Whose Responsbility? It’s too Easy to Say ‘Not Mine’

Despite the news being full of stories about how minorities are disadvantaged in larger or smaller ways, it is far from obvious that rapid progress is being made. The articles I read are full of appropriate shock at everything from the gender pay gap to the lack of women in the board room and misogyny in social media, yet are the organisations that publish this stuff actually doing anything about it? The media hardly has a good reputation when it comes to promoting women. Whose responsibility is it? It’s a question that’s just as pertinent to higher education and I recently read two very different articles in quick succession that threw into sharp focus some of the problems we, collectively, face. Should we expect the young women just setting out on their academic careers to change the world in which they move, or is that completely the wrong way of setting about things?

The first piece I’d refer you to is a post written by a PhD student in astronomy in the US. Her title “‘Women in Science’ Groups as Instruments of Change” immediately tells you what her point of view is. She is someone who is clearly walking the walk and trying to effect change in her organisation. She says that such groups

‘play a critical role in the scientific community, using mentoring, networking, and personal and professional development to bring about a new culture. They serve to change the system from the ground up, demonstrating that diversity breeds excellence and paving the way for even larger initiatives.’

She also recommends them as ‘present[ing] unique opportunities for personal growth, professional advancement, and cultural change.‘ I can’t disagree with any of that, but I am not convinced that it can ever be sufficient to have a bunch of women banding together to discuss the problems, even if they take them to Deans and Heads of Department. It is only if the people in power themselves walk the walk that change will really come about. Otherwise I fear you don’t get beyond window dressing, a place that universities have been for far too long.

I reflected recently on how I saw my own university changing from a place where women banded together to identify the problems they faced to one where those at the top, from the VC down, feel responsibility for making that change. And it is that progression that, I believe, is crucial, a view reinforced by an article (by Sara McCelland and Kathryn Holland) I came across recently. In this paper an analysis of interviews carried out with senior academics and administrators in a single US university who had received funding from NSF’s ADVANCE Program is presented. (The ADVANCE programme, which aims at ‘increasing the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers’ provides substantial sums of money competitively to assist institutions in progressing towards this goal.)

McClelland and Holland identified different sorts of responses to the questions they asked the interviewees, made up of men and women (though predominantly and unsurprisingly the former due to the make-up of the senior team at the particular institution studied). There were clear differences between those who assumed high levels of what was termed ‘personal responsibility’ and those who took the view that the problem lay elsewhere. For this latter group, doing nothing was OK; they were content to note passively that women did tend to drop out more than men, or that they were penalised for speaking out in ways men were not, but their observations did not move them to do anything to alter the situation.

The authors also analysed who each person thought should have responsibility for any change. Many, too many, seemed to take the line that it was up to the women themselves to change, not recognizing that there were endemic issues within the system and its practices. In particular this group believed that women made choices about having children, almost as if this had nothing to do with men. This position is summed up by the quote ‘having kids is a choice. You have to pay the price for having them‘, a statement I find inconceivable could have been said about male faculty, even if some of them do feel they are paying a price (e.g. by not travelling) and willingly paying it. The reality should be that careers in academia do not make this an either/or choice of career or family for anyone, whatever their gender, and yet systemically that presumption is too frequently and casually made.

This group who felt no personal responsibility for doing anything also felt that if there was a lack of support for a female faculty member it was up to her to seek out such support (‘aggressively’ as the article put it) and not an institutional problem that such support was not automatically offered. I’m sure each reader will recognize colleagues who fit this low responsibility position. The deficit model that it is the women who need to be fixed underlies a widespread assumption about how things work. Only if those at the top – so likely still to be men – accept responsibility for effecting change will enduring improvements occur. The women in science groups can do their bit by offering each other support (hugely important of course). They can identify the problems their members face, highlighting issues that may not be immediately obvious to the powers-that-be about recruitment, promotion or simply the daily culture in a department, but on their own they will often be up against a cohort who simply don’t recognize that the problems lie within their own behaviour and expectations and who will consequently be unlikely to act to improve the situation.

I think this recent publication – albeit it seems to be based on interviews that took place 10 years ago; it isn’t clear why it has taken so long to be published – provides valuable insight for those who want to point out to their senior management why they, the managers, are often the ones who need to take action. Now. It is too easy, for instance when a department is putting together an Athena Swan advisory group, for the Head simply to turn to some young, keen recent female hire and tell her it is her responsibility to move things forward. It is easy, but also unfair, unreasonable and unlikely to be productive for her or the department. Senior management step up please. Take on the responsibility for ensuring your systems genuinely translate into equality for all: that unconscious bias is teased out wherever it lurks and is ultimately eradicated; that the uncertain but talented are supported; and that workloads are shared out fairly and not lazily dumped onto those who don’t complain. That is the way to ensure that women thrive, but equally so do the deserving men and not just those of either sex who are jerks, loud-mouthed and/or selfish, but not necessarily academically all that smart.

Posted in Equality, Women in Science | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Why Athletics Resembles Academia

Today it’s four years exactly since my first blogpost appeared. Four years of having fun writing about different sorts of things: academic life, committee work and membership, the issues facing women and the joys and frustrations of working at disciplinary interfaces. I have been encouraged by the comments I receive in person, on Twitter and in formal responses on my blog. It makes me feel I am not simply talking to myself but reaching out to different communities and individuals whom I may never meet.

However, today, in celebration of my fourth anniversary, I am going to write about something completely different: athletics. It isn’t something I usually broadcast that I have a penchant for athletics; watching that is, not participating. (The nearest I got to the latter was when I was a girl guide and took part in some local inter-troop meet aged about 12.) This summer the TV has covered both the Commonwealth Games and the European Athletics Championship and there has been plenty to enjoy (including a good smattering of medals). The reason I want to write about the topic here is that it seems to me that if you think about an athlete’s career it has striking similarities to an aspiring academic’s.

In either arena first you take up something simply because you love it and it satisfies something inside you. Then you start getting serious and realise to be any good you’ve got to work really hard at it and it begins to take over your life. For the athlete this extends to diet as well as the training itself, probably a lot of travel and, to start with, little coming back by way of reward. Then you become noticed and begin to be recognized nationally because you start winning. At this point, if you are lucky, you may get some funding to keep you afloat, but it’s amazing how many individuals seem to live on thin air, family savings and part-time jobs. The lottery funding doesn’t extend by any means to all those who would like to devote themselves to the sport. Even if you get funding one year, there is absolutely no guarantee you will get it the next. Sacrifices have to be made.

Few people can win the medals and, without these you aren’t particularly likely to get signed up for big sponsorship deals. For every Jessica Ennis (-Hill)  advertising Santander there are hundreds who started at the bottom of this ladder but didn’t reach very far up it. Many will have had to give up their dreams without fulfilling them. Others may have had the potential to go far but their careers were destroyed by injury or illness. Others perhaps did not have the right psychological mind-set to turn their talent into winning ways. Or simply that luck was not with them: they didn’t find the right coach, or there wasn’t a suitable track close enough to make their parents willing to act as chauffeur week in week out. There are so many things to derail the talent that in other circumstances might have thrived.

Does this all sound reminiscent of the academic ladder? The precise challenges may be different: a pulled hamstring is unlikely to jeopardise an academic career, and the critical decision points are typically rather earlier for an athlete, but the sharpness of the pyramid, the many who start who can’t possibly attain their dream goal of Olympic gold/faculty position are rather similar and the element of luck and circumstances beyond one’s control also have close parallels in the two career trajectories. I think it’s worth remembering this because often academia is singled out as a career which is uniquely good at encouraging people at the start and then spitting them out half way along. However to my mind it really is not alone in doing this, there are many equally tough careers to choose. For instance you could argue that the law also only sees a tiny number of graduates make it all the way to judge or QC, but that doesn’t mean that those who instead become a conveyancing solicitor or helping out part-time at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau aren’t doing valuable and satisfying work. Likewise I think there are many ways in which a science training can be used to great advantage without that implying necessarily clinging to the academic ladder. Working outside academic science does not equate to failure, yet that equation is often made both by those inside and those who feel forced out.

Homily over. To return to the European Athletics Championship, where one of the big stories was the gold won by Jo Pavey. Newspapers everywhere referred both to her age – 40 – and that she was a mother of two when she won the 10,000m race. Unlike the ‘Oxford housewife wins Nobel’ headline  referring to Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964, I felt the headline for Jo Pavey was appropriate because her age and maternal status are relevant to her athletics ability whereas Hodgkin’s domesticity was totally irrelevant to the science she did. That a woman of Pavey’s age could still beat everyone else in a 10k race, and less than a year after giving birth to her second child at that (when most of us would still be struggling with exhaustion and the weight gain associated with child-bearing, as I remember only too well) will have been an inspiring message for many, whether elite athlete or just plain Saturday jogger. The headlines may not sit comfortably with the Finkbeiner test (developed in the context of female scientists), but I do believe they are justified.

But spot the analogy again. Female athletes have to try to work out how to fit childbirth into their careers. Should they put it off until their competitive days are over, or gamble on being able to get back to full fitness in time for one of the major championships? 2012 Olympic Heptathlon Champion Jessica Ennis-Hill is currently away from the sport having recently given birth, timing it so that she should nevertheless be able to compete in Rio in 2016 – it’s still a risk but one she was prepared to take. Many women equally fear taking time away from the bench yet the changes consequent on childbirth I would hazard are less likely to impact directly on a scientist’s career than on an athlete’s: loss of muscle tone isn’t an issue, for instance.

Not achieving what one has set one’s heart on and devoted much of one’s early life to is clearly heart-breaking in whatever field of endeavour. But academia is not the only career full of obstacles and challenges, it is just one of many where the rewards are great if talent and luck happily combine – but too often they don’t. It behoves all of us senior scientists to do what we can to ensure that talent is supported wherever it is found and that constructive careers advice is always available to students whose paths cross our own. If everyone offered this support, never used younger scientists as expendable bench-monkeys and did their best to point out appropriate opportunities (within academia and outside) perhaps there would be less ill-feeling about the pyramidal career structure that exists. At the moment the sense of injustice can feel very painful for many who set out with such high hopes; that is a tragedy.


Posted in Careers | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

On the Email Mountain

August is a quiet month on the email front. Few committee meetings are occurring to clog up the inbox with their multiple attachments of papers. Plus many people are away from their own computers during the school holidays and they probably don’t want to be caught sneaking peeks at their smart phones or tossing off a quick response when they’re meant to be relaxing. So, for those of us not on our holidays during the month, incoming traffic slows down.

You might have thought that that would mean it was easier to keep on top of the few messages that do arrive but I’ve realised I’m actually doing worse on this front. Emails that deserve an answer are languishing without a response and my turn-around is slower than usual, not quicker. (Apologies if yours is one of the ones sitting there unanswered). Why? I think I’ve rationalised this: I actually have time to do some uninterrupted thinking, read some papers and scribble wild thoughts on paper the way I used to do when other responsibilities didn’t intervene. My office is even more untidy than usual. It’s strewn with print-outs – I’m old-fashioned enough still to prefer to read hard copy at times like this, so I can easily flick between different papers as I pull my thoughts together – and recycled paper on which I’ve jotted down ill-thought through ideas as I attempt to join some conceptual dots. I worry my quiet season will finish far too soon for anything concrete to emerge in a useful way, but it does make a pleasant change from the usual rushing from the pillar that is one committee meeting to the post that is another. However, the brief gaps between these pillars and posts are clearly exactly when I toss off quick replies to the email mountain.

However, there’s something slightly strange about those emails I have been sending. Several of them have been quite cross and I’ve had to think hard about my words. I don’t want to write to a professorial colleague, you’re being hopelessly naïve. I don’t think that that word would have the desired effect at all and, after a lot of mental tossing around of alternatives I came up with ‘optimistic’ as the least offensive way of expressing the naivety I saw. I might as well not have bothered: the chap’s on holiday for weeks.

It is never nice to tick people off. As a supervisor one of the hardest things is to say to a student pull your socks up or, even worse, you’re not cut out for research and you should be looking outside academia for your next move. It’s a conversation I hate to have but sometimes it’s necessary. It is certainly not a dialogue that can be had by email. It has to be face to face. But sometimes a less serious but critical exchange can and has to be had by email and I’ve had a couple of those too in the past week.

If I’m going to be cross in a controlled way by email I try to remember never to send it as soon as I’ve written it. That control of language tends to work better if you read the message through several times to check how it comes across. Saying you are horrified/fed up/angry with someone’s behaviour is probably best watered down a bit to something less hostile. I chose ‘dismayed’ as a suitably measured alternative this week. I felt it expressed annoyance without going over the top. Whether it was received that way – who knows (although an apologetic email was the instant response)?

Emails do seem particularly prone to being open to misinterpretation. I guess it is such an instant medium that too often we shoot off a response without reading it through. However, probably one of the ostensibly rudest ones I ever received was clearly unintentional. I can’t reproduce it here because, probably fortunately, I have forgotten the exact turn of words. Whatever it was, it came from a German colleague who was completely unaware of the idiomatic nuances. However apparently proficient in spoken English he was, the phrase he wrote in a language not his own conveyed an anger and tone of complaint that was not matched by the surrounding text. They were words that would have been utterly offensive if written by a native-speaker. I did point this out to him so that he might not fall into the same trap again. No doubt, however often he might have read through what he wrote he wouldn’t have picked up the offence implied, but I hope it sank in for future reference.   This isn’t the case for many of us much of the time. It really does behove us to check our tone and look out for unintended insults! I have before now acted as a sanity-checker of emails from other non-native speakers who know only too well that what looks innocent to them can cause affront to another. Sometimes we might all benefit from such cross-checking.

So, I need to work at the language of my replies; and I need to work at actually replying at all, raising my head from the rare treat of having hours when I can get stuck into some real brain work.


Posted in Science Culture | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Transparency versus Diversity

Within the EU, Commissioner Neelie Kroes is leading the push to have a Commission with a female contingent that is at least beginning to be representative of the population. Her call for #TenOrMore women commissioners doesn’t sound unreasonable: it would still only amount to around 30% of them and is roughly the composition of José Manuel Barosso’s current Commission. In seeking a new group of commissioners, each country makes its own suggestions and therefore does so independently. The last time I saw the current list it was, as someone put it on Twitter, worse than the make-up of the Saudi Arabian Parliament: 4 female names and 19 men’s. Kroes’ call is unlikely to be met unless Jean-Claude Juncker does something forceful about the nominations.

This is very much the same as happens with slates of speakers for conferences. Each person charged with coming up with a name or two for the invited and plenary speakers is likely to think of some obvious ones. This list is put together for the final slate. In all likelihood there is hardly a female’s name (or a minority ethnic but, for simplicity, I will simply discuss the case of women in this post) amongst them. The wise conference organiser will then start again to get a more representative slate – or risk opprobrium or a boycott. On the other hand, if a committee collectively puts forward a dozen names in mutual discussion, a decent proportion of women’s names is much more likely to be forthcoming. Men and women alike are likely to think of male names first and only when challenged – or when primed by prior experience – produce the name of a woman or two. But most people now are sufficiently aware of the issue that if the list is arrived at collectively and seen as a whole then it is more likely to be balanced. Why we all tend to think of men first is not something I intend to consider here, only the net effect.

What about committees? If trying to construct a committee from scratch (or refresh an existing one) there is clearly an opportunity to strive for a balanced committee membership representing diversity, be it by discipline, gender, ethnicity or geography. But there’s a problem. If people are simply tapped on the shoulder – as by implication is the case with the invited speakers or the EU’s commissioners – it hardly looks like a transparent process. Indeed, it isn’t a transparent process. It smacks of the old boy’s club and you might fear that you will end up with exactly what you don’t want: an unbalanced committee.

Logically, the way to get round this is to seek nominations. Ask the head of department or the vice chancellor or whoever is relevant to nominate individuals: then you risk being back in the situation of the EU Commission when each person you ask may be more likely to nominate a white male than anyone else and you certainly won’t achieve balance on these fronts, even if you have steered the requests for nominations to secure geographical or disciplinary balance. Surely self-nomination is the way to go then?

Unfortunately that doesn’t work either, as a recent exercise run by one of the Research Councils has, I am led to believe, demonstrated only too clearly. Women are just much less likely to put themselves forward (see my thoughts on this issue here) so the nominations that came in seem to have been not even in proportion to the women in the cohort. Having spotted that this has happened the Council nevertheless feels obliged – and one can see why – to stick with the process as advertised, despite the dismal outcome for diversity.

So there is a challenge. The powers-that-be can opt not for transparency but for ensuring a good mix on the committee by manipulation of those invited to join and be accused of cronyism, tokenism or some other unflattering -ism; or they can optimistically rely on minorities to put their names forward which the evidence suggests they are unwilling to do. Maybe you naively think that women should simply pin their colours to the mast and self-nominate, but unfortunately experience may have demonstrated to them that it is a risky strategy. Be it asking for a pay rise or negotiating a package, women too often get penalised simply for asking. (As an extreme case, see the sad story https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/03/13/lost-faculty-job-offer-raises-questions-about-negotiation-strategy of W who negotiated over her faculty package, although of course one can’t prove that what happened to her only happened because she was a woman.)

I don’t know where the balance between diversity and transparency should lie. It is a condemnation of how the academic world operates (and, I would guess, much further afield than that) that it isn’t possible to achieve both simultaneously. We urgently need to make progress on this front.



Posted in Equality, Science Culture, Uncategorized, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Mulling it Over

Writing. Putting finger to keyboard. Churning out the thesis (or paper or grant proposal). This week’s cartoon in the THE reflected on this challenge of thesis-writing, ending with the punchline ‘Writing: the most impossible short distance in the history of humanity’ despite everything being in the poor student’s head. It is all too easy to look at the blank page and freeze into hopelessness. But perhaps that isn’t the right way to tackle things. I find that my writing works best if I’ve turned things over in my head well away from any keyboard or paper.

Now of course I’m not in the business of writing a thesis these days, and the strategies that work for one type of prose and a particular individual, may not apply to other people in other situations. Nevertheless, I think sitting down and trying to write a thesis from beginning to end is likely to end in trouble. It is too huge, too shapeless to work like that. For my own students I always insist on a thesis plan, ideally sketched out a year or so in advance to identify what has been completed and what is outstanding. Perhaps even more importantly this can serve to identify those dreadful known unknowns: the holes that are left in the overarching narrative when trying to pull together disparate experimental results for instance. If you know what’s logically missing before the final frantic weeks you have some hope of plugging the gaps satisfactorily.

That skeleton structure for the thesis, I believe, also helps to break down the monolithic task into something more manageable, less terrifying (see some previous thoughts on thesis-writing here). Where one goes next I think is very personal. Some students start at the beginning and write in a linear way from chapter 1 to chapter 9 (or whatever). Others prefer to get the results down first and come back to the introductory chapters and literature review later, although this can cause confusion over cross- references. Some like to get the figures organised first, to be sure that they are clear on the way the evidence is building up; they can then write the text around the figures. Whatever works for the individual has to be the right way forward in my view.

But there is still the question of how to get the words down on that paper, even when the structure is clear. And, for other situations – writing posts for this blog for instance; for a student newspaper contribution; for a science-writing competition; or, for me in particular in the months ahead, those speeches I am sure I am going to have to give pretty regularly – the structure (or even content) may be far less obvious anyhow. How best to tackle that prose? I find as I try to organise my thoughts it is best just to let the ideas swirl around for a while. Ideally such swirling should not be done as one tries to go to sleep, or sleep is likely to elude one. If I do make the mistake of letting it happen in bed I can find myself getting angry as it is perfectly possible to lie there mentally perfecting the text with no way of capturing the words on paper: I do not keep a Dictaphone or even notepad by my bed as I’m quite sure my husband would object.

Good moments I find to try to organise my thoughts are when I’m cycling, running or walking: in other words, when I am away from my computer and away from other people. This can apply equally well to the mental processes I need to go through ahead of some difficult meeting or a talk for which I’m trying to find a structure or a hook to get it off the ground. At times like that my mind is free to wander; wander it often does in ways that can be surprisingly creative and constructive. It is as if the not-constrained mode of thinking, the darting to and fro between different trains of thought, allow new connections to be made which enable me to see things with fresh eyes even if the content (for instance of the science) is unchanged.

Of course, as with lying in bed without a Dictaphone, I have no way of capturing the elegance of the sentences that I internally construct. I cannot necessarily mentally retain the absolutely awesome alliterations that I would like to pepper my text with nor retain the order that seems so logical in my brain when away from the computer but which may escape me once I sit down again. Nevertheless, as a way of being creative I would recommend it to those of you struggling with thesis, proposal or manuscript writing. If you’ve got writer’s block get up, walk away and do something physical but not too exhausting. Let your mind go where it will and see what it throws up, at least for a little. It breaks the monotony of staring at a screen with a flickering cursor but nothing else to focus on and it might, just might, get the creative juices flowing again.

Right now of course what I am really mulling over (though I’m procrastinating actually doing anything about it) is moving house. After more than 30 years in the same place it doesn’t need much imagination to visualise the piles of stuff that we have accumulated, much of which we really don’t need to heft over to Churchill Master’s Lodge. But what to leave and what to take (particularly a question when it comes to books) certainly needs a lot of thought before we start filling the tea chests. Whether the blogposts will continue to flow during this period remains to be seen.


Posted in Communicating Science, Science Culture | Tagged , , | 6 Comments