Julia Higgins: Athena Project

Julia Higgins recalls the start of the Athena Project to advance and promote the careers of women in science.

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You could not, in engineering and physics, be unaware of the fact there weren’t very many of us. I think there had been only one female professor of physics in the whole country. So I was very aware of it but I was very chary about getting involved in sort of grassroots movements, let’s do something about women in science, ‘cause in my view you can’t do anything from grassroots about something like that. You need something from the top. And then I suppose, roundabout the time I – after I became professor, it became more obvious and when I became FRS it was pretty obvious, this business about being untouchable. I could go and talk to people. It wasn’t – my career wasn’t at stake. So I think it does refer a little bit – I don’t think I immediately thought I’m untouchable, I can do things that will upset people, but it’s a little bit part of that. And I got involved with a couple of things and quickly it became obvious that by using that position I could actually start things moving. Not me alone, but I could add it. And about the middle of the ‘90s, there were – other people had been pushing harder than me. I got involved in pushing Imperial College, when I was dean, just about the time I was elected to the Royal Society. Three of us got together and talked to the rector, who was Ron Oxburgh, about the position of women in the college. We could see that there were a lot of unhappy – the women that were there, a lot of them were unhappy, now that's small numbers. So at the rectors’ away day we ran a session on what was – what was known about the position. There’d been one or two surveys and so forth. And a lot of the senior academic staff there said, you know, it was a revelation to them, they didn’t realise this was going on. The rector said to me, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘I would like a rectors’ committee,’ which is the senior level committee, and we set that up in Imperial. So that was Imperial beginning to do things. And that was possible because there were two or three other very senior women in the place. The head of HR, the head of the medical centre, you know, and we started things moving. About that time, two or three people from other universities came and talked to me about whether we ought to be doing something nationally. And the reason – what had prompted them is they’d – one of them was from Cambridge, which was already doing some things, a bit like we were doing in Imperial. They’d been talking to the then head of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, HEFCE, Sir Brian Fender, about the fact that there were so few women in science departments. And he said HEFCE was also worried. I mean, they saw the statistics. And he asked us to come and see him. And we thought he might give us a little bit of money to do something, we were sort of thinking maybe £10,000, £20,000, you know, we could run a few meetings. And he said, ‘What about a quarter of a million?’ [Laughs] Which of course completely changed the – the picture, meant that somebody could be employed to run the thing, that we could actually run projects, we could give out money to universities. So we set up the Athena Project. I believe that I was responsible for choosing the name Athena. I can remember we had a lunch for a number of interested people and we talked about how we were going to set about this, and we wanted a name. And I think it was me who said, ‘What about Athena because she was goddess of wisdom?’ Somebody else pointed out, or subsequently it was pointed out, she was also goddess of a just war, and wisdom and a just war seemed exactly right for what we were wanting to do.

  • Interviewee Julia Higgins
  • Duration 00:03:36
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Thomas Lean
  • Date of interview 12/6/2011
  • Shelfmark C1379/55

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