Who Do You Think You Are?

This is not about the TV programme of the same name. I would not be a good contender for that because, at least on one side of the family, I know quite a lot about my antecedents so I doubt they could dig up surprises about my grandparents (as a child I lived with two of them right up till their deaths and we had a filing cabinet of even earlier diaries dating back to the 1880s or so). On the contrary, this post is about how you view yourself – either as a person or a professional – and how that may square or jar with how others see you and the comments they make to you in person.

There are of course the inappropriate and/or ambiguous comments such as

‘you look stunning in that dress’

when you’ve just given a major talk at a conference, that variously come across as just creepy or as an unwelcome come-on that costs energy to deal with. I’m not wanting to discuss those either. There are the genuinely uplifting ones that make you feel good about yourself: ‘you chaired that meeting really well’ for instance, or ‘that was an illuminating paper of yours, I learned so much’. These are of course the ones each of us treasure, but which perhaps come our way less often than we might like. But the ones that are either hard to deconstruct or that simply don’t fit with your personal assessment of yourself can be somewhat disturbing, provoking reflection or anxiety upon occasion.

I have written in the past about the word ‘passion’ or ‘passionate’ ascribed to a presentation. For me, as I explained nearly a decade ago now (gulp, how time flies) in that relatively early post of mine, I find that word uncomfortable. I hear it as implying that I was excessive in my style of presentation, not entirely lady-like and therefore that I was in some senses transgressing. Many people might hear it and react to the word differently. Perhaps when people have said that I was passionate I really should have taken it as a compliment and the sneering I hear beneath the veneer was just because the speaker had a cold. I don’t know. Others can judge when that word is tossed in their direction whether to be flattered or not.

Then there are the words and phrases that are even more obviously gendered such as feisty or not a shrinking violet, as well as the ones that are somewhat unpalatable but may contain more than a grain of truth –

‘you talk too fast for a non-English speaking audience’

is one such I recall after speaking at an international conference. I’ve written before about the gendered ones that may turn up in a letter of reference such as hard-working and conscientious; you’re not so likely to hear about them since they won’t be directed actually at you. I hope such gendering of references is getting well-recognized even if not (yet) eradicated.

No, the ones I am thinking of are the ones that are positive but just feel as if they should be addressed to someone else. My late mother always used to find it funny that her National Trust coach trip companions attributed a good sense of direction to her. In practice she knew (as did we all) that she was useless on this front, but she had once found the way to an out-of-sight café on one of their excursions, and ever afterwards had a reputation for being able to find her way around. That statement definitely (and rightly) contradicted her own sense of self.

For me, in a professional setting I find it bizarre to have ‘poise’ attributed to me at a time when I know I’m quaking in my boots or otherwise in bad shape; or to be told that I had managed a difficult companion well on a committee, when my sense was that I hadn’t a clue how to shut them up and had, on the contrary, permitted them to dominate the meeting to everyone else’s detriment. Sometimes I stop to think if that action – whatever it was – was noticeably better than average then I need to recalibrate. Because, of course, when someone praises you and you think they are being ridiculous the answer is probably you are suffering – yet again – from impostor syndrome. We should not forget this, nor that a large proportion of us suffer from it. I am reminded of this by a conversation I had recently with a Churchill alum, an award-winning alum I should say, although from a world far removed from HE, who explained just how often they felt that disconnect of impostor syndrome. Just because they have won multiple awards in their field does not make the underlying anxiety ever go away.

So, the next time someone compliments you and you feel ‘who, me? I’m rubbish’ remember you are not alone. I have no advice to give you, since impostor syndrome seems (from my own experience) to lurk permanently just below the surface, except remember that that sensation does not equate to being rubbish. It probably relates more to a proper sense of humility and is to be preferred to its inverted alter ego the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This term comes from psychology and (as Wikipedia puts it) ‘comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability’. We all know a sprinkling of people like that.

Sometimes in talks I like to conclude with the cartoon of a professional woman (although gender is probably pretty irrelevant here) which has the punchline

“Finally everything is going great for me – except my ability to deal with success.”

Be you junior or senior, whatever tasks you are trying to take on, however much you succeed and people are telling you that you indeed are doing so, that sense may continue to skulk in your sub-conscious and pop its ugly head up with monotonous regularity. If someone is telling you unpalatable truths such as your speed of talking is excessive, listen and learn. If someone is paying you an unsolicited and freely-given compliment I am sure the wise course of action is to accept it gratefully and try to absorb the message into your sense of self (although in my mother’s case, this would undoubtedly have been the wrong thing to do). More generally, and particularly in the world of higher education where compliments are by and large hard to come by as the competitive streak dominates, they may have a point that you should attempt to internalise. However, as my Churchill alum and I would agree, this is a lesson hard to learn however senior you may be. Impostor syndrome does not go away with seniority; we just get better at masking it.


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50 Years Is Not Long Enough

Last weekend I returned to Girton College to join the celebrations for 150 years since its Foundation (albeit the college was originally situated in Hitchin). This was the college of my undergraduate and postgraduate years. When I entered the college in 1971 its centenary was not far past, so all but 50 years have passed. This coming weekend alumni will be coming back to Churchill College to celebrate fifty years since their own matriculation, so this magic figure of 50 is rather in my mind. It is interesting to reflect on just what has changed, and what has not.

Degrees for women effigy

First of all, the university overall has changed a little since the effigy of the photograph was hung outside the Senate House in 1897 when a vote was taken about whether women should be afforded degrees. I have always found it a deeply chilling image, even if it is only a dummy. The answer given at the time was in line with that image, a resounding rejection of women being allowed the right to a full degree. 1897, note, was seven years after a woman (Philippa Fawcett of Newnham College, the second women’s college in Cambridge, founded a couple of years after Girton) came top in that most esteemed of subjects, the Maths Tripos. Coming top was accorded the title of Senior Wrangler, but Fawcett was denied that title, despite having sat the same exams as all the men and scored 13% more than the next top mark. Instead she was simply listed, in the – separate – women’s list as being ‘above the senior wrangler’.

So, no one could be in any doubt that women could succeed in degree exams, but yet they were denied degrees. Denied, so that they could not participate in University governance. Yet men who had idled their way through their undergraduate years to a poor degree could not only receive that degree, but return to Cambridge to vote in large numbers (special trains were laid on from London) to register their disapproval of smarter women being given their due. Shamefully, women were not allowed to obtain full degrees at Cambridge until 1948.

When I was at Girton, it was still an all-women’s college. Had I been a year later in arriving in Cambridge, maybe I would have joined Churchill, the first previously all-male Cambridge college to vote to admit women (as I wrote about earlier this year as we celebrated 50 years since that momentous vote) and one of the group of three that first admitted them in 1972. Rereading the book (Women at Cambridge, a Brief History, by Felicity Hunt* and Carol Barker) I was given celebrating 40 years of women being fully admitted, I find a photograph (below) of the

Churchill hall 1964

opening of the dining hall at Churchill, the largest in any college (then and now), whose caption states

‘women were present as guests at the first dinner to take place in Churchill College’s new dining hall in 1964, long before women were admitted as fellows or students. Mixed dining is said to have been even more hotly contested than the admission of women.’

I can’t see the Duke of Edinburgh in that photograph, but he was present at a special dinner to celebrate that opening in 1964, and remarkably also returned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening in 2014. On that occasion I was present, not yet as Master (it was a few months before I took up the reins) but I was presented to the Duke by the then Master Sir David Wallace, as the photo shows.

at Churchill to greet Prince Philip copy

To return to my Girton years, one of its Feasts (the Scholars’ Feast I think, perhaps the College’s only one, I’m not sure) was to celebrate the momentous 1948 admission of women to degrees. It included the singing of songs, rather peculiar songs as I recall, written in former and slightly unimaginable times when it seemed natural for young ladies to sing songs about a hockey match between Girton and Newnham. The one I remember had a memorable chorus including the lines – still engraved on my memory –

Run! I thought I should have died
Knocked it through the Newnham Goal!

Even all that time ago, that song seemed distinctly archaic. Furthermore, I’m afraid that was the evening I disgraced myself by sniggering when told the story about the admission of women to full degrees when previously they had only been known as BA Tits: who could have dreamed up that abbreviation of titular with a straight face! My levity was not well received.

So, things have changed, as no doubt the alumni returning to Girton last week and Churchill this coming weekend will notice. There are far more women in the university, even if numbers in subjects like maths and physics remain stubbornly low. Varsity recently pointed out that there were only 35 women amongst the 234 students admitted to read maths last year, the lowest number in the last decade. Unlike Oxford, Cambridge expects UK students both to have got good results in double maths A-Level and also in the STEP (sixth term entry papers), both factors limiting the range of schools that can send pupils to Cambridge as well as deterring many women who don’t want to wait out the uncertainty of STEP.

Nevertheless, things have changed on the gender front, however slowly. We are about to achieve three women professors in Physics for the first time, although that number will likely drop again in a year when I retire from the department. In 1985 I was the first woman to hold a lectureship in the subject, although there had been some notable women before me in the department including the crystallographer and Girton Fellow Helen Megaw. Katherine Blodgett, the American and inventor of Langmuir-Blodgett films, was the first woman to gain a PhD from the department in 1926. I think I am glad I did not discover my own ‘first’ until many years later, as I might have felt more of an outsider than I did at the time, although I certainly knew I was the first woman on the academic staff to give birth, and that within my first year as a lecturer.

Things have changed, and yet – as was made plain at this week’s Vice Chancellor’s Equalities Day – we have still so far to go on diversity issues ranging from the percentage of female professors, the tiny number of black professors, the gender pay gap, the continuing issues around harassment, sexual and other types, and the BAME attainment gap. Diversity and inclusion may be a well-intentioned goal but, as my last post makes clear, good intentions are far from sufficient. 50 years is both a very long time and not nearly long enough to see true equality and equity in this university as in, I would guess, just about any other.

* Felicity Hunt was the administrator looking after women’s issues both at the time I had my children and had to negotiate about maternity pay, and with whom I worked when I first took on the Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative, WiSETI. It was lovely to see Felicity, long since retired from the University, at Girton this week.

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Unconscious Bias Training Isn’t a Magic Wand

This week saw a sober assessment of the impact – both positive but also depressingly negative – of schemes to improve gender equality. As the Athena Swan Review Group wrestles with how to improve their own awards, it is important to learn from mistakes as well as successes. In years gone by I spoke up for Athena Swan pointing out it wasn’t a ‘tickbox’ exercise, but as time has passed its bureaucracy and heavy requirements on data acquisition leave, as many equality champions have spelled out, insufficient space to provide a narrative on the application forms let alone the time to carry out the well-intentioned action plans. Hence the need for an overhaul.

One ‘easy’ step many institutions have adopted is unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) training.  The aim of this is straightforward: make people aware of their biases and then they won’t be biased any more. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Pointing out biases to folk can actually make them more biased because they assume they know it all so it is no longer an issue for them. Furthermore, a brief online training programme may allow people to get the right answer in the end of session ‘test’, yet not have changed their mind-set or actions one iota. It is an easy way for organisations to demonstrate that they have taken their responsibilities seriously yet without it doing much good in actually affecting outcomes.

My own university required me to attend a session of a couple of hours’ discussion with a trainer and a bunch of other academics. This enabled some serious dialogue around examples of (in some cases frankly astonishing) bad behaviour as well as what might constitute best practice. Better than merely doing something online, but still probably insufficient.  The crucial question is how do you know if it has changed the behaviour of attendees. The best-intentioned may just end up on tenterhooks in future situations in case they get it wrong; the less self-aware may continue blindly on asking inappropriate questions at interview (at least an obvious failing others may be able to jump on) or simply harbouring the same old prejudices that mean they are liable always to vote for the person who looks most like them. I wrote previously about well-intentioned but hopelessly blind senior types in universities who can perpetuate injustices while still proclaiming themselves as champions of diversity. Nothing makes me think unconscious bias training would dent their self-belief.

I think it is time institutions started to look at the impact and consequences of training they offer, not simply offer more of the same. I am less clear how this should be done! Measuring the uptake of training offered is easy, just another metric to add to the burden of the Athena Swan lead perhaps. Quantifying any consequent changes in behaviour is much harder. I am convinced that good intentions are not enough and if senior leadership doesn’t ‘get it’ nothing will change. It simply doesn’t suffice for leaders to require unconscious bias training to be rolled out, if they also look the other way when manifest unfairnesses appear or assume that HR are on top of everything when, my experience tells me, the professionals may choose not to look very hard at alleged misbehaviour of senior members of staff (think Geoff Marcy).

Because of course, although it is easy to consider unconscious bias is most important in interviews or promotion panels, the actions that render a department or larger unit an unpleasant place to work relate to day-to-day interactions at least as much if not more than the set-piece situations. If a parent feels looked down upon because they work part-time, if comments alluding to the fact that ‘oh you missed the staff meeting on Friday; of course that’s the day you’re at home with the kids; it’s a problem when you’re not full-time’ are tolerated by a head of department, we can be sure there are problems lurking. If a head of department is so insensitive that they ask the Athena Swan lead – who they know (at least if they stopped to think for more than a second) is themselves a victim of the nasty culture so engendered, where casual bullying and denigration is rife – to arrange a session of training to improve the culture, what hope is there for the department? Yet, the PVC whose responsibility it is to ensure overall equity and that appropriate training is rolled out can look at that same department and assume the department is doing really well because, gosh, the head of department has taken the trouble to arrange such a session. What should the Athena Swan lead do in that situation? Should they stamp their feet at the head of department and refuse? Or should they assume that running a session might actually improve things so they had better swallow their own hurt and anger and do as asked?

Take this same parent who is criticised for being part-time (and I won’t assume it’s a woman, although statistically it is likely to be), they are not likely to turn up to this session – assuming it isn’t anyhow arranged for a Friday – and speak up about their experiences because that would require them to have sufficient confidence to believe that speaking up won’t subsequently lead to worse, if nevertheless hidden, consequences. Expecting victims to discuss their horrible experiences publicly, probably in front of their denigrators, in the hope that it will educate others is likely to be a forlorn hope. Safe-spaces are needed for that, and these are hard to construct.

Organisations such as universities are large and varied. It is hard to be prescriptive about what might or might not work. But what will never work is rolling out training without thought and then assuming everything has been cured. Nothing will change if the head of department is stupid, blind let alone actively making life difficult for some members because they don’t fit the norm. Senior leadership should be ever vigilant for pockets of ‘resistance’ and bad behaviour and constantly aware they themselves may be guilty of it. It is too easy to assume the problems lie elsewhere and too easy not to look for where that might be.

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Where is the HE Sector Going?

There is a lot going on in the HE policy world, from the Augar Review of post-18 education and funding, to the publication of the UKRI (and its constituent parts) Delivery Plans. Yet all this is set in the context of the worst uncertainty in UK politics I can ever recall. Brexit remains a huge, black cloud of economic and societal uncertainty. We cannot predict who will be Prime Minister in a few weeks’ time; the next Spending Review will just be a patch-up and no one talks in terms of a Comprehensive Spending Review any time soon. Not knowing who will be in power in a year’s time or what their flavour will be means that major policies affecting science and higher education – such as the Industrial Strategy or the commitment to research and development being funded to the tune of 2.4% of GDP by 2027 – look much less definitively likely to translate into practice as originally envisaged. In the grand scheme of things it is unsurprising if politicians have other matters on their minds. Nevertheless cynics say reaching that magic 2.4% figure will be easy just on flat cash because nobody is guaranteeing GDP won’t plummet post whatever colour of Brexit we get.

As we live through this turmoil, I don’t believe it is adequate for leaders to try to pretend everything is just marvellous. When alumni of my college ask me how  Brexit will impact on our finances or student numbers  I am not afraid to say I don’t know – which I most certainly don’t – but I can at least indicate where we might expect things to be better or worse. I think it is part of leadership to admit to not knowing all the answers, but also to demonstrate that suitable scenario-planning is in hand, however hand-waving it may currently have to be.  For me, the leader who glosses over difficulties does not inspire confidence so much as give off an air of complacency.

As Master of a Cambridge college, I am of course concerned about what the Augar Review might mean for us as part of the wider university. It is far from clear that a future government will have the appetite to take the review forward in whole or part, given all the uncertainty. Nevertheless it is heartening to hear the current Minister, Chris Skidmore, say that if fee income is reduced for universities (as the Review recommends) ‘absolutely that we would need to see a top-up’ to make up the shortfall in income. Collectively universities will be feeling very nervous about possible reductions in the money they receive to carry out the myriad tasks expected of them, and this equally applies to individual colleges in Cambridge. We subsidise our teaching and other student support to a very significant extent.

The reality is, however, that there are around half the population who do not go to university and their education and training – through apprenticeships, further education or whatever – must be considered seriously too, in a way that recently has not been happening sufficiently, with the further education sector in particular being left to languish. Not all apprenticeships have turned into particularly useful training and the instability of qualifications other than the much-touted ‘gold standard’ A-levels (in England and Wales) has hardly helped either educators or young people. But should the gold rating for A-levels be maintained? The Royal Society has long been in favour of broadening the curriculum to provide a more balanced education for everyone post-16. I was involved with the production of their 2014 Vision report on the future of education which spelled this need out very clearly. More recently the idea of a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum has been clearly articulated by their President Venki Ramakrishnan.

As we move towards the intended goal of 2.4% of GDP spent on R+D, we are going to need a lot more technically and scientifically qualified individuals. John Kingman (Chairman of UKRI) made this very clear when he spoke at the Royal Society last autumn in a wide- ranging and hard-hitting speech, stating that we are going to need approximately 50 % more such people if we are to succeed (and I recommend you read the speech in full, it is well worth it). And, as he further goes on to say

‘Women make up less than 15% of the STEM workforce in the UK. To put the point starkly: if we could find a way to close this gender gap, that might in fact be the single biggest thing that anyone could do to transform UK R&D.’

So, even if we ignore (as on this blog I do not!) the moral imperative of sorting out the gender gap, we have essentially an economic imperative to do so too. But, whatever the gender composition of the workforce, we need more qualified teachers. As Kingman puts it succinctly:

‘we would be talking about needing a little under 20,000 extra active A-Level STEM teachers.’

David Willetts (a UKRI Board member) in his 2017 book A University Education seems to believe – if I read him right – that early years’ education is of less importance than admitting everyone to university. That expanding university education to all is the ‘progressive’ thing to do.  I find this hard to swallow (although much in his book is admirable) because children who fall behind at the outset, never quite getting on top of reading for instance, are unlikely to be able to benefit later on except from courses specially designed for them. To imply that universities can somehow compensate for insufficient investment early on to enable children from families that lack basics such as books (or indeed adequate nutrition) in the home is a pipedream. We need sufficient investment at every stage, but that does not mean sending every child to an academic post-18 establishment willy-nilly. Further education should indeed, as the Augar Review proposes, get more investment but so should Sure Start, or some equivalent (outside the scope of the Review of course), whereas the current trend is very much in the opposite direction.

If we are to have the workforce we need to resolve the productivity paradox, thereby contributing to our economic growth, and to achieve the magic figure of 2.4% GDP by 2027 to which both (what were the) main parties have committed, then we need to think about education in the round. Furthermore, that includes thinking about post-degree level qualifications. I have written before about my concerns about CDTs (Centres for Doctoral Training), beloved by some of our research councils, because it isn’t obvious to me that the coherence of the strategy – by topic or geography – is addressed in the ways the Research Councils allocate funding.

In the UKRI Delivery Plan all I can see (have I missed something?) is a promise of 1000 new students in AI over the next five years. I am baffled as to whether that topic, important though it may be, is the only one that is seen as needing immediate growth or indeed if it is believed there is no requirement for a more overarching consideration of the postdoctoral workforce we will need in a few years’ time. This is the sort of issue that I would have thought warranted a wider strategic discussion. But then the UKRI Delivery Plan rather explicitly isn’t strategic: it is about the what, not the how and why. That worries me. Above all in these challenging times we need organisations to think about strategy as well as daily operational matters, even if that actually means having multiple possible strategies up their sleeve according to how the political turmoil unfolds. Such strategies need to be shared with and tested by the community. We should not be frightened of looking at the big questions even as we have to face up to the day-to-day harsh realities of uncertainty and financial stress in our universities and institutions.



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The Matilda Effect and Jean Purdy

There are well-known instances of women in science being apparently overlooked for a Nobel Prize: Jocelyn Bell Burnell, springs to mind, as do Lisa Meitner and Rosalind Franklin (if one ignores the inconvenient fact that she was dead by the time of the award). These are names that could readily be associated with the Matilda Effect, coined by Margaret Rossiter and summarised on Wikipedia as

‘bias against acknowledging the achievements of those women scientists whose work is attributed to their male colleagues.’

Every day women continue to be up against these sorts of bias in matters small and large: whose name goes first on a paper, who gets to attend a conference to present work (too often it’s not the woman who actually spearheaded it) – or who gets recognition from prize-giving committees way beyond the one sitting in Stockholm.

In the case of Rosalind Franklin, not only did she miss out on the Nobel Prize, she was comprehensively damned as of little interest by Jim Watson in his memoir The Double Helix. He says, of a talk she gave,

‘There was not a trace of warmth or frivolity in her words. And yet I could not regard her as totally uninteresting. Momentarily I wondered how she would look if she took off her glasses and did something novel with her hair.’

Repellent, utterly repellent as a description of a professional whose work he was in essence about to poach. A little later chronologically, when an early discussion of the possibility of a helical structure was being discussed by Watson and Francis Crick, with Franklin and her lab head Maurice Wilkins+, Watson gets even crosser when he discovers that actually she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to physical chemistry.

‘Most annoyingly, her objections were not mere perversity: at this stage the embarrassing fact came out that my recollection of the water content of Rosy’s DNA samples could not be right.’

Damning her with the diminutive name of Rosy (by which she was never known), he found he didn’t actually know what he was talking about; she did.

Much has been written about Franklin’s role in uncovering the structure of DNA, these vignettes are merely meant to illustrate one familiar example of the Matilda Effect. Let me now introduce a much less well-known name who also suffered its consequences of this effect, someone whose contributions to scientific progress have not yet been properly resurrected to give the woman her due: Jean Purdy. As Robert Edwardspapers opened by the Churchill College Archives* this week reveal, she played a key role in developing IVF, leading to the birth of Louise Brown and subsequently millions more ‘test-tube babies’ Whereas Watson sought to denigrate Franklin, absolutely the opposite is true of Edwards who, along with Purdy and Patrick Steptoe, were the driving force behind moving from a glimmer of an idea to a live birth.

Edwards was a pioneer in all senses, a man who had to fight against a funding system that would not support his work, in part because of ethical concerns but also, as Martin Johnson one of his former PhD students writes Edwards was regarded as

‘that charlatan, who worked on stuff ‘down there’ and spoke to the press’.

(Interestingly, this article also indicates how Jim Watson featured here claiming that ‘monsters would be born’ by these novel procedures.) A lack of support from the funders may be a condition familiar to many scientists, but few will emulate Edwards’ success both in the ‘impact’ of their work on hundreds of thousands if not millions of families around the world at a time when impact had not entered the funders’ lexicon, as well as the award of a Nobel Prize (in Physiology or Medicine in 2010). This work was carried out at the private clinic at Bourn Hall because (I believe) NHS hospitals would not give him space.  He was regarded as too much of a maverick and his approaches too dodgy but, despite these hurdles, had the strength of character and support to keep going until he could prove his ideas correct.

He was in no doubt that Purdy, a trained nurse who worked with him as a researcher, was instrumental in the ultimate success of the technique. When Oldham (the long term gynaecologist collaborator Steptoe was based in Oldham) wanted to commemorate the success of the IVF project with a plaque in the town, Edwards argued that Purdy’s name should appear on the plaque alongside the two more famous names.  He wanted fair recognition for Purdy who, he says,

‘travelled to Oldham with me for 10 years and contributed as much as I did to the project. Indeed, I regard her as an equal contributor to Patrick Steptoe and myself.’

His support for her had no effect, despite being repeated several times. Oldham Health Authority proceeded with the plaque merely identifying Steptoe and Edwards.

That the Nobel Committee did not include Purdy (or Steptoe) in the 2010 prize is less surprising than Oldham’s response given Stockholm’s rules about posthumous awards: Purdy died, like Franklin, tragically young of cancer in 1985 and Steptoe in 1988. But why does an organisation in which no personality clash or anything similar could have been at play, decide to ignore the wishes of the very person being honoured? Why should a woman who had played a crucial role in an extraordinarily important discovery be wantonly disregarded? Presumably some people back in 1981 could not conceive of a young woman as anything other than a ‘safe pair of hands’ or a ‘good technician’ who couldn’t have been a major player in making the procedure succeed. It would be nice to think something similar could not happen today, but there are too many anecdotes circulating to convince me that women are not regularly being unfairly overlooked in favour of male colleagues.

In Purdy’s case there is a slightly happy ending (if you consider plaques a measure of success). Although in 2013 a plaque had been placed at Bourn Hall omitting Purdy’s name, two years later Andrew Steptoe, son of Patrick Steptoe unveiled a plaque acknowledging the three people involved in developing IVF. Three years later in 2018 when celebrating 40 years of IVF,  Bourn Hall unveiled a memorial to Jean Purdy, the

“world’s first IVF nurse and embryologist. Co-founder of Bourn Hall Clinic.”

*Thanks to Churchill College archivist Madelin Evans who drew this story to my attention.

+ Not Maurice Wilkes as I first wrote!


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