Single Sex Schools Help Women Break into the Science World
Single sex schools help women become scientists because there is nobody to tell them that they should not be in the lab, Dame Mary Archer has said.
Dame Mary, who has just become chair of London’s Science Museum, said she gained her love for the subject while a student at Cheltenham Ladies’ College where she had the same chemistry teacher as Margaret Thatcher.
“Going to a single-sex school is quite a traditional route for women my age into science because nobody said ‘You shouldn’t do that, dear’ — not until it is too late anyway,” she told the Evening standard.
Dame Mary, 70, went on to come top in her year at Oxford University where she studied chemistry. Just eight per cent of students in her year were women.
“We were rare birds — quite literally,” she said. “I think I quite enjoyed that. It wasn’t until I became a lecturer at Cambridge that I [saw] glass ceilings. But by then your temperament is set: you’re unstoppable.”
When she was studying, funding was bountiful. She believes it is “much harder” now for students. “The debt is something I never had around my neck.”
The former Cambridge University lecturer said that girls of today need to learn that donning a lab coat is not a sign of masculinity. “Among the things that can turn [girls] off are very daunting role models: we can’t all be Marie Curie, nor do we all want to be.”
“For girls aged 12 to 14, a feminine self-image is important. There’s a sense that ‘I can’t be as womanly as a scientist as I could be as a beautician or a journalist’.”
Dame Mary said she was excited about talking on the role of Science Museum chair. “It hardly feels like a job,” she said. “I feel like a child let loose in Hamleys without adult supervision.”
She was 10 when she conducted her first experiment: tying an earthworm into a knot to see if it could untie itself. It couldn’t. “It’s a good job I wasn’t a trained scientist or I’d have knotted a hundred earthworms to make the results statistically significant.”
She has been married to politician and author Jeffrey Archer for nearly 50 years. Asked the secret of the longevity of their marriage she said: “Not expecting everything to be perfect.
“Shared interests: we both love the theatre, art and our children — they are a great binding force, and being interested in each other.
“We are very different people and our life paths have been very different but I am genuinely interested in his news, and he’s always been hugely supportive.”