To Honour Those Forced Out #IWD19

For International Women’s Day I want to take as my theme, the lines from Ecclesiasticus

And some there be who have no memorial, who are perished as though they had never been…

This is not because I’ve suddenly acquired a desire to become a lay preacher. Indeed the reason I know those lines is because we used to sing that verse, and those surrounding them, as a rather mournful dirge at my school’s Founders’ Day each year and the words have stuck. They are actually extremely inappropriate for a girls’ grammar school, as mine was, since they begin

Let us now praise famous men…. Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions…

And so it goes on. No word associated with women appears throughout these verses, so why they were thought appropriate for 700 young girls to sing with wavering voice I have no idea. But let me get to the point.

I want to consider not famous (wo)men, but those who vanish; those women from the school who happily set out on their life trajectories and were derailed. The women – and all like them – whose career choices were impacted by the query ‘do you really want to do engineering, dear, it’s not usual for women’; those whose PhD supervisors gave credit to a male PhD and offered them the opportunity to travel to a major meeting to present the work to the same student without apparently spotting the inherent injustice; those who were bullied and/or ignored in their group meetings and no one spoke up for them; the postdocs who were groped at a conference (when they were finally allowed to attend) or excluded from the boisterous male evenings down the pub when so much valuable information was exchanged; the early career researcher whose letters of reference implied she was hard-working and sociable, rather than internationally-leading and brilliant (although she was); or who was told that there was no point in her attempting to get a permanent position as she’d just go off and have a family;  the inexperienced lecturer who was told to get on with the Athena Swan application with no logistic support or reduction in teaching load; or the woman (at any stage) put on a committee (however (un)important) to make sure there was some semblance of gender balance and then ignored, talked over or sneered at when attempting to speak up.

Those vignettes will seem familiar to most readers. These are the people who have ‘no memorial’ because at some stage they’ve had to give up their dreams in the face of a lack of support, active denigration or passive overlooking. They may have been far more talented than their co-worker who fitted their department’s stereotypes better (gender is of course not the only way in which they may fail to fit to these, but as it’s International Women’s Day that is what I stress here), who got the opportunities denied to them and consequently who saw their careers thrive. These co-workers may have had a sense of entitlement and arrogance which allowed them to feel comfortable with the richesses coming their way, and who never stopped to question who they trampled on en route to their chair.

Sometimes the women fight back. I am reminded of this by the story of a woman I first met as a Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow in a discipline not my own. She asked for advice from me, posing a question that had me stumped. She had heard another newbie (but male) research fellow ask one of the (male) professors in her department out for lunch so he could ask for advice. How could she, a young female, do the same or anything similar? She felt excluded by the social niceties in case, by asking the man ‘out’ it was interpreted as a come-on. The answer has to be simply to keep the offer to a conversation in the tea-room, but it shows the pitfalls (for both man and woman) in this situation and the way the conventional greasing of social wheels in our society may impact on the professional.

In due course this woman applied for a lectureship in the department and, at interview, was told by a senior male colleague that there would be no room in the department for a woman like her. What had she done (and I have no idea, but suspect the answer is that she had two X chromosomes) to warrant a public dressing-down like that? She did not get the job. She left. She is now a very successful head of  department – in a different university – lauded with prizes, and has thrived, with an academic partner and a couple of children as well. She had the determination and resilience to walk away from a toxic environment and start afresh somewhere that supported her better and in so doing proved her male detractors wrong (I hope they are smarting and regretting the loss of a superstar from their department).

She is a success story whose life will undoubtedly be remembered by those in her profession (and her Wikipedia page!) and the impact her research has going forward. Too many others will have lost their way, been challenged or overlooked once too often for their souls to bear. We should remember these in the abstract and vow not to let such women be persistently let down by the system. To make sure this happens is a worthy challenge for all of us on International Women’s Day.

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As the Years Pass, What’s Changed?

Another year and International Women’s Day (IWD is on March 8th) is fast approaching. In a rather wonderful coincidence this year the date marks exactly 50 years since the Fellowship of Churchill College voted to admit women, the very first of the initially all male Cambridge colleges to do so. To celebrate this event I will be holding a public conversation with Alison Finch, one of the first three women to be admitted as Fellows (and an Emeritus Fellow of the College now), alongside the first intake of female students in 1972. This conversation will be recorded and added to the collection of podcasts and videos of my conversations with outstanding women that can be found here on the Churchill website.

It is, of course, dispiriting that such a day as IWD is still needed, but my goodness it really is. It is dispiriting that some people give no thought to the challenges women around the world face on a daily basis except, just conceivably, on this one day. And it is dispiriting that as a result everything gets crowded into this one day, so that too many people can look the other way on the other 364 days of the year. Yet you don’t have to try very hard to hear about the challenges women face each and every day: the media (social and mainstream) is full of it if you care to look. There is the Chris Cook piece today about the unchanging face of bullying in Parliament (not, of course, just women being bullied and men doing the bullying, but that would appear to be the dominant aspect of it); there is the story of the US neuroscientist whose tenure seems to have evaporated in the face of her whistleblowing about harassment; economists study why there are so few women in their field, but the imbalance persists year on year; one of the few well-known female economists Christine Lagarde spoke up this week for the boost the economy could receive if more women were in the workplace and not overlooked or driven out by sexism; and workplace sexism is indeed endemic, with women in senior positions disliked and challenged even when they get there if they behave more like men. And that is before one starts on #MeToo or #EverydaySexism.

Of course myths abound about women’s intrinsic abilities – I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Gina Rippon’s recent book The Gendered Brain to put alongside the works of Angela Saini and Cordelia Fine. The way the world is set up still sees male as default, a problem as entrenched as ever in the modern world of data overload, as Caroline Criado Perez spells out in her own recent book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. These myths are fed into our cultures so that both young boys and girls grow up believing that women are genetically designed to nurture and that men are the natural risk-takers; that it is as unnatural for men to wish to stay at home with the kids as for a woman to be a boss. Having just been reading The Excellent Dr Blackwell (written by Julia Boyd who just happens to be the wife of a former Churchill Master), the first woman to be awarded an MD back in the 19th century, it is extraordinary to realise just how little movement there has been in some of these myths (and inevitable consequences) in the past 150 years.

If you wonder whether bias is over-rated as a problem, consider the story regarding the transgender biologist Ben (formerly Barbara) Barres which neatly sums it up. After a seminar he gave, the comment was heard ‘Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.’ (quoted in Nancy Hopkin’s foreword to his autobiography,  written shortly before his death). You can’t seek a clearer example of implicit bias in the world of science than that. Barres was a great advocate for women in science, fighting sexism till the end of his life. We all have to speak up, challenging sexism (and other unattractive –isms) wherever we see it.

I may be a scientist and therefore particularly concerned about science, and making sure young girls aren’t deterred by parents, teachers or our culture from considering careers in science (physical and computer science in particular) and engineering, but if I were a lawyer or a journalist or an economist, I suspect I’d feel the same. Young girls need to aim higher than being a footballer’s wife (or consort); they need to take pride in themselves rather than simply those they associate with. This year, as every year in the recent past, I want to highlight again my handy list of actions that any of us may want to dip into to find out what more we can do to encourage girls and women to stick with science. You can find this list of Just 1 Action for Women in Science elsewhere on these pages.

So as IWD approaches, it is worth considering progress in the years since Churchill College’s momentous decision of 50 years ago, a decision that was taken against the wishes of the then Master Sir William Hawthorne, a story told gleefully to me many times when I first arrived here as how not to be a successful Master. Cambridge University now has essentially equal numbers of men and women at undergraduate level, yet there are still only about 20% of women in the professoriate. Consequently there is still a significant gender pay gap, with a mean value of just under 20% driven by the grade segregation, with fewer women at the top grades.  The numbers of female professors is slowly creeping up, but this cannot be attributed to historical factors any longer; the time when that was a plausible excuse is long past. The University has, in certain subjects, a gender attainment gap with a smaller proportion of women getting 1sts (and 3rds) than men, a situation that is at last receiving some sort of scrutiny alongside the role of ethnicity. Bullying and harassment are now very  much on the agenda, as well as training about our biases for those involved in appointments. Maybe in 5 years we will see a transformation in our culture, but my belief is, if you want to bury your head in the sand  – or worse expect to progress because of, and not despite of, bad behaviour – it is still possible to get away with it. Bullying, arrogance and selfishness – as well as sexism – have not been eradicated yet and possibly never will be.

Celebrate IWD, read my list of #Just1Action4WiS and let us remain optimistic that change is possible, but I fear my own optimism is tempered with pragmatism, frustration and more than a hint of scepticism that equality is not yet just around the corner.

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The Interdisciplinary Challenge

This week I am talking at an event in London marking (I believe) the launch of Nature Reviews Physics, but the emphasis of this event will be on the promotion of best working practices in ‘physics and interdisciplinary science’, as it was phrased in the letter of invitation. In other words, what do physicists have to offer other disciplines and how can we work optimally together? Three of us will be discussing how we’ve got to where we are and what challenges we faced en route, I think with the aim of inspiring others that this is a track worth travelling along. You can read interviews with the three of us on the Nature blogs (Vittoria Colliza, Bart Hoogenboom and myself).

For me, falling into the world of biology was not an intentional aim, as maybe it is for some. I just kept getting sucked further into it due to my habit – the habit of any decent researcher – of asking awkward questions. In recent discussions in my own university about what our (undergraduate) education should be aiming at, the belief that – whatever your discipline – being critical is a core competence kept surfacing.  And casting such a critical eye on received wisdom from another discipline is part of the joy – and frustration – of being interdisciplinary.

My own ‘falling’ into the world of biology started from the rather deader aspect of biological materials with which we are all (at least in some senses) familiar, namely food. If you talk to food scientists they have to cover a wide area of knowledge with the inevitable consequence that their in-depth knowledge of any part may be more limited. For instance, asking (of what was then Rowntrees) what the connectivity of sugar crystals in chocolate was seemed to take the industrialists by surprise. But morphological connectivity seemed to me to be a basic and rather obvious question. The question of what happens to the fresh-from-the-plant starch granules when they are extruded with water to make the equivalent of Cheesy Wotsits, aka (in more prosaic terms) as an extruded starch foam turned out to be the question that ultimately took me into the realm of living stuff. I got there by carrying out some quite sophisticated real-time small angle X-ray and neutron scattering – respectable activities for a physicist, even if starch was at the time perceived as less of a respectable material to work on – and thereby analysing the mesoscopic internal granule structure and its breakdown during cooking. I had fun with this for a decade or so. Over the past approximately 30 years I have continued to move closer to biology, touching on protein aggregation and cellular biophysics on the way.

But if my remarks above about food scientists sound slightly sniffy or pejorative, then I can be equally rude about myself. Of course I only have a smattering of knowledge about proteins, or starch let alone cellular biophysics, just enough to enable me to get to grips with the experiments I am trying to do (or, more strictly, that my students are trying to do). I need to know a little about a lot, but I have never pretended to know more about plant biochemistry – for instance – when it comes to how the starch is laid down in the plant than I do.

That is why finding the right collaborators is so important. The person to whom you don’t mind admitting that you don’t understand their explanation of just how many enzymes are involved in the process of creating the granule, or why that knock-out has that specific effect (and they don’t mind admitting that they still have failed to grasp what Braggs Law is). The fact is, in my experience, it is inevitable one is going to have to ask some pretty naïve questions, probably several times, and if the person you are working with expresses that sniffiness too visibly or too often, working with them will not be a pleasure and progress is likely to be hampered. So, when it comes to my advice about how to have effective working relationships in an interdisciplinary setting, choosing people who you feel comfortable with admitting just how much you don’t know and, equally, not patronising them for failing to have all your own knowledge at their fingertips come at the top of my list.

One of the questions that Nature asked me for the blog really reminded me how incompetent one can feel when setting out into the unknown territory of a new field. I was asked what it felt like to attend the first conference in this new field. I remember it well: I felt so stupid. So much just went over my head. Things that were clearly bread and butter to other attendees merely felt mysterious to me. And, having gone on my own, I didn’t feel I could own up to my fog. This wasn’t a case of being a critical thinker. This was a case of having missed out on Protein Structure 101. Like learning a foreign language, immersion is probably the best way to master some of this, but a three day conference hardly amounts to immersion, it just means three days of feeling out of one’s depth.

Persistence has to be part of the solution to such confusion. Finding colleagues to fire questions at, reading basic texts and slowly piecing things together is a good starting strategy. And then firing off some more questions. You can get a long way with such tactics and some common sense. So, to finish off this post expressing how ignorant one can be and still not do too bad a job, let me confess to the experience of one of my first major committee-chairing jobs (if not the first), which was for the BBSRC. I was asked, as an outsider to the projects in the field and so without a vested interest yet who was well known to the BBSRC and its predecessor the AFRC, to chair a committee awarding grants for capital equipment, probably back in the late 1990s. Reading the titles of the applications, I realised they were entirely full of acronyms that meant nothing to me. I could have googled (which must have been a very recent tool back then, so that that verb probably did not yet exist), but instead I rang my starch plant biochemist collaborator, the John Innes Centre’s Alison Smith. She could fill me in the meaning of MALDI-TOF and other such useful terms. I wasn’t needing to do the refereeing (thank goodness), simply keep people on track, to time and reaching consensus positions about a ranked list. But being totally in the dark about what was being discussed would have felt all wrong. Having a general sense of the nature of the equipment under discussion (and I did read every proposal in full) gave me confidence that I could do the task. I don’t remember receiving any complaints from the other members of the committee, so presumably I knew just enough to confer confidence on them too.

Interdisciplinarity is of course a topic of growing interest. Hence Nature’s own motivation for the meeting on Tuesday; hence Research England’s emphasis on it (and the Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel that I chair for them for REF2021). But we each have to find our own way through the maze of working with others and crossing boundaries if we want to label ourselves as interdisciplinary.

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Which Skills for a PhD Student?

Training of PhD students. It’s a big topic and large sums of money are involved. As I wrote in the autumn, there are concerns about the decisions that are being made. With the recent announcement of 75 new Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) by the EPSRC, the topic is bound to be in the air again. The blog-that-calls-itself UKRI Observatory did its third analysis of what was going on. This analysis focussed on the numbers that were not renewed and the universities that saw significant falls in the numbers they won. Their slant was that the lack of renewals implied the scheme wasn’t working and that the ‘excellence’ allegedly demanded wasn’t forthcoming. It could, on the other hand, reflect the fact that some subjects just weren’t seen as any longer needing CDTs. That might be because ‘fashions’ have changed, that the problems have been solved, or that there is no longer any relevant industry in the UK.

It isn’t clear to me what judgements about ‘excellence’ are being made: is it in the training, the topic, the PIs or the institution? It could in principle be any of these, but here let me explore what ‘training’ current cohorts of students are expected to be exposed to. I fear – from the rumours I hear – this is becoming quite prescriptive. But do courses on Powerpoint (again!), safety or entrepreneurship really prepare the student for the future? Is the EPSRC, or UKRI more generally, looking at courses on policy, grant-writing or team building? (I ask these questions from ignorance not sarcasm.)

Recently I have given two talks about my ‘life in science’ for want of a better word. In other words, talks about both my actual research and my career, given to PhD students (and some postdocs) in two universities. I talked about went wrong at different stages and, with hindsight, what enabled me to get past the hiccoughs; I talked about why I suspect most academics, however successful, didn’t necessarily set out knowing what they wanted to do or where/what they were aiming for. The number of professors who knew as they started their PhD that they wanted to be a professor in [insert chosen subject] and went in an arrow-straight line to the top without a glitch is, I would postulate based on multiple anecdotes but no data, tiny. And I spelled out that many in the audience would not be heading in that direction anyhow but should be thinking about all the skills, ‘soft’ skills (how I hate that rather pejorative word in this context, neatly skewered in a recent Financial Times article about the coming world of AI) that they are picking up along the way of their PhD.

What struck me was the response, particularly to the first talk over the ensuing sandwich lunch. ‘Why don’t we have more talks like this?’ was said to me several times. I think students are crammed with facts, indeed with ‘skills’ soft or otherwise, but given little chance to reflect or to put their experiences in context. Students need to know that confidence may only be skin deep, that their colleague at the bench with a big mouth has no monopoly on brains just because (s)he sounds off; they need to know that confusion about careers is normal; that no one finds it easy to do things the first time, be it a presentation or an interview; that being aware and supportive of struggling colleagues now is likely to make them a better leader later, whatever their chosen sphere of work. If they have a good supervisor maybe they learn these things, but too often the supervisor has more interest in chaining their students metaphorically to the bench than allowing them to express confusion and uncertainty. Somehow I doubt that any of the 75 selected CDT programmes specified they were going to offer courses in uncertainty (other than in measurements or quantum terms), let alone confusion.

The CBI frequently bemoans the fact that students aren’t being taught the skills they need for the workplace. This might be taken to mean that their ability to communicate intelligibly is weak (some supervisors may not be ideally placed to teach this topic either) or that their quantitative skills aren’t what might have been hoped for. However, a 2016 CBI survey suggested ‘By far the most important ‘skills’ factor centres on attitudes and aptitudes such as ability to present well.’ OK, maybe that Powerpoint course was necessary, but where do CDTs teach ‘attitudes’. Indeed, in any graduate or undergraduate course it is not a word that regularly turns up. Maybe this means resilience (which is more discussed currently than in the past), or even confidence; it could, of course, mean deference but it almost certainly also means leadership and management skills. Our university graduate courses have a way to go in meeting those needs.

I am not seriously suggesting EPSRC should judge future CDT allocations based on whether courses in confusion are provided. But I do believe we should be wary of filling timetables with more and more prescriptive courses, leaving little time for individual development and reflection. Universities should, in my view, do far more to train the supervisors and then let their newly-acquired skills be transmitted in the course of a research project to their students.

The word ‘excellence’ sounds so, well, excellent but it begs many questions. What should our training – even our education – for PhD students really comprise?  Research-specific skills of course; that has to remain at the heart of what PhD students learn, but are we in danger of getting rigid about the courses that students are exposed to, and not leaving enough time for real-life skills that matter in any workplace. Dealing with the difficult colleague who constantly disrupts your plans is as ubiquitous a problem in the office as in the lab and we should not forget the desirability of learning about interpersonal skills, as well as personal ones, as courses are devised and delivered.

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Reflecting on International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Today – February 11th – is the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day not only to celebrate those who have managed to study science and forged their careers within it, but to focus minds on how to open up science to many more girls around the world. In some parts of the world education of any sort for girls is hard fought for, as Malala has made so manifest, but in others – including much of the western world – science education is available but subtly discouraged. For a 10 year old girl to be told, at a school in my own home city Cambridge, that she does ‘maths like a boy’ beggars belief, quite apart from the fact I don’t actually know what it means. It would seem to amount to ‘no trespassing into the maths arena: your chromosomes are wrong’. (This was a tale told to me by a professorial colleague about her god-daughter.)

As the UN says on its website

Science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals’.

We are losing the talent of many; we are losing the diversity of viewpoints by excluding women from the science agenda. Think about healthcare. If we focus on the third goal of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – Good health and wellbeing – then education of girls and women has a central role to play. The oft-quoted proverb (originating in Ghana) ‘If you educate a woman, you educate a nation’ is a major part of this issue.

But, turning to research, increasingly it is becoming obvious how following a white heteronormative approach to medicine means that the problems that afflict women – childbirth, gynaeocological issues and the menopause to take some very obvious examples – get less attention than diseases such as cancer and heart disease. According to the United Nations Population Fund a woman dies approximately every 2 minutes somewhere in the world due to pregnancy or childbirth. Many of those deaths are entirely preventable. When I highlighted a study enabling a model placenta to be developed as my highlight of the year for the Observer at the end of 2018, one of the Cambridge authors wrote to me saying

I am grateful that you have highlighted this as basic science. Research in problems women experience during pregnancy has been a struggle to get funded and it has always been out of the mainstream.

However, enabling women to study science and medicine, even in the developed world, perhaps particularly in the developed world, does not mean their chances of progression are the same as for men. Last week I attended a meeting celebrating the launch of the special issue of The Lancet’s theme issue on advancing women in science, medicine, and global health. It was a day focussing on the barriers women still face and the consequences of this, not just in countries like the UK but around the world. Some of the articles make for grim reading. I will just focus on two points below.

But firstly a positive aside, some good news which broke on the day: the current Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, is to become the new Master of Trinity College Cambridge come October. The first woman to take on the role at Trinity, I for one will be welcoming her to Cambridge, welcoming her as a fellow woman heading a once-all-male college. Given all Sally has done in pushing the equalities agenda in her role as CMO, including making a silver Athena Swan award a condition of NIHR funding for clinical schools which shook up the academic world back in 2011 when the policy was announced, I am sure we can expect some action here in Cambridge once she has got settled in (and I expect I will be cheering her on).

Now to turn to the Lancet meeting and accompanying papers, let me first consider a study from Canada which indicates how women remain disadvantaged in peer review of grants if the focus is placed on the calibre of the investigator and not the specifics of the project. The evidence is accumulating how women are systematically less likely to be given first (or last) place in an author list, the places that ‘count’ most; that their papers are less cited; that they receive fewer invitations to give keynote talks and, as I mentioned in a recent post, that their papers tend to get greater scrutiny and higher rates of rejection than those by their male peers. And the evidence is building, in studies such as the Canadian one I’ve just cited, that this is not because they are less good at their work but because of systemic problems in our culture.

We need not only to introduce unconscious bias training for panels – necessary but very far from sufficient – but to think much harder both about any ‘figures of merit’ used in an assessment process, and to challenge the processes that lead to systemic disadvantage. Journal editors, what do you do to check that male and female submitting authors really receive equal treatment? Conference organisers, are you sure that your keynote speakers are representative of the best in their field or have you taken some easy shortcuts in choosing your alleged stars? We need to hold all these people to account

For my second point let me cite Sally Davies, sitting on one of the panels. She raised a point highly relevant to this discussion, what really is excellence, this much-vaunted thing we all talk about? Shouldn’t excellence really include a lot more than papers in fancy journals? Well, of course I agree with her, and have written about this before, but it is a point that needs repeating because most of our institutions have not yet gone far enough in changing their culture. Universities are starting to broaden promotion criteria to include other good practices such as mentoring, service to the community (and of course teaching), but it is usually couched in terms that still strike me as a bit limited.

For instance, the last promotions reference I wrote for another university lumped leadership and service together, giving three bullet points of which two referred to leadership – of units within the university or external committees – and only one talked about ‘a record of successful support for the careers of colleagues.’ Running a research group successfully should, perhaps, have been given a bit more weight in this ‘excellence’ spectrum. Women may not be offered leadership roles (due to habits of bias) and immediately their chances of promotion are downweighted however much they have done to support others. And, let us remember, the evidence is that women show all the same habits of bias as men when it comes to choosing between men and women for leadership.

The Lancet day focussed on women in medicine, and as such the horror stories tended to be focussed on particular medical specialities, with surgery coming in for special opprobrium, but in general the issues for women in medicine and global health are little different from those for women in academic science of any hue. As we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science we all should be thinking hard about what more we individually and collectively can do. Our object must be to make this day redundant, but I’m not holding my breath that will happen any time soon.



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