Thinking about Compassion

Compassion. That seems to be a word that is much in the air around me recently. I alluded to it in a recent post in the context of the need for self-control, but have discussed it more extensively in the past on this blog. Compassion is all too often absent in academia where competition, one-upmanship and self-importance can rule the roost. It was therefore heartening recently, when participating in a discussion about the challenges facing leaders in different sectors over the next 25 years as part of the Møller’s Centre’s 25th Anniversary celebrations (the Møller Centre is attached to Churchill College and specialises in Executive Training including in Leadership), to hear compassion given prominence. The panel involved highly experienced leaders from very different spheres including Lord Alderdice (a key figure in the Northern Ireland peace process) and former Danish Ambassador Claus Grube amongst others. One of the panel members is a regular contributor to the Møller Centre programmes, Ruth Berry, and she identified a key ingredient in leadership as being compassion.

Without compassion she clearly felt that leaders could not lead effectively in taking their teams forward through difficult times. And, in her mind, there is no doubt that the present turbulent and uncertain times are difficult. If people are frightened they cannot do their jobs to the best of their ability. If they fear being bullied they will not take risks to deliver bigger outcomes. It makes perfect sense, but I fear some of our academic colleagues have not thought of things in this way. It is easy to be misled into thinking slave-driving is the way to get the most out of, for instance, PhD students. People such as the group leader who complains if students are not at the bench before 8am or dare to leave before 9pm: such people exist. Perhaps they themselves thrived on such a lifestyle and do not realise that it doesn’t work for everyone.  For some people some of the time it may be the right thing to do, but it should never be imposed at risk of ‘punishment’ if not delivered. Punishment in this context could mean exclusion from a paper’s author list or no opportunity to present their work – even if it really is their work. It happens, I fear far too often.

At every stage in the professional hierarchy such non-compassionate behaviour can be perceived, closely allied to what I imprecisely refer to as the ‘mine’s bigger’ school of doing science. The couple of professors I heard recently boasting of how they had ‘turned down jobs at Princeton’ over the dinner table; was this a form of intimidation and/or just a reflection of their own self-doubt? The professor in another University who claimed his office was larger than his very own Vice Chancellor’s – a literal form of ‘mine’s bigger’: what message was he trying to brainwash me with subliminally? Or how about the professor who demanded certain ‘rights’ for his group from the head of the department, making life difficult for others around him, only for it to transpire these rights were never needed or used. These tactics are unhelpful and destructive to those around; such people are not likely to be compassionate towards the student struggling with their own insecurities (not least because I sneakily believe such professorial behaviour is closely allied to insecurities of their own). No, they are more likely to be the ones requiring the student to be metaphorically chained to the bench so that their own h index can be inflated or their grant income multiplied.

Athena Swan is one strand in trying to eradicate this culture of the jerks. You know a department hasn’t got it right when a female staff member bursts into tears when trying to describe what her work environment is like. You know things are astray when the students from different groups don’t mix and there is no way to break the silos down. Obtaining an Athena Swan award mustn’t simply be about improving the statistics relating to numbers of women in the department at every level (although women not sticking around may be a bad indicator); it needs to address a far more fundamental cultural shift in the work environment for everyone. I have yet to come across a department that offers training in compassion, or seminars on how to avoid self-aggrandisement. I am not even sure business leadership training verges into such territory, but perhaps the office party would be a good moment for party games to mock the egotistical and slave-driver professor so that they face up to their own misdemeanours, for the good of all around.

As Research Councils get more serious about diversity issues – note the recent call from the EPSRC for innovative programmes to embed and research the issues about inclusion and diversity in its broadest sense – maybe departments will realise, even if only because of self-interest – that training in many aspects of self-awareness (unconscious bias being an obvious example, but what I allude to above cover many other manifestations) is vital for their department’s health, wealth and well-being.

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Dusty Files and Old-fashioned Methods

It’s that time of year again when lecturers dust down their files, refresh their memories, and stride out to inspire the next generation of freshers keen to take down their every word. Except, it’s not like that any more. That was how it used to be; I still have the files to prove it. Indeed, the first lecture course I ever gave was essentially identical to the one I had myself received as an undergraduate on the subject of Electromagnetism. When the previous lecturer passed over his notes to me, the similarity to what I had taken down more than ten years previously was striking. I tried to ‘personalise’ the lectures, but there is a limit to how original one can be on first year electromagnetism. Maxwell’s Equations are Maxwell’s Equations.

It is curious to think how the world of lecturing has changed. Firstly, students now do not take notes. I was never taught to take notes, but somehow one managed to do it. I look back at those dusty files of my own and I am, frankly, astonished. My writing these days is barely legible, but then I could sit for hour after hour taking meticulous, beautiful notes. Titles neatly underlined in red, diagrams sketched on the spot, equations in neat red boxes. The proof is in the image. Since all lectures were given (back then) using blackboard and chalk I am, frankly, astonished that they could even be read from the back of the lecture theatre.


By the time I got to give my first lecture, styles had progressed: it was handwriting on the spot onto an overhead projector. (Or was it? I really can’t remember if I lectured for a year or two on the blackboard before the OHP innovation came to pass in Cambridge.) I would return from each lecture with the side of my writing hand an attractive shade of blue from smudging what I had written previously; the finger tips were also stained deeply from trying to erase the sketches that hadn’t quite worked first time. It was all done live on the spot. Again, I had to worry about making my handwriting legible, but size of writing was less of a problem due to the magnifying effect of the OHP.

No one thought to provide training for new lecturers. When I first turned up the technician in charge of the lecture theatre reassured me he was sure I would do better than the lecturer whose course had just finished. He was an eminent professor of physics, whereas I was still a mere University Research Fellow who had been asked to step up to fill the shoes of a lecturer who had left at fairly short notice. Entertainingly, said professor had been deluged with 155 paper darts (the number has stuck in my mind) in the final lecture as students expressed their displeasure with his course. (I never did get paper missiles tossed in my direction; the technician was right.)

Not only did I get no training, no one even thought to explain the basic mechanisms, such as where I was to lecture, where I waited before 9am struck or what I ought to do about demonstrations. That first year I was so nervous about my delivery I got up a couple of hours early and literally talked through each lecture word for approximate word,  before getting on my bike to head off to the lecture theatre for the 9am start. The second year I skipped this step as my energy levels were too low to do this. I was about six months pregnant by then (but I had moved up from URF to the grade of Lecturer) and I was more worried about whether the students in the front row, invariably male, would be disturbed by the sight of my baby’s kicks through my dungarees.  I was never at any point given the opportunity to be videoed, nor offered advice until many years later. As I say, times have changed.

As time went on, I progressed from writing on the OHP with no lively demos to break the rhythm. Somewhat later, when I wrote a new lecture course on Waves (also, initially for first year students) I got my hands on some demonstrations. I particularly enjoyed bowing Chladni’s plate. This consists of a square metal plate dusted with sand (labelled as from Hunstanton in the sprinkler I was provided with) which can set up standing waves – meaning that the sand dances into beautiful shapes – when a bow is applied in the right place. When it isn’t, absolutely nothing happens of course. But get it right and the resonance rings out around the lecture theatre, frequently resulting in spontaneous applause. A good feeling, but not a reliable outcome. (Most recently I had a YouTube video up my laptop’s sleeve of course, in case I failed to find the sweet spot.)  By this point I had progressed also to pre-written transparencies and comprehensive lecture note handouts. Handouts, I should have said, were sparse when I was a student. The only lecturer who used them did not use them wisely. He essentially read the text. We all went to sleep, often, I suspect, literally. It has to have been the most boring course I ever attended during my undergraduate years.

Finally Powerpoint arrived. For good or ill I think this will be the last format I have to endure as a lecturer. I have mixed views about it. It certainly means that diagrams can be perfect, that demos and videos are easily embedded and everything should run smoothly. No more finding the smudges have rendered the equations illegible; no more attempting to draw some three dimensional object representing a key physical insight in real time in front of eager students just waiting for you to mess up.  But so much expectation of total perfection from the students, less tolerance over missing minus signs than my generation exhibited, and in some ways a much more passive experience.

My astonishingly neat lecture notes mean that somehow I was capable of listening, watching the lecturer, and transcribing essentially simultaneously. And transcribing what was said in adequate detail that I could use these notes for revision without significant amplification (although occasional corrections were required where I had fallen behind). I am astounded by that virtuosity which I believe was actually a very useful life-skill, although one that I barely have occasion to use by this point. But I also think – and no doubt educators could tell me if I’m right – that the act of hard concentration that this required, the act of taking ideas and writing them down by my very own actions, helped to embed the equations and concepts in my brain. I do not regret this, even whilst knowing there is no way back to this primitive lecturing style.

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Tears and Smiles

There is always some trigger for blogposts, sometimes from the news, sometimes from one’s daily life. It is rare that my trigger is someone else’s blog but so it is today. This blog is written by a person who I happen to know was encouraged to start writing her own blog by reading mine, so it is probably an appropriate circle-closing to take her recent theme and develop it in my own colours.

The person concerned is the Australian crystallographer and structural biologist, Jenny Martin, who now directs the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery. She writes movingly and persuasively about many matters academic, but earlier this year she lost her mother   – as I had some months earlier. She, like me, was silenced in her blog writing by the event: in her case it has taken her over six months to write again, longer than my personal gap although there has been more than one ‘intermission’ in my case. Now she has written about the strength her mother gave her and the messages she received as a child which she has carried on into professional life as she discusses the ‘failures’ which do not normally show up in a CV.

I would like to take a different aspect of grieving to use to pay my respects, once again, to all my mother taught me. One that is much on my mind at the moment as the new academic year has got underway. The need to subsume one’s own feelings in order to get on with the job. Or, as I tend to think of it, as acting. When my mother died in May 2016 I dropped everything I could so as to cope. But there were things I did not feel I could escape and I had to learn to put on a mask and smile my way through dinners and committees when all I wanted to do was weep (literally and metaphorically) or simply stare into space. I kept going with exam marking, knowing that not to do so would have caused all kinds of problems for the department, even though much of this had to be done even before the funeral. To make it worse, I knew that in previous years at the time of another family death I had ended up having to remark papers because my rawness had made me such a fierce marker (but not this time).

My mother, like many of those of her generation who lived through the horrors of the Second World War and the deaths of loved ones, did not believe in giving in to one’s emotions. I don’t ever recall seeing her cry, even when her own parents died, although she may of course have done that in the privacy of her bedroom.  That was all part of the stiff upper lip mentality it is so easy now to mock. But there is a time and place for grief and personal mourning; when entertaining a major college benefactor is not the moment. And so, within just a couple of weeks of my bereavement there I was smiling across the dinner table and fooling the collective diners that all was well within my Churchillian world. Since then I have continued to smile, to act, until it has become second nature. I think, as a Head of House (to use the Cambridge term), that is my responsibility and, at times, my burden. But as the memory of a summer vacation, pleasantly empty of the prescribed accoutrements of a college life, fades and formal dinners, speeches, committees and general social interactions take over, I have to take up that mantle again and shed any grieving memories for long enough to ‘perform’.

Having, all my life been told I was ‘too emotional’, that as a woman I should never show any signs of tearing up; having been told I couldn’t ever be a good poker player (not that I was trying) because what I feel is so transparently obvious, it is ironic that in my later years I have become so adept at this. It is what my mother would have wanted – although I’m sure it’s not what she would have expected of her younger daughter who tended to be so easily read. It is a skill that I don’t regret. But rather as Douglas Adams (I think it was) wanted an ‘off’ switch for children, an idea with which most parents would most probably agree, so I think I want an ‘off’ switch for my poker face once I retreat from the public eye. The trouble with the stiff upper lip is that it is so hard to let it go. Those who remember the criticisms levelled at the Royal Family in the wake of Princess Diana’s death will know being uptight can get you into all kinds of trouble if you choose your moments wrong.

I wrote previously about the need for compassion in the hurly-burly of academic life. One may expect students occasionally to need a box of Kleenex but I have appraised staff members who break down as they talk about the challenges they face in work-life balance or issues regarding their children. While tears on the conference platform are inappropriate, I have no issue with a lecturer who is struggling and let’s their mask slip when being appraised. But I’m not sure a College Master who burst into tears when welcoming the Freshers at their Matriculation Dinner would be quite such a good idea. At this time of year, my personal thoughts must be put back into their personal Pandora’s Box.

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Nice Girls don’t Ask – but Should

In the unfolding furore about the published gender pay gap at the BBC, the situation was not improved by the comments of Philip Hampton who implied that women had ‘let it happen’ and ‘weren’t doing much about it’. Given that he is co-chair of a Government-commissioned review charged with increasing the number of women in senior roles in FTSE 350 firms, along with Helen Alexander, his remarks provoked particular ire (including from me). He claimed that he had never had a woman come to him requesting a pay-rise – but with attitudes like his it is not difficult to see why. Indeed, by and large, if women do attempt to negotiate a pay increase they are likely to be less successful than men. As a (fairly old) Harvard Business Review article on women’s attempts at negotiations put it

‘Women who assertively pursue their own ambitions and promote their own interests may be labeled as bitchy or pushy. They frequently see their work devalued and find themselves ostracized or excluded from access to important information.’  .

But what if a pay-rise can come about without any face-to-face negotiation? Are women more likely to be willing to fill in a form and submit it to a nameless committee? No one (other than the half dozen or so on the committee) need know that a particular woman had the temerity to ask to move up the scale. Like academic promotions, however, it does need the woman to apply. In Cambridge, when all the evidence – both from the national ASSET survey and local focus groups – indicated that women felt badly-informed about the promotion process itself, a series of information fora were set up, which have been run – for men and women alike – to make sure those eligible to apply were well-placed to do so. Additionally, CV mentoring is offered to everyone who wants it to make sure they make the best possible case. I haven’t seen an analysis published about the consequences of either of these on applications and success by gender, but I hope someone in the university has looked into it.

Once an academic has become a professor, progression from Band 1 up to Band 4 is available in principle, with increments within each band also potentially available. (To calibrate, in Cambridge an FRS, FREng or FBA roughly translates into a Band 2 level, so many professors will never progress beyond Band 1.) Every two years the opportunity to apply for these pay awards is run in a competition known as the Professorial Pay Review. All it requires is a short account of recent progress (since the last pay award) to accompany the statement of activity that professors are expected to fill in anyhow each year.

The results of the last Professorial Pay Review have just been published, with breakdowns by School (equivalent to Faculty in most universities) and gender. With still only around 20% of all professors now being women, in some instances the numbers remain very small, but nevertheless I thought it would be interesting to do a little analysis to see what the figures revealed. Do they support the idea that women won’t apply for more money, even in a suitably faceless way?

The figures can of course be analysed in many ways; the starting position (before the exercise) shows that there was a slightly higher percentage of women remaining in Band 1 than men, with that shortfall largely being taken up by a higher percentage of men in Band 3.  First I considered whether there was evidence to suggest women were being shy about applying. Of the total men and women eligible to apply, 35% of men and 48% of women did. That answers the question pretty conclusively. Women were perfectly willing to apply. Indeed, apparently more willing than men. Women weren’t too nice to ask in this (faceless, non-negotiation) case. What these two bits of evidence suggest is that women, who have probably been more recently promoted to professor and hence still in Band 1, may not yet consider they have reached their ‘proper’ level but some percentage of men may feel they have progressed as far as they are likely to do and so don’t bother to apply. That is only a supposition, but it strikes me as plausible.

If women were more than willing to apply, the obvious next question is what about their success rates. Women were successful in 91% of their applications, whereas men only managed a success rate of 80% overall. This looks like excellent news in the sense it would seem women are not only putting themselves forward, but when they do they are extremely likely to succeed. Although a significantly lower percentage of the male professoriat was willing to apply, those who did were not self-selecting to be those most likely to succeed.

There are various ways one could interpret the data: that some men are still over-confident about their abilities would be one version. Another might be women were getting the sympathy vote. I suspect it is more subtle than either of those versions. I believe it is probably just an extension of my interpretation of the last sentence of the last paragraph: women are still finding their appropriate place in the hierarchy. Many will be relatively newly promoted (and possibly, although this needs a different analysis, being promoted at a relatively later stage than men) and recognize that there are opportunities to progress further. As one might expect from this analysis, most of the awards are increments within Band 1 (66% of the successful women’s applications and 63% of the men’s).

There is not much variability between Schools. This is complicated because the numbers of professors vary greatly between different parts of the university and the percentage of women in the Schools of Physical Sciences and Technology is much, much lower than in (for instance) Arts and Humanities. In some cases the numbers are too small to be statistically significant. In every School women’s success rate was higher than men’s, with the greatest difference being in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences where all women received an award and only two thirds of the men.

Of course, this analysis leaves out one enormous topic which probably, more than anything else, determines the gender pay gap amongst the professoriat in Cambridge: negotiation upon appointment for those appointed externally or negotiation to match a salary offered by another institution. The 2016 Equal Pay Review shows a 3.9% gap at Grade 12 (but this includes academic-related senior staff as well as professors). However, if attention is only focussed on so-called ‘market supplements’, which amount to extra pay paid over and above a grading in order to be able to recruit or retain a staff member, around 75% of these go to men and the average amount paid to women (£12, 975) is over £3000 less than paid to men (£16, 290). Furthermore a higher proportion of the additional payments to men were for retention purposes: this suggests men may acquire counter offers to boost their chances of a pay increase by negotiation. Women may either play this game less or be less mobile and so unlikely to seek a position in another university in the first place.

It is in these negotiations that the rot sets in and we really see that ‘nice girls don’t ask’ – or at least they don’t ask for enough. I wish we could simply get rid of these sort of negotiations so no one had to get into such a bargaining position.


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Equality, Chattels and Judgement

What was called spirit and wit in him, was cruelly repressed in me’. It is interesting to try to date this quote from a female character in a novel, because the sentiment (if not the phrasing) could still be written today. It is in fact from Mary Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel Maria which has the sub-title The Wrongs of Women. I came across this quote included in Claire Tomalin’s 1974 biography of Wollstonecraft, which I have just finished reading (The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft). It struck a chord because one can so easily imagine a young woman expressing the same point of view today, contrasting how she and her brother might be treated (although there is probably less likelihood of cruelty in response to stepping out of line these days). Or by a woman sitting on a committee where speaking up might be seen as inappropriate but expected of every man round the table.

Sheryl Sandberg has complained about how the word bossy is used about women when behaving in a way that would simply be seen as leadership in a man. Other words that are unpleasantly attributed to that outspoken woman might be strident or aggressive. Women are simply damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they speak up they are marked down for unfeminine behaviour; if they keep mum (what is the etymology of that usage?) they are regarded as not-leadership material or incompetent. Now yet another report, this time international, has shown how women are marked down by university students in course assessments, again regardless of how they behave, again evidence provided not for the first time. The idea that a student can mark a reading list down when provided by a woman compared with exactly the same list provided by a man beggars belief. Does our education system – anywhere in the world – really not teach our students to be objective? Is this all about emotion? Oh no, I forgot, men aren’t emotional – at least no doubt that is what some of the students would claim. The trouble is, these scores matter: they can affect tenure and promotion decisions. A student’s casual dissing of their female lecturers can have direct impact on the career prospects of these women, regardless of their abilities.

Cordelia Fine has won this year’s Royal Society book prize for her excellently-argued and well-informed book Testosterone Rex . This book debunks many of the well-worn myths, such as those about women not being risk takers in the same way as men, or being naturally nurturing while men aren’t. Just as in her earlier book Delusions of Gender she points out that the science doesn’t provide the evidence that many commentators attempt to extract from experiments on young children’s minds. There are no pink brains or blue brains. We all simply sit somewhere on a spectrum of attributes, and where we sit between the two extremes will depend on exactly what attribute is being considered. So I could (though I’m not saying I am), for instance, be both reckless and nurturing without any problems, although the former would classically be identified as ‘male’, the latter as ‘female’. Wanting to risk all my money on roulette would not imply I couldn’t care for an elderly relative.

Do we have to spoon feed these ideas, produce the Ladybird version of Testosterone Rex for 6 year olds, if we are to have any hope of changing our society? Is that what it would take to stop the rubbish directed at women who wish to step up to a leadership role, deliver lectures or be the German Chancellor?

One attempt to change the way young women may view themselves, to encourage them to imagine themselves as future leaders, is being driven by Edwina Dunn’s project The Female Lead. This project has various strands, ranging from a substantial book with the life stories (and stunning photos) of 60 women in very different spheres ranging from Meryl Streep to Christiane Amanpour (disclosure: I am one of them) to events and media stories. The book has been sent to thousands of secondary schools around the country to encourage girls to think again about what they might achieve. But, as the examples I give here demonstrate, aspiring is only half the story. Those whom you come up against have to make it possible for you to thrive. This project cannot address the inherent prejudices in others, only help you cope with them.

For indeed there are those who apparently think that women are on a witch hunt against men; that things have gone too far in the tech industry and it is time we rowed back from equality drives. If you don’t recognize those phrases you probably haven’t been irritated or appalled by a recent article in the New York Times written in the wake of the Google memo about diversity written by the now ex-Google employer James Damore. Sexual politics have not gone away.

Mary Wollstonecraft bewailed the lack of opportunities women had in England at the time of the French Revolution. She went to Paris to see for herself whether French women really had gained freedoms under the revolutionary changes, but was disillusioned by the time she returned to London three years later (and also pretty disillusioned in the man – Gilbert Imlay –  she’d attempted to live with, untrammelled by marriage). Robespierre’s France ended up giving women no more freedoms than the British Government. Women remained subordinate, denied the vote and in the main treated as their father’s or husband’s chattels.

Women may now be on the electoral roll and I doubt the word chattel crosses many men’s lips, but nevertheless there are many who suffer direct harassment and violence, whose careers are impeded by managers (who may be women as well as men) who cannot believe women can cope with stress or take on a leadership role. Universities are not likely to be the worst offenders in this regard but, as student surveys invariably exhibit, sexism is endemic even in the well-educated and the generation one might have thought were finally shedding old-fashioned ideas of patriarchy. Apparently not.

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