physicist.

Everyday sexism at work

Talking about the present: Athene believes that the situation has improved for women in science. However, women are still hugely underrepresented in physics and there is still a lot of everyday sexism at work. 

“We’re still a minority and people still forget to invite you to the pub after work, they talk over you in meetings. There are still ways in which the male majority in a field like mine doesn’t quite take women seriously sometimes.” 

Campaigning for equality

Such everyday sexism at work has led Athene to becoming a supporter for getting women involved in science. “Within my university, I was the first gender equality champion, not just for science, but across the board.” 

She also became the director of Cambridge University’s – Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative. And she became chairwoman of the Athena Forum, an organisation that aims to advance women in science, technology, maths and medicine in UK higher education. 

Becoming a role model as a pioneering female physicist

On top of this, in 2010, Athene was awarded a DBE in 2010. This would raise her profile immeasurably. Talking about becoming a Dame, Athene says “I’m sure it gave me a platform and a voice and that people took me more seriously, even if I was exactly the same person.” It is clear that Athene’s profile makes her a natural role model for women in science. But this isn’t something that she is completely comfortable with.

 “I think it is necessary and I have kind of embraced it without really wanting it”. 

Athene has taken on the role because it has been necessary to challenge sexist attitudes, casual sexism and sexist language. By doing so, she provides an opportunity for more female physicists to follow in her footsteps.

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