Do You Want to be Described as Hard Working?

I visited Oxford this week to talk to the Women in Physics group, mainly made up of students and postdocs (not all of whom were women). Tea and excellent scones were provided to stimulate good discussion. I was duly grilled as the voice of experience and asked to provide advice about career progression and setbacks. I want to highlight one particular question that was raised by a student looking to apply for fellowships and needing letters of reference to be written on their behalf. Should she, she asked, point out to her supervisor that a letter that said she was a good team player might be of limited use.

What she was getting at was the fact that people can, often without deliberate intent, write such letters in a very gendered way. A few years ago this seemed little appreciated. People ‘knew’ what the sterling values for a woman should be – being conscientious, kind, helpful, a good team player or hard-working might all have been regarded as praise. But it was praise of a kind that does not necessarily imply high performance in a laboratory let alone in a new research fellow. The words that are required to land such a position are more likely to involve qualities such as drive, potential, creativity, imagination, excellence and to be regarded as outstanding, stellar or ‘top of the class’.

So, if letter writers just sit down and write the first adjectives that come into their head to describe men and women, the words may be poles apart even if the subjects of the letters are indistinguishable in ability. Clearly, this can lead to significant detriment to the woman’s progression even if without a sexist intent. As with so many of the different strands that make up unconscious bias, making the bias conscious so that the letter writer pauses, pen metaphorically in the air, may make all the difference. Do you really mean your star female PhD student is hard-working and conscientious – or was the message that you wanted to convey in fact that she was outstanding, goes the extra mile and always exceeds your expectations about what is possible, demonstrating great originality en route? There is an enormous difference in the impact of the two descriptions.

For the supervisor whose pen is now aloft but frozen in their hand as they realise they haven’t a clue how to tackle this letter-writing business which is turning out a lot more challenging than they’d anticipated, help is at hand. When I first wrote about this issue back in 2012, citing a 2009 study by J. Madera, M. Hebl and R. Martin in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the topic had not yet received a great deal of attention. However now you can, for instance, write your letter of reference and pass it through a website which will highlight words that may be perceived as gendered. You will soon be able to tell quite how many words of dubious worth you’ve included. Hence you can deduce whether the description is what you intended or something far from it. After all, some of us some of the time may feel the kindest thing we can say about the dunce in the group (whatever their gender) is that they are hard-working in which case well and good. Sometimes being a team player may be an absolutely crucial skill for a particular role, in which case go for it.

Additionally there are style-writing guides amplifying the basic points I am making here. For generic jobs you might want to look here; or a similar set of advice addressed specifically to scientists, indeed astronomers, here. Whereas a few years ago a Google search for ‘gendered letters of reference’ threw up very little, now it will produce multiple hits. This is progress of sorts.

However, to come back to the original question, there is an additional element implied in the question. The student was applying now for fellowships. Would it be tactful now to raise this topic – or was it actually too late? I consider it might turn out to be distinctly awkward to stand over the supervisor who is about to draft your letter of reference pointing out what they write shouldn’t be gendered and please could they include lots of superlatives. It could be seen as pretty pushy if not downright offensive! Maybe this is something that in general the concerned student should slip into a discussion weeks/months in advance; perhaps it could be brought up in a journal club debate or an Athena Swan workshop. Departments could also circulate information annually to their staff to remind them of the possibility of double standards in adjectives and nouns peppering references. There are plenty of sites now putting out information covering this topic, so it isn’t necessary for every department to reinvent this particular wheel, even if it may still be necessary for each and every one actively to promote this information.

For the reader of such letters of reference it is important to know when someone is described as hard-working because that’s the kindest thing anyone can say, and when the writer actually meant to convey an extremely positive impression but is unaware that their description is gendered and liable to be read in a very differnt way. The more this issue is discussed explicitly, the less women will be unintentionally disadvantaged.

Posted in Women in Science | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

To Chair or not to Chair

I have been kicking around the university scene so long that I forget how mysterious some parts of my life may seem to those just starting out. I was rather startled to be asked by a student over dinner the other week what committee chairs do, yet it is a perfectly reasonable, indeed rather sensible, question. Students may well not get exposed to committees at all, and a student-run committee may not closely resemble a fully-fledged academic one, peopled by professors who have read Microcosmographia Academica. (For those readers of my blog who have previously not dipped into this early twentieth century classic by Francis Cornford based on the machinations of my very own University of Cambridge it is, as Wikipedia puts it,

‘a pessimistic view of academic politics presented in a readable and lively style, and is best known for its discussion of such principles as “The (Thin End of the) Wedge” and “The Dangerous Precedent“’.)

However, although some committees may feel like a splendid lesson in obfuscation, evasion and buck-passing carried out by members who variously (or simultaneously) suffer from chips on shoulders and/or super-inflated egos combined with a complete lack of empathy for anyone else in the room, I would suggest some committees are rather better than that. I may have listened recently to some of my esteemed colleagues rant and rave about a selection of university committees (none of which, I’m relieved to say, I am a member of) which had signally faced to achieve anything beyond the destruction of a few trees (or equivalently the clogging up of Dropbox space), but I still think they are a necessary part of progress. The alternative is dictatorship from the top, a dangerous way to make decisions as modern politics makes all too clear, or a complete anarchic free-for-all.

I have written up some caricatures of bad chairs before (here  and here) so perhaps now it’s time to be more constructive and less flippant and to list what I think are the good characteristics, even vital ones if a committee is to go smoothly.

Firstly one needs to have read the papers. It seems so obvious but is not universal. The chair who constantly has to defer to the Secretary rarely conveys confidence in the minds of other committee members, or is likely to be able to spot a bullshitter, seize upon any special pleading or the utterance of deliberately misleading statements (let alone a ‘dangerous precedent’, see above), because they won’t have followed the nuances of any prior papers or previous decisions. Secondly, I always request a brief to be supplied. It is helpful to be reminded if there are new members joining the committee or old members retiring; I like to have an approximate timetable laid out so I can tell if I am getting too far behind schedule and equally can plan when an appropriate comfort break might be factored in; and if someone is attending only part of the meeting to make a presentation on a particular point one also needs to know when they will be turning up so that they don’t have to sit out in the cold too long. A brief may contain many such reminders as well as indications of the work of related committees or cross references to previous minutes which affect what is currently on the table.

So much for the mechanics to be completed in advance. Different committees will have very different dynamics. Personally I’m a great believer in informality since I think it promotes openness and honesty and I like to inject a few light-hearted asides to prevent a sense of dull heaviness creeping up on everyone. I have in my time been horrified to find myself on committees so formal and fusty that I was supposed to wear a gown (by which I don’t mean evening wear), or where I have been referred to as the Master of Churchill rather than by name. I once sat on a committee where we all were assigned a place at the table and had to sit in the same place each time – which we were expected to remember (a challenge round a large table with chairs densely packed) – because name cards were not thought appropriate.

I’m a great believer in such name cards: those silly and often collapsing Toblerone-shaped bits of card can save much embarrassment. This is certainly the case for the Chair and often for everyone, particularly where the committee is large, meets rarely or has a high turnover of members. Starting off the meetings by ensuring everyone introduces themselves, their affiliation and perhaps a little explanation of their role and hence why they’ve been appointed can also be helpful when a new committee convenes or there is a substantial influx of new members. All these seemingly trivial things can help the ‘ambience’ and ensure informality coupled with serious conversation, whereas if members are unsure who anyone is or where they’re from (literally and metaphorically) clarity of thought and debate can be impeded.

The Chair needs to know what is to be accomplished, another sentence that looks too obvious to need saying but isn’t. A good secretariat will make sure that papers are marked for decision, note or discussion. If it isn’t known which of these any particular paper is, and whether a decision is actually wanted/needed or the paper is simply there to prompt discussion for the further development of ideas, how can the appropriate outcome be achieved? Committees where there is lack of clarity of what is expected of them, or who they are reporting to (in other words what the governance chain is; committees should always know what their Terms of Reference are) can get into awful, inconclusive messes. If the papers don’t make all this clear, the Chair needs to intervene (ideally having checked it out in advance rather than blundering through this at the time) and elucidate.

All this is still pretty mechanical. The real challenge is how the Chair conducts the meeting. Can they maintain control, or do the loud-mouthed bores dominate the discussion? Can they ensure the discussion doesn’t disappear down a series of irrelevant rabbit-holes without ever reaching a conclusion? Can they ensure that the voices of those less confident are heard and that everyone is happy that they got their opportunity to express their point of view? All these are absolutely crucial skills. I have rarely had to resort to a sentence such as ‘we’ve heard your arguments and the majority do not agree’, but if necessary to stop endless rehearsing of the same arguments I will deploy such blunt statements. This of course relies on the Chair establishing what the majority view is.

So the final vital skill I will mention is the need, not only to let everyone have their say, but then to work out where the consensus sits – or indeed whether there is or is ever likely to be such a consensus given the evidence on the table. This position then needs to be summarised, neither too soon or too late in the discussion, to check that it is indeed what people were saying. After an hour’s debate it can be easy to lose the thread of multiple arguments, or miss some important nuance, so spelling out what conclusions seem to have been reached is absolutely vital for the minutes and for everyone’s peace of mind. At that point there is still time to revisit some sub-clause or tighten up some infelicitous phrase to make sure that in a month’s or year’s time the minutes will stand without ambiguity and backed up by the evidence there is.

If all goes well the Chair can then leave with a pleasing sense of a job well done, even if physically quite drained (and be in no doubt, chairing a large committee can be immensely tiring). But a combative committee, a committee where consensus has all too obviously not been reached, or where a sizeable minority feel their views have been treated with contempt, only stores up trouble for the future.

Happy chairing!

Posted in Science Culture | Tagged , | 2 Comments

When the Going gets Tough, be Kind

In academia there is tremendous pressure to be permanently at the top of one’s game. One is expected to be able to perform across many fronts: lecturing, grant-writing, pastoral care, admissions, outreach, committees….Not only to perform, to excel in all of these at once, from the day you start as a group leader or lecturer. It’s a tough ask. I would say far more is expected of the current generation than of mine. Things were, if you like, a lot more amateur then. Fewer forms to fill in but fewer tasks to complete. No help given – in grant-writing for instance – but less expectation of instant success in winning grants. No Powerpoint (or even computers for those of us of a certain age) or communication skills courses: it was all done by slides whose glass broke in transit, or transparencies which smudged, both of which could be heavy when hefted around in quantity.

This pressure can make it all too easy to be intolerant of others. If something is going wrong then the office boy kicks the cat. In other words, it is usually easy to find someone to scapegoat, so that you can shift the blame and feel better about yourself. However, these other people may also be suffering from overload or stresses. In such situations, the sentence I came across recently really resonates with me:

Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

I found these words here and they absolutely struck a chord. They are so true. We have all been in bad places due to personal crises, lack of sleep, a horrid argument, a recent bereavement or any of hundreds of other distressing circumstances. Having fallen into whatever slough of despond it is that has tripped one up, it is hard to climb out, let alone to climb out unscathed. In the meantime academia (indeed just about any employment sector) expects you to continue to be your sunny self, work flat out and deliver. WS Gilbert put this well through the words of the tragic jester Jack Point:

Though your wife ran away with a soldier that day,
And took with her your trifle of money;
Bless your heart, they don’t mind —
They’re exceedingly kind —
They don’t blame you — as long as you’re funny!

The reality is, at times when the world has thrown you a curved ball one simply isn’t able either to be sunny or to deliver. Whatever smile one attempts to affix to one’s face, so as not to scare the students or staff, it may at times be only skin deep. I recall the year, when a family member was slowly dying an untimely death; I still had to do my exam marking and I tried to do this conscientiously. I was furious when the senior examiner complained my marks were out of line, too harsh and made me re-mark, but he was right. When I looked again I could see how my grim mood had permeated my marking and the re-marking was absolutely justified, however tedious to do.

So being kind to those who appear to be behaving out of character simply amounts to realising there may be more going on than is manifest behind their stiff smile. And being kind matters. In HE – as elsewhere – it seems to me we have even more occasion to try to be kind this year (although this post was started before US news this week made it yet more topical). We are faced with a world in which kindness is being submerged underneath racism, misogyny and rejection of any kind of individual who is ‘other’. The liberal world of my youth, which recognized what my parents’ generation had fought for in the last World War, expected acceptance of difference in opposition to anti-Semitism and Facism. In our universities we now have a truly diverse community of students, researchers and staff who may have come from down the road or equally may have come from the other side of the world. In either case they may look, sound and indeed be different – with different faith, gender-identification, colour of skin or sexual orientation from ourselves. More trivially, they may shave their heads or grow their hair. They may have griefs we know nothing of from experience of violence or trauma, ill health or bereavement. But by being kind, what have we got to lose?

We do not live in a zero sum world where giving warmth and exhibiting thought and care for others detracts from what we each can receive ourselves. Kindness here does not mean less kindness somewhere else. Absolutely to the contrary I would advocate. In the face of recent votes here in the UK, in the US and, in the months ahead, elsewhere in Europe, we in education must recognize why some people are so frightened. It is our responsibility not only to put our heads together to work out how those who feel so alienated by the current state of the world can feel that there is something in it for them which does not involve kicking the cat, but continue to exhibit compassion all around. This is not a case of checking our privilege (a phrase I detest), but of using our privilege wisely to support those who signally lack any.

So next time someone seems to be underperforming think twice before letting rip regarding their failings. When you spot someone (metaphorically or literally) standing at the edge of a group, consider joining them or including them in other ways. And when you see an eruption of hate or abuse, think about how you can offer support.



Posted in Education, Equality | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Some Animals are More Equal than Others

This week I attended the Royal Society’s Diversity Day. As everyone remarked, the audience was indeed remarkably diverse. Signing of the talks for the hard-of-hearing was available and the standard white male was in (relatively) short supply both on the platform and on the floor (though you could argue that more in attendance to hear the talks would actually have been better). The day kicked off with a talk of how MI5 is being turned around on the diversity front by head spook Andrew Parker, who was using the occasion to ‘come out’ about the organisation’s work.

But as ever much of the interest came not in the set pieces, but in the conversations over coffee and in the Q+A. Paul Walton stressed how the obstacles for gender equality still lie in getting middle managers to move on from ‘there is no problem’, through ‘it’s a woman’s problem’ to finally getting to grips with the issue. My own experience regrettably shows me, still, too many instances of those who haven’t got beyond that first stage. These are folk capable of bandying unpleasant remarks around, thereby exhibiting an extraordinary unawareness of their own contributions to the hostile world so many women face. As regards the second stage I was interested to read recently the account of training in ‘ally skills’ being developed in Silicon Valley. The aim of this to ensure that everyone understands bad attitudes are not a ‘woman’s problem’ but it is incumbent on everyone, particularly men, to intervene when sexism starts to rear its ugly head in casual conversation. The tech industry obviously has particularly severe cultural issues, but it strikes me that just about any workplace might benefit from what the instigator of this mode of training describes as the exact opposite of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.

However the title of this post refers to another problem, a form of unconscious bias, which I was reminded of during conversation over coffee on Monday. I don’t think this problem has a particular label attached to it, although one might consider it as equivalent to a double standard. This is the case, common during committee discussions (whether about grants, promotion, recruitment or any other situation where individuals are being judged) when different criteria are implicitly used for men and women. If you aren’t wide awake and looking out for trouble this is an easy ‘mistake’ to overlook, since usually plenty of verbiage floats between the one case and the other. But look harder and it can be spotted all too often.

For instance take the case where materials scientists are being judged. The man who has a patent to their name is given a thumbs up; when a comparable woman is judged the question is raised as to whether the patent is generating cash or has already translated into a useful product. I’ve seen this precise problem happen at a committee (in an organisation not my own). Indeed, it wasn’t used against a single woman but two, who both had this higher hurdle applied to their submissions whereas the various men escaped similar scrutiny.  I’m glad to say on this occasion a (male) committee member highlighted it and provoked a re-evaluation.

It might equally apply to the over-slavish use of metrics. A man with a high h index is given an approving tick, whereas a woman whose h index is exactly the same is suddenly judged instead on which journals she has published in and then gets marked down for the absence of a publication in a top tier journal – without anyone seeking to check if the man would pass that specific test too. Spelling it out this way makes it obvious how unfair it is, but in the normal cut and thrust of a committee meeting it is far too easy to overlook what could be deliberate manipulation but is more likely simply to be unconscious bias at work.

I feel this quote from a senior (female) manager in industry neatly sums up this sort of double standard in yet another form:

For example, a male manager looking to promote a man may say: ‘Chuck him in at the deep end and let’s see if he sinks or swims.’ The same manager may say of a female candidate: ‘Is she ready yet? We don’t want to set her up to fail.’ Words said with the best of intentions, without any malevolence – and, arguably, stated by a well-mannered man – but the impact on the progression of the two careers is clear.

We should create a name for this phenomenon so that it is easily labelled and called out. I think the Orwellian ‘all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others’, abbreviated to ‘Equal Animal Bias’ would do the trick, but others may have neater suggestions. It is a way of doing down those who do not fit the standard mould, whatever mould that might be, and is pernicious even if done without conscious malice.

How to solve this? I like the idea of a committee sitting down with a bunch of cards – take your pick either red and yellow like a football referee’s, or with more graphic illustrations or names of common failings – and holding up an appropriate one when a member commits a foul. An additional benefit of such an approach would be to spread the responsibility across the whole committee, rather than assuming, yet again, it is the woman’s job to point out egregious behaviour. It might even introduce a bit of healthy competition to see who could spot the most examples. Would it work to train the more recalcitrant and repeat offender of bias demonstration? Nothing like a bit of embarrassment to change behaviour. But it could only work if a sufficient proportion were appropriately awake and trained to spot the glaring errors and double standards. Anyone up to try this flashcard calling out?

Posted in Equality, Women in Science | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Some Animals are More Equal than Others