Building a Humane Workplace

This is the unabridged/unedited version of an article that first appeared a couple of weeks ago in Optics and Photonics.

Increasingly industry has woken up to the fact that diverse teams make better decisions and, by implication, make more money. Although the driver of higher profits does not immediately translate to academia, making better decisions – not least because a team is approaching a problem from many angles – certainly does.  One only has to think about what a lack of gender awareness meant for many years regarding car safety to realise a single viewpoint can lead to trouble: the analysis was built on using a ‘standard’ US man as the dummy whose ‘injuries’ were considered, thereby ignoring totally how a small adult (typically but not necessarily a woman) let alone a child might fare in a crash (If you want to know more, look at the Gendered Innovation website which covers many examples.)

Diverse teams, diverse in whatever way, can lead to challenges. By definition it means not everyone sees the world in the same way. Inevitably that may mean people rubbing each other up the wrong way, even if completely unintentionally. Leading such a team in the lab means awareness and sensitivity are required. Unfortunately training in these skills is not usually to be found in either the undergraduate or graduate curriculum! Many group leaders/principal investigators (PIs) can flounder when facing tensions between students, postdocs or visitors. Industry, on the other hand, seems to take appropriate leadership training much more seriously from the outset.

Issues do not necessarily reside in explicit sexism or racism, although they might. One student who is over-possessive of a key piece of equipment and loud-mouthed in their defence of such behaviour can wreak havoc in group dynamics. Other group members may take sides and a less vocal student can easily feel harried and bullied as a result. Such behaviour may all take place beneath the PI’s radar: bullies can be skilled at covering their tracks. To some extent everyone would benefit from bystander training to enable them to challenge bad behaviour whenever they see it, but the responsibility has to rest with the team leader.

Above all the PI has to believe wholeheartedly that bullying, even of this comparatively mild form, has to be tackled.  Without this, instances of even worse behaviour may flourish and multiply. The leader has to be willing to confront bad behaviour and make sure that everyone understands policies applicable within the group: setting out well understood and transparent rules for access to equipment, for instance, means no one can pretend they didn’t know they were acting out of line by hogging some vital item.

Group dynamics will be affected also by how even-handed the team leader is themselves. Favouritism can lead to all kinds of problems, be it in who gets to give the conference talk or who is expected to wash up the glassware time and time again. Both examples may have significant impacts on subsequent career progression of the student/postdocs involved, albeit in opposite directions. These things matter. They aren’t talked about enough as inexperienced but creative researchers suddenly find themselves responsible for more junior staff. PIs need to appreciate these are not trivial issues. Professionalism means that favouritism should have no place in the lab. Of course it is the case someone may be producing all the ground-breaking results, and a just reward is a trip to the latest, hottest conference on the other side of the world to present this work. But too often the same person is sent, time after time, to present the work of a whole team, a very different affair.

Finally, the environment can be made toxic for the whole team when explicitly (or even implicitly) sexist or racist remarks are tolerated. An atmosphere in which it is OK to comment on someone’s cleavage or imply that they are incompetent simply because of their gender or race (or indeed where they come from, even if only a hundred miles down the road) is unlikely to be a happy one. Some people may thrive in such a culture, but certainly not everyone. Gender equality initiatives, such as the Athena Swan Charter within the UK, may make excellent progress in populating committees with a good proportion of women, or in ensuring that advertisements look as if the institution welcomes families, but if at the local level unpleasant comments are tolerated then equality will be barely even skin deep. Department heads can set an appropriate tone, but local pockets of bad practice are hard to root out.

However I would go even further. PIs who promote an environment in which there isn’t simply an absence of harm, but a positive culture in which support if offered to group members who are suffering a temporary loss of health, well-being or even confidence, will benefit all (except perhaps the equipment-hogging individual). We can all suffer dips in performance if family or personal health takes a nose-dive; we may be less productive if worries mount about a friend, finances, crumbling relationships or any of a thousand different reasons. Awareness and mutual support can help anyone to get through tough times and providing enough social space and time for such support to be expressed within a research group  – as well as enabling more professional networking and encouragement – can only benefit the overall productivity of the team as a whole.

If the best are to succeed, if real talent is to thrive while boorish and selfish behaviour is not rewarded, we need to make sure PIs have the skills to deal with group dynamics and given encouragement when they successfully do so.



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Let’s Celebrate with UNESCO

Today, February 11th 2017, is the first UNESCO’s International Day of Women & Girls in Science. This is a day to remind ourselves not that ‘you’ve come a long way baby’ in the words of a now infamous advertisement campaign for cigarettes, but a day to celebrate those who have lived their dream and made a career for themselves in science; and a day to encourage those younger women and girls who still are dreaming of what they might do and become. Change is coming desperately slowly; in some parts of the world faster than others, but it is coming. We have to believe it will continue and that a day will dawn when every girl who wants to pursue a career in science is as able to do so as the boy next door; when girls who start off on that path are not deterred by comments, either malicious or throw-away in origin, which sap their confidence and their aspirations. We have to believe that having graduated and made that commitment there will come a time when there are no senior men waiting to prey on the young and vulnerable or others who will trash their ideas and creations simply because they come from a woman. We have to believe that in this bright new future each woman will find a cohort of supporters – men and women – who will guide and encourage them through the maze that a career represents, enabling all to fulfil their potential.

Dream on, you may say, but times do change. I can only talk about my own country – and UNESCO represents the full spectrum around the world, with different challenges in each – and here there is no doubt that change is occurring, however frustrated I may be by its glacial pace. Gender issues are now explicitly on many a department’s and university’s senior management team’s agenda. Harassment is discussed at least sometimes, even if rarely addressed as thoroughly as we might like. Conferences are more sensitive to the gender make-up of their slate of invited speakers, however frequently they slip up when push comes to shove. So, with change in the air, let us dream and let the young dream that for their generation the path will be smoother yet.

As the L’Oreal/UNESCO tag says ‘The world needs science and science needs women’ in its annual celebration of the women laureates (see here for the 2017 Laureates). These women are those who have survived the slings and arrows of being called feisty or aggressive or worse, put down or perhaps even actively discouraged, yet gone on to prove to their detractors just what they are made of. In 2009, when I was one of the Laureates, from the blur that was the Awards Ceremony (a splendid occasion in Paris) I remember most clearly fellow Laureate Eugenia Kumacheva who, in her speech, passionately declared there was no women’s science, just science done by women. That is such a neat way of describing one of the irritations we face and is a phrase I have subsequently made good use of myself. Privately, I am sure each of us could have described some extremely negative experiences. But you just have to try to get on with it regardless.

Self-confidence is a hugely important factor in how we present ourselves and go about our everyday lives.  How others interact with us, how negative they may be, will directly feed into this, even if we seem born with vastly different amounts of it too.  People are likely to react much more strongly to negative comments when they fuel the individual’s own self-doubts. If you internally wonder if your manual dexterity is up to the level of the person next to you, a passer-by who casually makes a joke of seeing a soldering iron in your female hand may stop you in your tracks. If you are uncertain about your ability to stand up in front of an audience to deliver a conference paper, the flippant fellow student who laughs at seeing you in a skirt for the first time will not calm your nerves.

For those in a minority, confidence may be shaky because you literally know you aren’t like the others around you. It is all too easy to extrapolate from this difference to ‘worse’; self-confidence may be only skin deep even if outwardly all seems well. Trivial remarks add up, contributing to the death of a dream by a thousand cuts. It is hard to keep going in the face of a lack of encouragement, let alone active discouragement. Senior women, at least those not cast in the Maggie Thatcher mode of leadership, need to do all they can to boost the confidence of young women taking their first faltering steps in their scientific career. (It goes without saying that senior men should be doing this too.)

I say to all such women take heart. Once, when asked why I felt I had succeeded despite being in such a minority, I found myself saying, almost without thinking, ‘by being bloody-minded’. More tactfully I should have said by determination, or even obstinacy. But being bloody-minded when people try to put you down is not such a bad thing to be. Women are brought up all too often – by well-meaning parents and teachers – to be ‘nice’, to ‘do the right thing’, to conform and sit quietly in a corner. If only feisty wasn’t always used in a derogatory ‘not nice’ way, I would be pleased to be thought of like that. But the reality is feisty is rarely meant as compliment. We need to be dogged, we need to show grit, even to be that grit in the oyster that creates the pearl.

Young women, please fight on. The world needs science and science needs women. You are needed with your creativity, your imagination and your talents. Uniformity of thought, homogeneity of approach, will not lead to the discoveries or disruptive technologies of tomorrow. Bring your difference and bring your brains to the party. And remember, those who attack you are probably secretly frightened that perhaps you are actually better than them; at the very least you are that fearful thing: the other. If you can’t find a way through the wall blocking your path, think and move laterally – find the gate to left or right that enables you to get to the other side. I am not saying it is easy, that bruising may not happen. But I hope you will find that inner strength, that self-belief to journey on. And yes, I really do know it is not easy and that for some people the challenge becomes impossibly difficult, too hard to bear. But for others, and let us hope for increasing numbers of these, determination may enable the golden reaches of their dreams to be reached – to the benefit of all.

Here’s to the day we don’t need a UNESCO Day for women and girls in science, because there will no longer be a story attached, but for today let us remember to keep on keeping on.

For a fantastic gallery of leading female scientists from around the world created for today, look at the Royal Society’s Twitter montage. In this list every young girl should be able to find a role model, an inspiration or simply a proof that it isn’t impossible to succeed in their own chosen endeavour.


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Conspiracy or Cock-up?

Inclusivity seems something of a current buzzword. When Theresa May came to office she stated clearly in her first speech that ‘we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few’. One of her immediate actions was to call for an audit to tackle public sector racial disparities. One would hope this means diversity and inclusivity matters to her across the board (even if her attitude towards migrants and international students means this attitude does not extend to those born beyond these shores). In order to fulfil such a goal, it is vital that for all public sector appointments there is a strong, diverse pool of applicants and that they are subsequently scrutinised fairly. One key set of appointments about to be made within the Higher Education and accompanying research and innovation sector is the Board of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)  to work with the CEO, newly named this week as Sir Mark Walport, currently the Government Chief Scientific Advisor. The advertisement calling for Board members came out a few weeks ago, with a stated closing date of February 17th.

I feel strongly that diversity in all senses matters if the Panel overall is to perform and deliver effectively. This means diversity in gender and ethnicity, amongst the other protected characteristics, as well as diversity in employment sector, in geographical location and of course discipline. All need to be taken into account. It will be a challenge to make sure an appropriate Board composition is achieved, factoring in this broad range of attributes when decisions are taken.

That said, I know I was far from alone in reading with dismay the advertisement  which appeared in January on the Government web pages in which any reference to the first set of ‘diversity’ factors was singularly absent. Allthough diversity of sector was referred to there was nothing referring to the protected characteristics at all. In general one may get bored by reading the boiler plate phrases about a particular employer welcoming applications from minorities of different sorts, but the absence of such remarks makes it look as if they couldn’t care less. A very bad message to give.

Where is the watchdog to ensure this is got right, or at least to keep an eye on things? For the Department of Business, Education and Skills (BEIS), who has oversight of UKRI, the onus to ensure this happens falls on the Diversity Steering Committee. This was a group set up by (Lord) David Willetts  during his time as Minister of State for Science and Universities and which was enthusiastically continued by Jo Johnson, his successor. There appears to be no reference to this group on Government websites that I can find, but I know it exists because I am a member of it. Initially set up explicitly to consider ensuring diversity in public sector appointments within the BEIS remit, its brief has broadened under Jo Johnson to consider wider potential actions.

At our most recent meeting 10 days ago the issue of the UKRI Board advertisement was raised. The absence of any reference to diversity in the advertisement was highlighted, as was the somewhat ‘macho’ language used in the person specification. Some folk may actively drive, speak authoritatively and head off in pursuit of their mission – as apparently explicitly required by the person specification which appeared – but it isn’t necessarily a vocabulary everyone is likely to use. Indeed many people, men and women, may not be comfortable with thinking of themselves in those robust phrases. I know of some very senior women from the top echelons of Russell group universities who told me they looked at the advertisement and decided it ‘wasn’t for them’ because of the language in which the advertisement was couched and its whole tenor. That, to my mind, meant it had failed on a crucial front.

But if you feel something is unreasonable then you have a responsibility to do something about it. Consequently, some of us followed up with BEIS, including with current UKRI Chair Sir John Kingman and Director General Gareth Davies.

The message we gave was heard loud and clear; action has been taken. I am delighted that BEIS collectively responded so immediately and positively to turn around what was clearly an inadvertent subliminal message. The new advertisement is out, replacing the old but on the same url so comparisons can no longer be made. The tone is somewhat different. Some of the phrases in the detailed specifications that I felt were particularly unwelcoming have vanished. Now, it is up to the wider community to get their applications in before the revised closing date of 31st March. Note this means a 6 week extension from the original closing date. This extended window should facilitate a diverse pool applying since ‘not the usual suspects’ have longer to prepare their cases. I believe it is also significant since it conveys that the decisions are not in essence pre-made – which might suggest an inner circle was being implicitly tapped on the shoulder – or being rushed through.

All credit to BEIS for not dragging their feet, not trying to say it was all too difficult to change. I think the community should be reassured that, a snafu having happened no time was wasted in rectifying the situation. I would like to think this bodes well for the future of UKRI, something so crucial to the future of research and innovation within the UK.

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Cultural Values in a Time Warp

At the start of the year I wrote about my frustrations with the slow pace of change, specifically with regard to the situation for women in science in academia but also more broadly. This week I am forcibly reminded again how slowly our society changes and this time it’s the case of how it impacts on young children. Impact on them means impact on their choices and what they become as adults.  It is depressing.

The first story arose from a study which shows that girls as young as six decide that girls aren’t ‘really, really smart’ whereas boys are. It got a lot of media coverage. It is a study based on not a very large number of children, of fairly middle class origin based in the US, so you can quibble over whether or not it is representative, but it nevertheless is fairly shocking as well as being useful concrete evidence about how our society evolves, or more accurately doesn’t. I got to voice my views on Radio5 on Friday  with Emma Barnett (21.42 minutes in), who clearly had got a very informed idea of the paper and its implications so that her questions were a pleasure to answer. Too often this is not the case in radio interviews where sensationalism rather than fact is sought! It is interesting that many of the reactions I have heard to the story – anecdote of course, not evidence – go along the lines of parents reflecting how early they have noticed their own children forming views of what men and women can and cannot do from the toddler stage on, generally in standardly and boringly stereotyped ways. Parents can do their best to fight society’s ‘values’, but the messages bombard children from TV, books, relatives, playgroup and (nursery) school. As further evidence I cite below shows, even those who try hard seem doomed to get it horribly wrong.

Why does it matter if six year old girls no longer believe they are likely to be ‘really, really smart’? (Interestingly, the change from when boys and girls are considered equivalent to this viewpoint seemed to happen between 5 and 6.) Just think what options this can close off to them. Apparently becoming a physicist is likely to be one of them, since popular wisdom decrees that physics is difficult and can only be done by the intellectual whizzkids. It doesn’t matter if that belief is true, if it is a message swallowed whole by the kids it is likely to close off paths very swiftly. Close them off not because of aptitude or interest, but because of self-belief or rather lack thereof. Since too many interventions, about physics, maths or any other subject, tend only to come at secondary school, perhaps not till GCSE years, it is clear that these will be at least six years too late to be effective. That conclusion is a clear message that our educators and policy-makers need to grasp if we are to crack the issue of girls not opting for the physical sciences, maths, computing and engineering.

So what about the interest angle amongst girls? Can toy manufacturers help to encourage an interest, let’s say in engineering. Here enters the second story this time about a Barbie spin-off. I heard about this story initially because clearly if a journalist types in pink, Barbie and science my name gets thrown up by Google as a result of my throwaway comments in my BSA Presidential Address  (even though I’m no longer the BSA President by now). Consequently a Telegraph journalist, Katie Morley contacted me for my views after she’d attended a toy convention. Here a Barbie being created by toy company Thames and Kosmos  was deemed to be ‘engineering Barbie’. She came equipped with things she could build: a washing machine, a dress, a movable clothes hanger…. In other words the manufacturers couldn’t get beyond the idea that girls – even if being generously permitted to build things – should stick with the domestic sphere. The shortsightedness, the inappropriateness of the stereotyping (did I mention the objects were, of course, all pink?) clearly had not impinged on the creators.

How many times do we have to revisit the idea that if talent is to flourish it mustn’t be restricted to outdated ideas of what is suitable? It isn’t sufficient for Thames and Kosmos to crawl forward to a position where Barbie is allowed to be an engineer; she has to be allowed to build things across the spectrum of what might be useful. There’s obviously nothing wrong with building washing machines, but the choice of rockets, or cars, or bridges or robots should also be on the menu. Laura Bates in the Guardian, as ever succinct and to the point, dissected this new failure neatly. She reminded readers of the classic case of getting things wrong of the EU’s Science it’s a Girl Thing video, pulled in about 24 hours after mass objections so you can only find snippets remaining on the web. If you can bear to watch this you will see the video not only involved pinkification, but lipstick and high heels to compound the error. Other attempts have similarly floundered on stereotypes of the worst kind: EDF called its campaign ‘Pretty Curious’  to some derision, although the content isn’t all bad and this is probably the best of a bad lot; IBM came up  with #hackahairdryer therefore also condemning the girls to domesticity. Lego has similarly pinkified those sets designed specifically for girls, an error I targeted on this blog five years ago.

With such a long list of prior stereotyping disasters, how is it possible for another company to enter the fray and get it so badly wrong? Why is it so difficult for manufacturers to grasp the fact that girls are not only (and possibly not at all) interested in fashion and domesticity. Conversely boys may not all be gung-ho for pirates, rockets, dinosaurs and violence. Why can’t children be children just as much as toys be toys? Instead the company has another PR disaster on its hands, even if Barbie engineer is purchased in significant numbers. Culturally we are simply and unbelievably still stuck in a stereotyped time warp. My frustration mounts…..2017 is not going to be a good year if the first few weeks are the indicator, not good on so many fronts of which pinkification and stereotyping are just one tiny corner. (I am only too aware that in comparison with some of the disgusting things currently happening around the world, to which this title might also apply, they could be regarded as but mere irrelevant hiccoughs.)

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The ABC of panel scoring: Anchoring, Bias and Committee Procedures

Academic life is particularly full of rank ordered lists, even if they are frequently not transparently available. From undergraduate examinations to professorial promotions, from REF (and in future TEF) marks to grant-awarding panels, the scores matter. Anyone who has ever been ‘scored’ will worry about the accuracy of the scores given; anyone who has been involved in decision-making will have their own views about the process, its validity and whether their own part left them satisfied. Peer review may be the best process we have for making these judgements – which in essence all of them rely on – but no one ever claimed peer review was faultless. If you have never sat on any comparable committee you may well be interested in, as well as deeply suspicious of, what actually goes on. If so, you may find illuminating this scholarly article from the social sciences. In this, the author gives much qualitative insight into the goings on in a series of Swedish Research Council meetings, as he explores a particular  phenomenon known as the ‘anchoring effect’, on which more later.

In all of the committees I have been involved with I have only once sat on (and never had the misfortune to chair) a panel where I felt there was something slightly dodgy going on, in the sense there was a sub-group behaving as a cartel. I hasten to add this behaviour was spotted and neutralised by an oversight panel. In general people try really hard to be objective but, as the article demonstrates, this is not as easy as you might think. Consider the following issues as demonstrating the challenges that implicitly or explicitly may arise:

  1. If asked to score between 1 and 10 against some criterion, some people will use the full range, but others will probably cluster scores between 4 and 8 believing nothing is perfection and nothing is completely worthless. Averaging such scores to produce a crude rank-ordered list (even if subsequently modified by discussion, as such raw lists essentially always are) may not be the optimum way to proceed, but is likely to be what happens.
  2. In the case of a grant proposal, a very convincing case may be made which only the specialist is able to pick up contains a fundamentally flawed assumption; or equivalently in promotions, only the person closest to an application may spot that there is unjustified hyperbole in some of the claims. Rightly, these judgements should have more weight than those of a less expert panel member, but it will be random in each case whether such immediately relevant expertise is represented on the panel.
  3. Absolutely ‘solid’ metrics (e.g the h index) may be used improperly e.g. to compare candidates from very different disciplines. If you try to compare a pure mathematician (think Andrew Wiles of Fermat’s Last Theorem fame) with a synthetic chemist, their h indices may vary by a factor of 10. It says nothing about their relative excellence. That much is pretty obvious, but even if you compare a synthetic chemist with a physical chemist, the differences may be substantial. Sub-disciplines as well as larger groupings matter in these things. Similarly with prizes: focussing on the UK, the Royal Society of Chemistry just happens to have a much larger and more varied collection of prizes than the Institute of Physics so a solidly good but not-necessarily-stellar chemist is far more likely to be able to list a prize or two than a comparable physicist. You need to be very aware of these differences to be able to tension these solid facts appropriately.
  4. The committee procedures may significantly affect the way different panel members participate. I once sat on a research council panel which was dealing with four very different sub-fields. Initially the modus operandi was for each of the four to be taken in turn. This meant it was all too easy for panel members only to focus on the area they were closest to, essentially dozing off (or at least being very bored and not concentrating) during the rest of the presentations. As a result, when the final scores were decided most of the committee had little to say about most of the applications. During the time I served on the panel (and this must be at least 15 years ago) it became obvious just what a bad way of proceeding this was, and eventually meetings took place considering applications simply in alphabetical order. I am sure this led to better decisions as everyone concentrated throughout the discussions.
  5. Without needing to invoke either a conspiracy or genuine conflict of interest, if there is someone who has a prior high opinion of one particular applicant, this may shine through regardless of the case on the table. If this person happens to talk first and is (as a recent committee member described themselves to me) a dogmatic character, a strongly positive message can be conveyed which later speakers find hard or are unwilling to challenge. Randomness in order of speaking may have a significant effect on what is ultimately a collective decision. Chairs can do what they can to overcome dogmatic speakers, but are unlikely to know in advance how best to order speakers so that no unreasonable advantage can be accrued by any particular candidate.

The issue of ‘anchoring’ I referred to at the beginning relates most closely to this last point of a preliminary score influencing later results. First identified I believe by Daniel Kahneman, it is the phenomenon by which the introduction of an initial figure may have subsequent impact on how people score/react or choose to proceed. Given some figure – it could be for scoring a grant or equally for what they are prepared to pay for some product, which was the context Kahneman considered – people use that as a baseline and tweak what they believe is appropriate around it rather than starting afresh themselves with an objective view. So, in the context of scoring a collection of grants, if the scores submitted in advance by panel members are averaged and presented to the panel before detailed discussion starts, it might influence how the subsequent debate unwinds and hence the final scores which are awarded.

This is the situation which forms the basis of the paper I referred to above by Swedish researcher Lambros Roumbanis as he analyses panel meetings of the Swedish Research Council. But his paper describes a much broader range of behaviours than just this particular facet, which is why it is so generally informative for those curious about what goes on in such meetings. Of course every panel is different and so the observations must be treated as examplars rather than necessarily typical. In my experience people are probably less reflective in their lunch breaks than he apparently discovered, probably because his very presence influenced behaviour. Nevertheless people do agonise over their actions – committee members are not, in my experience, blasé or careless. That does not stop them having internal biases, prejudices and baggage from previous meetings, all of which may impact on how they interact with other panel members and the paperwork in front of them. However, let me stress, few if any panel members approach the task with anything but the best of intentions; nor do they tend to set out to game the system for some nefarious purpose. Gross biases tend to be picked up and challenged. Despite all that there is absolutely no doubt that peer review does not always end up with the right answers, be it down to anchoring, ignorance or incompetence. Alternative methodologies are not likely to be any better. Lottery anyone?

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