Athene Donald – the First Woman Master of Churchill College

This article was published in the Churchill Review, Vol 59. Professor Dame Athene Donald is a physicist
and the Master of Churchill College.

I’ve been asked to comment on what it’s felt like to be the first female Master of Churchill for this Review in the 50th year since women were first admitted to the College. In brief, everyone – Fellows, students, staff and alumni – have been entirely welcoming and in no sense have I felt my gender got in the way of good relations or prevented my voice being heard and taken seriously. Maybe senior women elsewhere in Cambridge Colleges would not say the same. 

 Interview process and election 

 Other, older colleges had approached me prior to the letter inviting me to apply to be Master of Churchill, but Churchill appealed in a way the others had not. Its focus on science and technology has always made it special within the Cambridge system, and it made it especially attractive to me as a physicist. The interview process itself was pretty gruelling, stretching over two days. Some of that may have been meant to be informal, but I felt sure everything I said would be scrutinised, even apparently light dinner conversation. When I heard I’d been elected, impostor syndrome came to the fore, and I wondered how I’d be able to fulfil all the different strands of the role effectively. It took quite a long time for the formal approval to come from No 10 (the Mastership is a so-called Regius appointment), during which I had opportunities to talk about the nature of the role in more detail with key people in the College. Perhaps one of the few issues that arose at that point about being a woman was the question of title. Ken Siddle asked me my views about being called ‘Master’, but it wasn’t (and isn’t) something I feel very strongly about, and so the title stood.  

Some curiosity about me 

Matthew and I were able to move into the Lodge at the start of September 2014, after it had been completely refurbished, which gave us a month to get to know the College before term started and I formally took over: a real advantage. As I got to meet the Fellowship, I may have felt there was a little curiosity about me, but at no point did I feel there was any negativity around me being the first female Master. I feel sure that any new Master is ‘inspected’ with curiosity. Everyone made me feel very welcome.  

Towards a more diverse Fellowship  

Having said that, those first weeks and months feel something of a blur. So much information to take in, so many people to meet and remember. Perhaps if the gender balance in the Fellowship had been closer to parity, I’d have found it a little easier to distinguish some of them. Who knows? Moving towards a more diverse Fellowship I think is a shift that broadly is supported, but it isn’t that easy and will take a long time – even to get to a 50:50 gender split, let alone electing more people of different ethnicities.  

I well remember one Fellow saying, early on over lunch, that the issues over a lack of women in the College, specifically in Mathematics, would be solved with a female head. I pointed out that I didn’t feel that would at all solve the problem, as indeed has proved to be the case. Nevertheless, having noted at the 2015 Matriculation Dinner just how few female Freshers there were (28% that year, I recall) and remarking on this to the Senior Tutor, he immediately took it upon himself and the Admissions team to work on the problem and there is now much more of a focus on this issue during the Admissions process. Having reached essentially gender parity in 2020, I was very glad to see that figure held up in 2021 too. There is, as I have said regarding the Fellowship, much more work to be done about broader issues around inclusion. 

Women’s voices  

This College has always made both Matthew and myself feel welcome. I have never felt my words weren’t listened to as a woman, or that I was viewed with suspicion because of my gender. However, where I have really noticed a change around women at the top has been outside this College within the wider University. When I started as Master, about 1/3 of the other Heads of House were women. Several of us amongst that group definitely felt women were seen as outsiders and their voices weren’t heard equally. But now, when that proportion has risen to essentially equal numbers of men and women, the sense I get when we are all gathered together is that things have really moved on. Everyone does seem to be treated equally and there is no sense that women’s voices are less listened to. It’s there that I notice the real difference since I started in this role. The College has always been great, as I’m sure it will continue to be.