Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science by Athene Donald

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Review by Liz Dexter

This book is written for anyone who is wondering why, in spite of decades of effort to promote change, the numbers of women pursuing careers in the physical sciences and engineering still remain small an the numbers of women reaching the top of biomedical research are not at all in proportion to those who start out. Despite barriers appearing to have been removed, less visible hurdles remain to trip up many women.

Fellow of the Royal Society and Professor Emerita in Experimental Physics at Churchill College, Cambridge, Athene Donald DBE has spent her career as a physicist at Cambridge and alongside that a Gender Equality Champion, involved in a range of initiatives around women in science. Here she puts her ferocious intellect and research skills to work in looking at why it’s important to have women in science and the gains women bring to the sciences, and investigates how and why the numbers fall off and what we can do about it. She uses her own experiences of barriers and misogyny – dismayingly continuing as she got to mid-career and even the top of her career – and a range of input from other women in various sciences to get the more statistical points across in a way we can all understand. 

In the Preface, Professor Donald lays out the reasons for writing the book: that the old barriers are still there, but made more subtle now as people are aware they can’t (usually) get away with out-and-out blatant sexism (though clearly this still happens, too). She explains that she will talk about how scientific research is actually done – and she does this really well later in the book – to explain how it is creative and isn’t for ivory-towered loners, in an attempt to dispel myths and show it is for everyone.

Through the rest of the book, we learn about important historical female scientists – not just Marie Curie and other obvious ones (how many female scientists can you name, she asks: go on, have a think). She looks at education and the process of the science career, and into this come the statistics on drop-offs as some sciences start off with more women than men undergraduates, but in a “scissor” pattern the ratios always reverse. She looks at why this happens, and the insidious sexism and misogyny women experience at all levels, not just overt attacks, although she’s clear these happen, but microaggressions, omissions, appointments and invitations to apply made in male spaces such as urinals … The gendered language still used in everything from job adverts to references as someone moves on is quite shocking, and it’s clear that a lot of assumptions need to change if women are to advance into particularly the hard sciences like physics. 

In the final chapter, we look at “Where are we going?”, and Professor Donald emphasises the importance of solidarity and also allyship from men (her husband is a great example throughout the book, sharing childcare and giving up his own lucrative career for their family). She includes here an excellent list which she originally published in the Guardian in 2015 which spells out exactly what men and women should be doing to ensure equity in the scientific workplace. 

Professor Donald does make mention of diversity in general and intersectionality across ethnic background, sexual orientation and experiences of living with disability; however, she makes it clear that she is concentrating on gender in this book as it’s her lived experience and what she knows most about. There is clearly room for books on these important topics, too, and she makes it clear that these areas are important and need to be looked at. 

The endnotes of course are full and detailed and there’s an index, too. Statistics are shown in tables and figures which help with their interpretation, and this is an interesting book which fills a gap. 

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Liz Dexter works across the sciences and humanities in her job and retains a lively childhood interest in geology. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Athene Donald, Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science (OUP, 2023) ‎ 978- 0192893406, 276 pp., ill. hardback.

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1 comment

  1. Sounds fascinating Liz, and a reminder of how many things still need to change. My BFF is an experienced and high level scientist, and she still is on the receiving end of sexist assumptions – ridiculous.

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