Are You Authentic?

‘Be true to yourself’ is a well-worn phrase, almost a mantra. I  know I pepper talks (and writing) with the phrase. I think I know exactly what I mean and had assumed others did too. I do not mean that you should give up all social graces and be blunt in every situation, telling people to get lost (or a more offensive equivalent) because that’s what you really feel about them. I think there is a difference between honouring your inner beliefs and acting accordingly and simply being downright rude and unpleasant. So I was surprised to read an article in the Guardian  recently that seemed to think the phrase meant exactly that latter interpretation and therefore it was lousy advice to give.

Likewise there seems some doubt about the wisdom of using the word ‘authentic’ (again I’m guilty of this, though less often I think than of talking about being true to oneself). The same article took exception to the phrase, as did Lucy Kellaway in a totally different context. She noted that while being exhorted to be ‘authentic’ on a big screen in front of them, the women at a corporate finance event looked as if they were being anything but in their dress. As she put it

‘700 immaculate, high-heeled women swallowing unquestioningly a series of platitudes about the importance of being themselves. The only diversity in evidence was that while some were wearing Miu Miu, others were in Diane Von Furstenberg and Burberry.’

Nevertheless I believe both phrases have their uses in researchers’ lives. In particular, and where it is clear Kellaway’s women fell down badly, I do not think being true to oneself, or being authentic, requires any sort of uniform (Designer or otherwise), let alone that they allow some norm to define us. In fields dominated by men such as physics and engineering, I also refute the idea that it means turning into an honorary man (which might be thought of as a different kind of uniform), assuming male-by-default is the only way to get on. A decade ago I rejected the advice to have voice-coaching to lower my voice that a well-meaning supporter offered me; I am who I am and I believe passionately what matters is what I have to say not the pitch in which I say it. In conversation with Alice Roberts last week (recording to be up on the Churchill College website soon) she told us how she failed to be promoted and the only thing they seemed able to hold against her was her ‘lack of gravitas’. Gravitas does seem only to be associated with men, but Bristol University lost her – and all her talents – by being so short-sighted.

My advice remains to those trying to find their feet: be true to yourself or, if you prefer, be authentic. What I usually mean by the phrase is not to allow yourself to be pushed into things that you don’t believe are right for you. It is all too easy to think there is a ‘right’ way to do things, right choices to be made, right boxes to tick, which is all very well if they appeal but futile otherwise – not least because in all probability you won’t excel at them if your heart isn’t in the task at hand. We’ve all known students who’ve followed their parents’ wishes in choice of subject at university only to regret it bitterly and possibly even drop out as a result. We only have one life, and it is important that it is one’s own life that is led and not someone else’s dreams that are followed.

So, if you decide half way through your PhD that it was a mistake, there should be no shame in deciding to leave and follow some other dream. On the other hand, if you haven’t yet worked out what that new dream is, it might be worth finishing off the PhD before trying your hand at something else. Only you can judge which feels ‘right’, but giving up – as opposed to positively moving on – is prone to leave an unpleasant taste.

None of this is to ignore the fact that part of everyone’s life involves donning some sort of facade to permit greasing of the social and professional wheels. One may have to work with colleagues one would rather not or turn up to work on days it would be nice to go out and smell the roses. But doing things like that, I don’t believe is ‘inauthentic’, so much as a tedious necessity. When talking about being authentic I am talking about the big picture, not the mundane day-to-day dross. Which is why I think the Guardian article is wrong. One should distinguish between what needs to be one’s primary focus day after day from the temporary social graces that may serve to cover other feelings.

I believe things get corrosive if every day your job feels at odds with your aspirations and if the only way you can get through that job is by cultivating a persona that leaves you feeling diminished and uncomfortable; things are likely to go personally downhill if you feel the rewards for behaving like this do not match the cost. In the long term, if what you are doing just isn’t ‘right’ for you, or if you’ve accepted some responsibility which sits uncomfortably with either your values or what you perceive as your career/life trajectory you need to focus on who you really are and decide if the game is worth the candle.

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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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