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Prof Dame Julia Higgins talks to Impolite Science

The Chair of the Athena SWAN project tells us about its vital role in increasing the number of women scientists in the UK

Dame Julia Higgins (photo kindly provided by her)


Professor Dame Julia Higgins has worked in science since the 1960s and seen many changes and improvements over the years. Now retired and in her 70s, she talks to Impolite Science about being a woman in what, until relatively recently, was very much a man’s world.


Professor Higgins’ particular area of expertise is polymer science and she worked most of her academic life at Imperial College London in the department of chemical engineering. She was the first woman to become both a Fellow of the Royal Society and of The Royal Academy of Engineering.


Appointed a dame by the Queen in 2001, she has been instrumental in bringing consideration of gender issues to the political forefront. In 1999, she was appointed Chair of the Athena Project, a UK Government-funded partnership charged with reversing the loss of women employed in science and increasing the representation of women in senior posts in higher education. This led to the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) Charter of which she is now patron.


“When I read Physics in Oxford I was one of only 10 women among 200 students studying the subject,” Prof Higgins tells Impolite Science. “The ratio is still not brilliant but is somewhere around 25 per cent now.  I was promoted to Professor and doubled the number of female professors in Imperial at the time!  I have become used to being the only woman on committees, but it is now great to have many more female colleagues.  It is also true that senior academic leaders are much more aware of the diversity issues in academia and willing to listen and act.


“Rosalind Franklin was not allowed into the academic common room at King’s. This does not and cannot happen now.  I have never faced overt sexism and my male colleagues have always been friendly, supportive and egalitarian, however I still hear about, and even meet myself, many examples of unconscious bias. There is still a lot of work to be done to convince people we are all biased, but also to find ways to combat this.


“I have been fortunate in my colleagues so that, as far as I am concerned, any sexism has been largely from the community rather than colleagues. The most glaring example was from the taxman. When I married in the sixties, I was the wage earner but I received a letter from the tax office saying ‘Madam, for the purposes of income tax your income is deemed to be that of your husband’. I still get hot under the collar when I remember that and I suspect such remarks simply made me more determined!  And of course all of us have been mistaken for the secretary of the committee not the Chair – or even the tea-lady!


“When we set up the Athena Project in 1999, from which the Athena SWAN idea sprang, we called it a project because we intended it to be time-limited.  There is still a great deal to do some 15 or more years later.  I think the SWAN charter will modify its focus over time – as it is already doing – but I am afraid it will be needed for a decade or more at least.”


For further information on the Athena SWAN Charter click here.

Sarah Barnett

About the Writer

Sarah is Impolite Conversation's science editor.


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