Choosing an Oxbridge College

As one cohort of students are celebrating (or coming to terms with) which university they’ll be heading off to this autumn, another cohort are considering their Year 12 results. For this latter group, decisions loom about UCAS forms. Which universities provide what they want in terms of course, cost, location and ambience? And for those who are contemplating Oxbridge as a destination, further decisions may be needed about which college to choose. (While Cambridge and Oxford advise students not to worry too much about choosing a college, on the sound grounds that the Colleges are far more similar than they are different, most applicants do still want to select one rather than simply making an ‘open’ application.) These are tricky decisions, often inevitably based on limited information. As Master of one of the bigger, more heavily applied to and most academically successful Cambridge colleges (we were placed third in this year’s Tompkins Table of undergraduate academic performance), let me tell you about some of the things that I know our students were attracted by when they chose Churchill. In this way I might assist those worrying about college choice by providing some pointers about what may be important. I don’t promise to be entirely unbiased!

Churchill’s undergraduate population is around 460, larger than many of the colleges. In the 2014 admissions round we accepted 140 students, compared with the smallest intake for a traditional undergraduate college of 66 at Peterhouse and 210 at Trinity, the largest. We also boast the largest site, with substantial playing fields as part of the site as opposed to fields located a mile or more away, and the largest dining hall. Figures to bear in mind if you think size matters. We are a modern college – brutalist 1960s architecture rather than Tudor wood, but delightfully large, light rooms with much-admired windowsills for sitting on and staring out of the window – which commits to providing accommodation, often en suite and almost always on the main site, for three years of an undergraduate course. At a reasonable rent (a touch below midway in overall costs, with total transparency over what the rent covers), free wifi in all rooms and no additional fixed charges for food. These are all parameters that can vary substantially between different colleges. Oh yes, and alumni from 10 years back have told me how much the food has improved in recent years – I’ve certainly been enjoying it.

But these are hard facts that you can get from the College prospectus and which you can easily compare with other colleges through the site How to Choose a Cambridge College. What matters more is what I termed ‘ambience’ above. To some extent this is best appreciated by visiting – and there are plenty of open days to enable visits to be made: the next one at Churchill is on September 25th for all subjects. As I presided over my first Matriculation Dinner last year, the first year physicist sitting next to me confided that he had felt at home as soon as he’d walked into the College. We are, as I am constantly being told and it is self-evidently true, a friendly and unstuffy college. We even provide written notes to help the nervous work out which way to pass the port at our handful of really formal meals. No need to be embarrassed about such Cambridge trivia.

And, contrary to fairly widespread assumption, we are not full of public school kids, although we obviously value those we have: around 70% of our UK admissions come from the state sector, which is significantly above the Cambridge average, something I am very proud of. I wrote previously about how our admissions policies work, to ensure not only transparency but also that we look at every applicant in the round. Nevertheless we do have a problem I want to help solve: our gender make-up is significantly out of line with the typical close to 50:50 composition of most of the colleges. I want to see more girls apply so that we can admit more of them. Possibly because of our preponderance of students in STEM subjects (by statute 70% of our students will be in these Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subjects), the number of female applicants is persistently lower than we would like. This, despite the fact that we can proudly cite that the College was the very first in Cambridge to vote to admit women. What happened along the road is not clear to me, but it seems to mean we are no longer seen as a college of first choice for enough of the UK’s brightest young women. Would it be an inducement to say that we have a mainly female leadership team next year, with myself, the Bursar and the Senior Tutor all being women? And we have enough female Directors of Studies in Natural Sciences that they are able to make up a whole netball team to play our students …

So, what more can I tell you that I have discovered in my first year here? Our student support is fantastic, with a College Nurse, a Counsellor and specialist study-skills Tutors to support the Tutorial team in making sure that all students thrive to the best of their ability. We have one of the lowest non-completion rates of any of the colleges and I am sure this can be directly attributed to the excellent pastoral care and individual attention students receive. If things start to unwind, perhaps because of family issues back home, or financial or health problems, there will be people there to offer support and advice. For some the porters are the first point of contact (although for one or two that is admittedly because they’ve had too much to drink!), for others it will be their Tutor or their Director of Studies. People are well-equipped to deal with these sorts of issues sensitively and confidentially, only sharing information as is appropriate to ensure that the best support is provided. Hugely important for young folk away from home, perhaps for the first time for an extended period.

So, good food, good (and guaranteed) rooms, good support – what else? A bike repair-man on site several days a week is a plus; I’ve used him and he’s excellent and quick. Good sports – our Boat Club excelled this year – good facilities for music, with a Music Centre on site; a large lecture theatre good for film screenings and plays. And a good location, particularly if you are a physical scientist. Maths, physics, computing, materials science and much of engineering are all within 10 minutes’ walk or so (less by bike); admittedly the Biomedical Campus is a decent cycle ride (or a trip on the Uni bus service) away, but town-centre science and arts departments are also pretty close. The major development of North West Cambridge is all-but adjacent (and soon there’ll be a new Sainsbury’s there; Cambridge is woefully short of centre-of-town supermarkets) and indeed, whereas Churchill might once have seemed on the fringes of the city, Cambridge’s centre of gravity is gradually moving west to encompass it.

In short, this is a fantastic place! Come and visit and be bowled over…..




Posted in Academia, Education | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

When Did You Decide to…..?

People seem to think that life travels in straight, orderly lines, with everything mapped out from birth. I have never felt that my life was like that and it is always startling when I find other people assume that I know, and have always known, what I‘m doing and why, as well as what I’m going to do next. The other day an interviewer kicked off with the question ‘When did you decide to…..?’. It was a question that left me floundering: it hadn’t been like that, I hadn’t made the decision, I’d just rather fallen into a particular role. I cannot believe I am alone in my life being, in fact, a lot less considered than it may appear to an outsider. Indeed it is little more than a chaotic trajectory of opportunities, failures and accidental progress. And this I believe is hugely important. People – especially the young such as those who’ve just got their A level results – shouldn’t be fooled into thinking success equates to ‘I always knew what I was doing and why’ and that if you personally don’t know it will invariably lead to failure or at least stagnation.

The title question is rather like the question ‘why did you decide…?’ in my case usually posed as ‘why did you decide to study physics?’ (or its variant, ‘what or who inspired you to study physics?’). I have no good answer to either question other than that I liked it. I know I’m meant to come up with an answer which demonstrates I was inspired by Marie Curie/my teacher/my aunt (or even uncle) or perhaps, more studiously, that the inspiration arose from reading Carl Sagan or Fred Hoyle. It always feels wimpish simply to say I liked it. But that is the truth and I’m not prepared to invent a false history to suit someone’s idea of what life ought to be like.

The same applies to decision-making of many sorts in my view. I am sure there are people who could say they decided to do a PhD because they wanted to understand quantum dots or black holes (or embryo development or to cure cancer if you happen to be a biologist as opposed to a physicist). Equally I am sure there are many who decided to do a PhD for the reason that the then head of department Brian Pippard told my graduating year at the Cavendish which he clearly thought was entirely the right reason:

‘if you think you ever might want to do research, now is the time to do it’

without any more specific goal in mind. Any faint penchant for it and you should aspire as soon as you graduate rather than wait a few years and regret the loss of opportunity (although of course people do return; sometimes they are even are sponsored to return). Pippard’s advice seemed good enough for me to take, particularly as I had no desire to do anything else very definite – such as join industry.

If I look back on my life there are decisions that I did consciously make, including getting married, starting a family and staying in the UK rather than returning to the USA to make my career there. Big decisions undoubtedly, but not the ones interviewers tend to ask. After all, asking why you decided to start a family would seem a pretty intrusive question; in fact I could give an easy answer to why I stayed in the UK (like the location of my wider family and my husband working here). But the questions that are asked tend to be about motivation, inspiration or direction, or else they make implicit assumptions in their question which immediately take the question into territory in which I’m not comfortable.

So, how many people, hand on heart can stand there and say they always knew they wanted to be an XXXX, they knew what they needed to do to achieve that goal and they have never deviated, hesitated or allowed repetition to slow them down en route to getting to that endpoint? I doubt many people could swear to that. Of senior (and successful) academics, I know ones who thought they wanted to be – or thought they were going to be, which isn’t necessarily the same thing – a writer, climber, musician, chair of the local PTA, a social worker or a tax inspector.

Perhaps they never got beyond the idea of expecting to end up unsalaried as a full time parent, or simply unemployed. I recently met an eminent lawyer who set off intending to be a medic. Perhaps these accidental academics believed they knew their (different) plans at 14, 18, 21 or even 25 but at some point they got locked into an academic career. Nevertheless, most probably didn’t know what their goals were beyond a horizon of a year or two even long after that. Doing the next thing that turns up (assuming it appeals to you) I think is not a bad thing to do. But it probably isn’t always writ large in self-help books.

Based on my own trajectory, experience is often helpful in the most unlikely ways. To give a fairly recent and very personal example, when I was asked (and agreed) to chair the Royal Society’s Education Committee in 2009 I had not previously been very close to school education but I thought the challenge would be interesting. I had at that point no aspiration to head a Cambridge College, but the knowledge I gained about curricula, examinations and the rapidity of change in both under recent Ministers has been immensely helpful in my first year in Churchill. The one opportunity did not lead to the other, but the detour into educational matters from my research has stood me in very good stead. Had I sat down in 2009 and thought that in a few years I wanted to be a College head, would I have thought that this was my optimum strategy to achieve that end? I’m sure not. Call it luck, or serendipity, or blind chance as you will, but it merely confirms me in the belief you never know what might grow out of seizing opportunities or when knowledge gained will come in useful. Perhaps the only thing you should regard as worse than turning down opportunities is not being offered them.

So the next time someone asks you ‘when did you decide…’ maybe you should come clean that actually you never made that decision at all. It just happened.


Posted in Careers, Science Culture | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

I Refuse to Think Like a Man

The recipe for success for women has been identified as

Look like a girl,
Act like a lady,
Think like a man,
Work like a boss.

(or at least it was until the Bic South Africa advertising poster was pulled due to the public uproar, so I can’t link to the original). This sentence is wrong on so many fronts I find it hard to know where to begin to take it to pieces. Nevertheless it has speedily been dissected by wise commentators from all round the world (here’s just one UK version). It matters because the implicit message will be what many people still seem to believe. Our looks (or absence thereof) come first and we should be sure to look less than our age apparently; being a lady is something I object to anyhow although at least this time the syntax is correct (unlike in the phrase lady scientist). But what takes the biscuit as far as I’m concerned is the idea that men think differently and implicitly better than women. That if our poor little mushed-up brains were merely themselves we’d never get anywhere in the workplace, so we have to aspire to think like men. But then, perhaps it would be all right after all because Donald Trump could come along and ‘cherish’ us and UCL’s Tony Segal just ‘loves women. The more the better’, so we could stay as mere decorative girls and still get on OK. Although probably not as successful academics.

Academia may be little better or worse than many professions for gender equality – law or medicine being obvious parallel examples – but we do seem to be increasingly measured in ways that look robust but almost certainly aren’t. As the recent HEFCE metrics report points out, relying on metrics isn’t necessarily wise. Nevertheless, if ‘scores’ are devised based on man-as-default, women will inevitably be less successful. Then the short-sighted bean-counters who devise such metrics can confidently announce that women just aren’t as good as men and the powers-that-be can smugly go on appointing people who look just like them. Success seems, in this picture, to be a self-perpetuating virtue.

All the arguments about what success looks like in academia – and the problems thereby caused for women’s progression – have been neatly pulled together in a recent short paper by Megan Henley on ‘Women’s Success in academic science, challenges to breaking through the ivory ceiling’.  Key to this topic is the problem posed by measuring success by metrics that women either don’t want or aren’t set up to achieve, broadly speaking number of papers (or patents) and their citations. If you argue that how often a paper is cited is an indicator of the esteem in which it is held in the field, you are ignoring many inconvenient facts (see the HEFCE review for more on this), including the fact that papers with errors in them are often highly cited. So, let’s for a moment go with the view that men and women are fundamentally different in the way their brain works – which many may reasonably consider to be neurobollocks anyhow – then if you take the view that men are more likely to take risks due to higher testosterone levels then they may rush into print with an over-hyped paper which is then panned by many others; the citation count is high. Bingo it looks like ‘success’.

There are other problems that beset the citation count: for reasons that aren’t clear to me, it appears that papers with male authors are more commonly cited than those led by women. Maybe this is because women don’t blow their own trumpets so much – it’s our natural ladylike modesty of course; or because they don’t get the same opportunity to network because they’re at home with the kids while their whizzkid – sorry that should have been successful – partners jet set around the world to talk about their own work (N.B. just in case you’re worrying that sentence is meant to be ironic). I have to say I find it inconceivable that a man should sit down and deliberately exclude citations to a woman’s work simply because of her gender (but maybe I’m naïve), but I don’t find it all surprising that women are less well known since, as has been pointed out many times, they tend to get fewer high-profile speaking invitations.

So, we should be reconsidering what we think success looks like – as my own University’s book The Meaning of Success made clear a year ago. It’s time to stop sticking with the same old criteria based on lazy metrics and old-fashioned concepts of what is valued by a university. Jenny Martin’s wonderful alternative set of metrics should be required reading for all appointment and promotion panels. It highlights many personal attributes that currently do not feature in the usual criteria, however valuable these additional criteria are. Interestingly, this includes creativity: don’t kid yourself that writing many papers means someone is necessarily creative. Writing pot-boilers is a good way both of making one small idea go a long way and, in the process, being able to create lots of self-citations to push the citation count up.

Thinking like a man may or may not be creative – just as thinking like a woman may or may not be. But sometimes thinking at all is a rare virtue. When it comes to looking after a research group, being so focussed on a high output may come at the expense of the wellbeing of individuals in the group if you never stop to think about the pressures they are under. Thinking about the workload you are dumping on your colleagues – academic and administrative – by being a serial offender at missed deadlines (exam question-setting perhaps) would also be a good thing to contemplate. What about sparing a thought for the students who turn up for a 9am lecture only to find you have put so little effort into preparing the material that they would have learnt as much by staying in bed? Teaching too often counts for little in promotion but it will always be of importance for the students.

What is needed is a fundamental change in the mentality of what is important in a university so that we reward a broad range of contributions. Paper count (including citations) and grant income are just two aspects of a complex suite of skills on which the well-rounded academic should be judged. We don’t need to ‘fix the women’ to make them more like men, we need to fix the system. I refuse to think like a man (or to alter my voice to speak like one either, but that’s another story). Indeed I don’t really know what it means. Diversity means valuing difference and in academia, as elsewhere, we should celebrate it and make sure that excellence is recognized wherever it is found and whatever form it takes.






Posted in Equality, Women in Science | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Those Annoying Little Habits

New lecturers are encouraged, possibly even compelled, to allow themselves to be videoed giving presentations/lectures so they can improve their teaching styles. Even before then, early career researchers may be offered that option and it is probably wise to accept. However, I must admit that by the time I was offered the opportunity to scrutinise my own performance in this way I was sufficiently advanced in my career that I felt that I would merely finally recognize all my irritating tics but be so set in my ways that it would be all but impossible to amend them. So I declined.

We all know the sort of habits that not only we possess but so does everyone else. In ourselves we think so little of them, watching others – say during a seminar – it is possible to get almost mesmerised by their repeated actions. My own failing? Let’s get that out of the way! As my mother, still, delights in pointing out I tend to run my fingers through my hair when feeling nervous. Of course, the end result is, as she so kindly puts it, that I look as if I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards. Nothing like parents for giving one moral support.

The footage that sticks in my mind is of Prince Charles always adjusting his cuffs as he gets out of the princely car; maybe that is a common habit for men accustomed to wear suits but his is the figure with whom I associate this trait. Or, closer to home, there was my history teacher, who used to pace the classroom covering substantial fractions of a mile each lesson as she expounded on the history of the unions or the start of the First World War. I’m a pacer too, as long as I’m not confined to a lectern mike or wired up in such a way that it ties me down, but I do not believe I cover that sort of distance. But perhaps some student, similarly annoying as I was as a teenager and intrigued enough to work out the mileage, could correct me on that one.

The trouble is that one can get fixated: let’s see when the lecturer next says ‘oh, I say, oh dear’ (another teacher of mine was guilty of that failing). Or the guy who wrings his hands, picks at his tie/teeshirt (depending on style), adjusts his waistband or bends down to pick up some imaginary fluff (yes, I’ve written it about a male, since in physics that is statistically likely to be the sex of the lecturer. You can fill in equivalent habits for a woman, but it probably won’t involve a tie). There are so many mannerisms that we can unconsciously have developed and, if you catch them early enough via that videoing afternoon, maybe you can overcome them. I guess, whether you can or not depends on both motivation and your ability to multitask. By which I mean whether you can give a decent lecture whilst keeping your brain in gear enough in a parallel dimension to say mentally to yourself ‘no, leave your tie alone’.

However, a more fundamental challenge for the new lecturer is often where they should look while delivering their pearls of wisdom. Staring at the screen, with your back to the audience, has its limitations. It isn’t good for audibility, it isn’t good for keeping students’ attention. I’m sure Billy Bunter and cronies would have had strategies for dealing with the master (again, I’m sure he only had schoolmasters) who constantly had his back turned to the class, probably involving ink and/or paper planes; one doesn’t want to find oneself as the butt of that sort of attack. I am sure it is a good idea to look as if you’re looking at the audience, even if in practice your eyes are glazed over or defocussed! Or, my chosen habit at least in flat rooms as opposed to banked lecture theatres, is to look slightly over the students’ heads. That way I don’t have to notice how many have fallen asleep, are snogging or avidly reading a book in preference to listening to my pearls of wisdom.

However, there is one ‘habit’ that I have seen two lecturers of my acquaintance overcome, almost entirely, which I note with immense respect: stuttering. I neither understand the source of stuttering nor how one can work to overcome it. I don’t think it’s at all like working at the lisp I had as a small child, which basically just takes practice and concentration. Since nerves clearly are a factor in a stutter, thinking about the problem is unlikely to be a quickfix. But, as I say, I know two individuals who when first they set out were afflicted severely with this and yet who now are much admired as speakers. Somehow they managed this, which perhaps should give those of us with lesser nervous tics some hope.



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The Importance of Evidence, the Need for #Just1Action4WIS

I’m sorry, this is yet another piece of writing in the wake of the Tim Hunt debacle. I find I am still very angry. We are, I hope, reaching the end of the saga yet little in the way of concrete actions which will actually help women in science has emerged or is likely to; this is why I am angry. All those shrill commenters who shrieked ‘sexist foul’ at the outset have not necessarily done any good for the cause they purport to support. Instead, we have seen the public humiliation of a man who has spent much of his life supporting young colleagues, of whatever race or gender, and who has a good track record specifically of being a promoter of women. I saw a tweet saying essentially who cared what happened to one old white man. If that was the only casualty I might agree, but it isn’t. We should be worrying, as scientists, about evidence, truth and integrity and all too often in commentaries and over twitter they have had far too little of a look in.

I do not want to rehash what happened or even to point fingers. It’s futile and will just continue to stoke the fires. It will now be impossible to ‘prove’ exactly what Tim said and how, but we can disprove some of the wilder claims that have been made. Louise Mensch has done an excellent job of uncovering timelines and facts, as can be seen in her series of blogposts where the hard evidence is gathered together, as has Debbie Kennett on her blog. I may not agree with Mensch’s politics, but I applaud her piece of investigative journalism. Why have others been so lazy right from the outset? Had facts been checked on day one, this whole horrid tale would have been nothing but a damp squib. Tim’s remarks were inaccurately and incompletely quoted; words of others were initially attributed to him and the reception of his words was described as ‘deathly silence’ when a recently released audio tape, available on the Mensch blog, shows there was laughter (and the beginning of applause is audible before the tape stopped).

At the end of this post I put down how I interpret what has been learned over the weeks as more and more people have spoken up (including people who were present on the day beyond the originators of the story). I have put it at the end so that people can first read the messages I want to tease out without having to wade through the minutiae of the tale, crucial though these are. For me I am convinced Tim’s reputation has been traduced based on what can only be described as, at best, sloppy journalism fuelled by a self-righteous fervour. His ability now to go and inspire the young (see this video for an example of him in action) has been unnecessariilydestroyed; invitations to him have now been withdrawn (e.g. the Italian Society of Anatomy and Histology withdrew its invitation to him for its September conference because ‘some hazardous occurrence for you and for the regular course of the event might happen’). What a waste!

I want to focus on evidence and how scientists and journalists alike have not done a good job on this story of seeking it out and using it as the only basis for their stories. Article after article around the world has taken St Louis’s tweeted three sentences and used them as the platform on which to act as judge and jury. They have not even, as I hoped might have transpired quite fast, used them as a catalyst to introduce change in our workplaces, change that is so desperately needed. But worse than this, it is also clear that this story has highlighted how journalism can look like it presents facts when actually there is all sorts of colour being added (or removed) to change appearances. It makes it all but impossible to know what to believe sometimes. I have become very disillusioned with the ‘truth’ of the written word.

Let me start by demonstrating my personal concerns using a piece I wrote for the Observer on June 21st in the wake of the furore. This article enabled me to build on the call for action I had made in my previous Tim Hunt post on this blog, encouraging everyone to do their bit to improve conditions for women in science (recall the pledge I asked people to make: #just1action4WIS)

I wrote this Observer article so it must accurately reflect my views, right? Well no, unfortunately not. The editor chose (and has since apologised for his actions to me) to remove one key sentence and replace it with another without checking with me first. So, in the piece I submitted I wrote

‘That his remarks appear not to have been recounted in full has probably fuelled the view that they were appallingly sexist.’

By this point, as a member of the ERC Scientific Council I had already seen the complete version of Tim’s toast from the EU report that was subsequently leaked to The Times. I knew of the second part of his speech beginning with the ‘Now seriously….’ which he had referred to in his own interview with the Observer. Without wanting to refer explicitly to the report, which as Council members we had been asked to treat in confidence, I wanted to make it clear that all was not as it might seem at first glance. In fact the more extended quote did not appear for several more days (see here (£)) , by which point neither Blum nor Oransky were prepared to deny the correctness of the additional remarks. (It should be noted that Jean Pierre Bourguignon, the ERC’s President, has gone on the record, in one of Louise Mensch’s blogposts, on what the ERC knew right from the outset and how he had personally talked to the Korean host face to face after the event to establish the facts: she had reported that the audience collectively had not noticed anything amiss at the time.)

So, in my Observer piece that crucial sentence went missing to be replaced by something I would never have chosen to write, namely

‘On Saturday, eight Nobel-winning scientists criticised the summary dismissal of Hunt by University College London.’

That eight white male scientists were closing ranks with Tim may have mattered to some, but to my mind it simply looked like the establishment sticking up for their colleagues. It did not strike me as relevant to what I wanted to say. But, there it is in black and white, I ‘said it’ for all to see. And no doubt for people to worry about why I felt what the other Nobel Prize winners said was relevant. But, if even something written in my own name can be modified in this way, why should one trust anything that has been written?

Let us look next at the question of interviews as they appeared in the newspapers. Paul Nurse, as President of the Royal Society as well as co-winner of the Nobel Prize with Tim, was inevitably going to be drawn in. He was interviewed by the Telegraph and when I read this I was quite frankly pretty surprised. I had heard Paul express his own views at length shortly beforehand and what he was quoted as saying was not really consistent with what I had heard him say in person. I think it would be fair to say that when he appeared on Broadcasting House the next day – a live appearance so no tinkering with his speech possible – we hear his views more accurately represented:

‘It became a complete Twitter, media storm, completely out of proportion. He should never have been sacked by University College, London.’

(Audio available on the Mensch post.) Something got lost in translation in the Telegraph interview. What a journalist chooses to include, and the context in which words are quoted, can completely change the nuances of how an ‘interview’ comes across. Clearly true in this case; likely to be true in general.

So, all those who think that the Observer interview with Tim Hunt and his wife Mary Collins demonstrate them as ‘whingeing’ or ‘asking for sympathy’ as I saw stated, might pause a moment to consider whether the flavour of his words are likely to be totally accurate – although I think the point he makes that UCL might have sought to hear more about what happened before they asked for his resignation is hardly a whinge, simply asking for due process (Some people explicitly seemed to think, via Twitter, that was an unreasonable thing for Tim to ask for. Why should he be denied due process? If he had actually been employed would UCL have behaved in such a cavalier way one wonders?)

So it’s time to turn to UCL and a related story about them (Disclosure: I hold an Hon DSc from UCL). They use the Garrick Club for dinners. That’s right, the Garrick Club that recently voted, again, to exclude women as members. The Club that the Times points out has a quarter of all the high court judges and QCs as members but who make it impossible for women judges to join. Not exactly a bastion of equality then, yet UCL – which keeps boasting about its commitment to equality as in the Provost Michael Arthur’s statement

‘Equality between the sexes is one of our core values’

– chooses to hold official events there.

I was asked to comment on this for the Times, which ran the original story. My views were accurately quoted this time, except that the second part of what I said was omitted, no doubt for reasons of space.

‘Individuals can of course make their own choices about where to dine but that professional working dinners should be held in a club which formally excludes women from membership seems totally inappropriate. This is particularly true if the dinners are associated with an organisation, such as UCL, publicly pledged to gender equality. As the incoming Master of Churchill College, last year I found myself attending a dinner at a club which does not admit women as members. I made it clear at the time I was very uncomfortable with this and I would not attend again at the same (or any similar) venue: this year the dinner will indeed be held elsewhere.’

I would have liked this second part to have appeared because it again stresses something I very much believe: we are all in this together and we need to work collectively and individually towards gender equality and improving working conditions for women in science. UCL have failed on this front.

Let us look at what the Garrick event organiser (UCL’s Tony Segal, a club member) said:

‘It has nothing to do with sexism. I love women. The more the better.’

I was tempted to tweet out those last two sentences, without any context (learning from the habits of some journalistic colleagues perhaps) – which personally I find outrageous even in their proper context. He was expressing the view not that it is excellent that we have many women who attend by right, rather it reads to me as if having lots of pretty women around makes for a pleasant evening. Personally I find his remarks offensive, although it prompted no Twitter outrage that I saw. But, he may well be being misreported. How can one tell? But, at the very least, I hope UCL – and Tony Segal in particular – will move next year’s event to a more fitting location. It can be done, as I know from my own experience as stated above. Giving custom to the Garrick financially allows them to perpetuate their injustices against women, such as QCs. Whether or not such women want to belong to a club like this is irrelevant.

So, to conclude, all I can say I have learnt about ‘evidence’ in this sorry tale of Tim Hunt is that little is as you see it. Print journalists, for all kinds of reasons which may be valid from their perspective of selling newspapers, are going to mould stories to fit the narrative they have in mind. Quotes will be selective, words may be inserted into written pieces, interviews will adopt the shape the editor wants not how the interviewee necessarily wants to come across. Evidence is to be used here, as with politicians, when it suits. Cherry-picking will occur.

But we scientists, we don’t need to do the same. Undoubtedly there has been cherry-picking by both eminent scientists and those with less clout throughout the Tim Hunt debacle to fit the image the original misleading tweet conveyed. That view seems to have been that Hunt is a sexist pig who deserves to be outed for all the damage he has done over many years to poor unsuspecting females in his group who haven’t a good word to say for him. Those assumptions were made implicitly – and sometimes explicitly alluded to – without a shred of evidence to back them up. At least one journalist has now made a fulsome apology to Tim Hunt and his (eminent in her own right as an immunologist) wife Mary Collins. I would wish that many of those others – scientists and journalists – who wrote bile based on bilge do likewise now the fundamental inaccuracy on which everything else was based is manifest. The scientists who instantly jumped in saying Tim should be removed from any committee where judgements were made about individuals should consider their own positions on any similar committees, since their own judgements are shown to be capable of bias.

The trouble is there are far too many people who are indeed sexist out there in our universities and labs. The rage unleashed is genuine because so many women have suffered too much at the hands of too many. But none of the evidence demonstrates this has been at the hands of Tim. There was no need for people to jump onto this specific bandwagon, at least without a lot more thought. This sort of behaviour is indeed how a mob behaves. Someone draws blood and that releases others’ inhibitions. More blood is drawn and more, forgetting the fact that there is a person involved.

Now, not only is that person damaged, but so is science – because it has lost its sight of truth and evidence – and so is the situation for women in science. Has the situation in our labs around the country (indeed around the world, since this has been a global story) been improved? I fear not. In fact, no one seems actually to have used this as a trigger to action. I was asked by a journalist whether my previous article of proposed actions led to any known changes in processes or behaviour anywhere, and I had to say not to my knowledge. I could at least add in the caveat that this had occurred during the examination season when universities had other things on their mind, but I fear that fact, although convenient, is actually irrelevant. People are good at wringing their hands, not good at making change happen. And we have to if we are to arrive at that true equality UCL and so many others lay claim to.  I am far more worried about the existence of the many who may never say a word out of place, who explicitly make all the right noises about sexism and the importance of diversity, but who day by day act to hinder women’s progress by their actions. Smooth talkers but actual opponents of true equality.

Please, let us not waste the opportunity. Please, pledge just one action for women in science from my original list (#just1action4WIS) or other actions you want to add in and then make sure your own organisation collectively does a great deal more.

Looking at the evidence

So, journalists and scientists alike, please always consider the evidence and any time in the future that you might ever want to attack someone think carefully as to whether you have reproducible evidence from more than one source. The damage was done by the original Connie St Louis tweet which was at the time backed up by Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky (although they subsequently seem somewhat to have backed off from their original positions and would not confirm or deny the more extended remarks). Nevertheless, it was essentially one person’s word and the many others in the room were not asked for their take on what happened. The evidence now, from a variety of sources including an audio tape from an attendee of the end of the speech (available on the Mensch post) shows the statement from St Louis that the speech was met with ‘deathly silence’ is quite simply not true. Audible laughter can be heard in the tape and the beginning of applause. This tape was made by Russian journalist and attendee Natalia Demina who has throughout tried (through Twitter) to give a contrasting view of what happened to St Louis’ tweet and statements without having had much attention paid to her, at least initially.

There is a very interesting scientific analysis of how people may have ‘heard’ what happened differently, presented by Narinder Kapur and Debbie Kennett here. Eye witness accounts can differ for all kinds of reason, including cognitive bias and what is perceived as humour. Maybe to some listeners the speech really did feel the 6-7 minutes long St Louis stated, even though no account of the words spoken could possibly add up even to a time of half that duration, however nervous and full of umm’s it might have been. Maybe the ill-fated words made such an impression the rest was silenced and the laughter and applause was simply not heard by some. But, the audio proves it existed and that has to be a more reliable witness.

Yet, that one original tweet caused all the damage. Those parties who immediately sprang into action based their entire interpretation on that initial tweet of Tim’s remarks, a tweet that has been shown to be incomplete at the very least, certainly misleading and not correctly portraying the context (see Bourguignon’s comments in Mensch’s post about the reaction from the Korean host

‘Without being asked, [the Korean female host] said she was impressed that Sir Tim could improvise such a warm and funny speech (her words). Later she told me that all other Korean lunch participants she talked to didn’t notice or hear anything peculiar in Sir Tim’s speech.’

There is also a good timeline account here by Debbie Kennett who constantly updated her account as the story unfolded in which she cites much of the evidence. )

Nevertheless these angry readers of the St Louis tweet immediately sprang into action, making many assumptions, their brains racing as they convinced themselves that Tim was sexist, had a long history of sexist behaviour and indeed was a misogynist. I don’t want to give sources for those remarks, although I obviously could, because I hope those people who started throwing words like misogyny around have reconsidered their judgements. In all the sorry story not one woman has come forward to accuse Tim of misogyny or mistreatment. I don’t buy the idea that they would be frightened to do so: at the time (though perhaps no longer) I suspect they would have been greeted with open arms. But, on the contrary, all those who came forward talked warmly about the man: Maria Leptin’s tweet where she states he had been the one who appointed her director of EMBO; Ottoline Leyser, present chair of the Athena Forum and whom Tim had taught, in Times Higher Education (disclosure: Ottoline and I wrote a joint letter to the Times (£) supporting Tim); a collective letter (£) from those who had worked with Tim at UCL  and many more, as well as previous unsolicited comments made over several years by those who’d interacted with Tim gathered together in this storify.

So, as I argued in my previous post, where was the evidence of sexism? People took three sentences that one person reported and built an entire edifice upon it, thereby jettisoning a man’s career. And let’s not forget what important work this man did in cell cycle regulation and its relevance to understanding cancer.

What lessons can we learn? Firstly, evidence matters. Why did so many people not stop to think whether it was likely someone would be so overtly sexist to a largely female audience when he had no prior form? I do not accept the argument that the one previous interview  everyone quoted (N.B. it was always the same interview not many different occasions) demonstrated he didn’t believe in equality of treatment. I am frequently challenged why I think we need 50:50 in the population of physicists, something in fact I have never said. The problem is not the absolute numbers of female physicists or male vets, it is the number that get turned away for sexist or cultural reasons. Tim’s previous remarks (I give them here in full, not just the limited couple of sentences usually quoted) were:

“I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.”

I interpret these as consonant with the idea that there isn’t a problem if there aren’t as many female scientific leaders as male if that is how it turns out when everyone is treated equally. All this proves is that he, like many another, has not caught up with the idea of unconscious bias. Since Tim has been interviewed many times – and given many talks over the years since his Nobel Prize – and all the evidence people can find for his alleged sexism is their interpretation of  one single interview, I don’t find it very convincing that he is sexist through and through.

My own evidence of his nature is based on actual interactions with him over a number of years. I found it strange that people believed that a tweet of three sentences was more informative of the character of the man than my many conversations and observations of him in action at committees. I was accused of defending ‘a friend’ instead of people stopping to think if the few words quoted actually amounted to anything more than a bad sense of humour and that my greater knowledge might actually be saying something useful. In my previous post I called his words indefensible. I regret saying that. Now the full content of what he said is available it is clear that his remarks may perhaps have been idiotic and unwise but they were self-deprecating humour about his own tangled emotional life, not thoughts about the emotional state of women. What I fear is that forever more far too many people will remember nothing about the story and the actual facts beyond that original, misleading tweet.

The BBC Today ‘interview’, which even to my ears didn’t sound like a convincing apology, is now shown – via the transcript Louise Mensch has managed to access  – to have been mixed and matched in ways to mean one can’t deduce anything much from it: the two versions broadcast an hour apart have the crucial ‘I’m just trying to be honest’ phrase moved around so that it is clear that what is being broadcast is not actually the words in the way in which Tim spoke them. The actual questions to which he was answering have never been released by the BBC. Furthermore, the timing of his recorded response was such that he probably had as yet no idea of how his remarks had  been reported and were being perceived, in which case how was he supposed to know for what he was to apologise? As Fiona Fox has indicated, we should not expect our scientists to have to behave (or be judged)  like politicians.

So, for me, it is clear that Tim’s actual words convey nothing more than a disastrous attempt at self-deprecating humour about his own emotional entanglements in his life, followed by enthusiastic words about women doing science, entirely consistent with everything he has done throughout his life. He was being honest, but not in the way the original stories chose to portray. His ability to support scientists, of any race or gender, has now been compromised by the actions of others. I see it as a tragedy for him personally, for science in general and for women in science in particular.



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