CULTURAL STEREOTYPES – ATHENE DONALD

CULTURAL STEREOTYPES – ATHENE DONALD

 

As a Professor of Physics, the Hay Festival is perhaps not exactly my usual environment and this was my first visit. I had little idea what to expect, although (scientific) colleagues had waxed lyrical about their own visits. I deliberately chose a topic that I felt would have general appeal. Although I work on what I think of as the ‘physics of the everyday’ which can be made pretty non-technical, I still felt it might not appeal broadly. So, I chose to talk about ‘How cultural stereotypes damage innovation’. I care passionately about the way our society – the UK seems particularly bad at this – steer our children in gendered ways essentially from birth. Indeed we seem to have gone backwards in the sorts of toys we offer boys and girls or the choices in work experience that schools make available.

As a female physicist it depresses me that the number of girls taking physics A levels remains stubbornly around 20%. We are losing the talent of essentially half our population by this cultural stereotyping seen ubiquitously in the marketing of toys. I was delighted to find I was talking to an engaged audience, an audience bursting with thoughtful questions when I had finished speaking and who continued to challenge me outside the hall when I had to vacate the platform. I am sure there must have been men in that audience but I could not hope noticing every single question came from a woman.

I enjoyed my first foray to a ‘literary’ festival. I had no book to advance, but I was stimulated by the audience and the general buzz. I was impeccably looked after and I certainly felt the very tedious cross-country train journey between Cambridge and Hereford necessitated by the invitation to speak was well worth the effort.