Mentoring Matters, but for Whom?

In response to my recent post on New Year Frustrations, I received a tweet complaining that in this particular person’s university female postdocs contractually could not receive mentoring. That statement can be read in two ways: either that female postdocs are being actively disadvantaged in comparison with their male counterparts (which would be truly shocking) or that no postdocs, regardless of gender, were provided with mentoring, which is merely depressing. When pressed, my correspondent agreed it was the latter statement they had intended. So, this university (and I don’t remember which university was concerned and I’m not trying to point fingers anywhere in particular) went out of its way to state, in their contracts, that postdocs would not be offered the practical support that mentoring can provide.

In my University all newly appointed members of academic staff are assigned a mentor, at least in principle. I know a few years ago when I asked some random questions I discovered that in practice this didn’t always happen, but the intention was at least there (I haven’t checked recently whether it has become more robust as a scheme). In other universities I suspect something similar occurs, and the existence of such mentoring is probably highlighted in Athena Swan applications, but no doubt quite often the reality departs from the aspiration elsewhere too.  For postdocs, Cambridge is still only at a pilot stage  of offering mentoring across the University at the institutional level (although locally there is more going on). However our very active Office of Postdoctoral Affairs is at least on the case and it does no harm to trial what works and what doesn’t for this particular group of researchers before rolling out a scheme to apply to all the thousands (literally) of postdocs employed in Cambridge.

I think the idea of a university sitting down and deciding explicitly to rule out mentoring for any cohort – as my tweeting colleague highlighted – is deplorable. Not everyone wants mentoring, not everyone will necessarily benefit from an assigned mentor if the chemistry isn’t right between the pair, but in essence to forbid such a relationship contractually seems bizarre. I am not convinced formal mentoring schemes always work and ‘accidental’ mentoring of a junior member of a department by someone more experienced is just as good if not better, because in that case it will have come to pass because both parties wish it to. But by the very fact it is accidental it is also unreliable. The right senior member may not notice some early career researcher who is in significant need of advice, a steer or just encouragement; or alternatively it may be that someone who fits into a given team really well gets all the support and another member, just as talented but less obviously a good team fit gets overlooked and so gets locked into a vicious circle of disadvantage. Those situations can occur only too easily but can to some extent be counteracted by a formal mentoring scheme because the overlooking won’t happen.

My original post which prompted the tweet referred to the feeling that progress on gender equality was dispiritingly slow. The issue of mentoring should not be about gender at all, but of course too often it is. Certainly in a male-dominated subject such as mine the person who appears to be the outsider and not fitting into a team of the kind I allude to above may be an outsider by virtue of their gender (or race or many other attributes too, but I’ll stick with the simplest example of gender here). They may be precisely the one who appears not to fit in simply because they are a woman and their confidence will be further dented if they see others in the team getting offered the conference presentations, the tap on the shoulder suggesting they apply for a fellowship or other signs of approval whilst they continue to be ignored. Official mentoring may enable them to ask for what others seem to be given as if by right plus give them the necessary encouragement that they know what the next steps they need to take are and how to set about achieving them.

One of my very early posts looked at the analysis of the 2010 ASSET survey across UK science departments. One of the things that struck me at the time as extraordinary from the results published was that it was the professors who were most likely to be appraised, not the junior staff. I believe advice – be it through appraisal (or staff review and development if you prefer that title) or mentoring – is most important for those setting out at the early stages of their career. At professorial level you should know what you’re doing, what you ought to be doing (even if you’re not doing it) and how to set about achieving your next professional goal. During your first postdoc all challenges may seem equally impossible but it may not be obvious which are the key skills to master or the crucial boxes to be able to tick on your CV. It is too easy to expend effort on tasks which are neither enjoyable nor productive if you can’t see the wood for the trees; even more so if you’ve never been encouraged to say no to whatever is tossed in your direction.

So, with the usual caveats about the dangers of stereotyping, I would suggest the people who are most in need of a formal mentoring scheme are those at the earliest stage of their careers and particularly if they form any sort of minority within a discipline. Having said that, when my own department introduced a voluntary scheme for postdocs, it was not well taken up by them. Perhaps the very fact that it was voluntary acted as a deterrent; perhaps people thought that admitting they wanted a mentor might be interpreted as a sign of weakness so they had better not put up their hand. Be that as it may, a more formal system of mentoring is now required within research groups at the Cavendish, which is to be hoped is working well (I have as yet seen no analysis so I cannot comment). Furthermore we have a formally constituted Research Staff Committee of 8 postdocs who serve to highlight training and mentoring opportunities and to disseminate information.

Mentoring can always help at any stage, but providing guidance for those whose careers are not established should be a priority. Departments know this is true for their newly recruited staff, and vested interest means they are inclined to try to help them. Of course, there is less obvious payback for a department in supporting postdocs in the same way. It is, nevertheless, undoubtedly the right thing for them to do.

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Synaptic Transfer and Interdisciplinarity

I spent much of the Christmas break admiring my new granddaughter’s constantly changing and newly acquired skills as she progressed from 8 weeks old to 10; the sense of new synaptic connections being made was very strong as her hand-eye coordination improved and she began to get some sense of one limb being distinct from another. So, reading Brigitte Nerlich’s recent post about synaptic connections, interdisciplinarity and metaphor really resonated. She in turn pointed me to the article by David Rowan who, in this year’s issue of The Edge answered the question ‘What scientific term or concept should be more widely known?’ with the answer Synaptic Transfer saying:

‘We need to celebrate the synapse for its vital role in making connections, and indeed to extend the metaphor to the wider worlds of business, media and politics. In an ever-more atomized culture, it’s the connectors of silos, the bridgers of worlds, that accrue the greatest value. And so we need to promote the intellectual synapses, the journalistic synapses, the political synapses—the rare individuals who pull down walls, who connect.’

In a world of global societal challenges, misinformation (and downright lies) and a transforming world-view amongst many nations, we need such people more than ever. We need people who can take evidence, from wherever it may be found, and translate it into a message that politicians have to hear; we need people who can join the dots in unexpected ways, taking fundamental ideas from physics and translating them into ecology or epidemiology, for instance; we need people who understand why scientists can’t simply work in a vacuum but need to work in tandem with social scientists and humanities scholars. We need to stop reinventing wheels because people didn’t notice them first time around and we need to continue to fight against those who propagate untruths which fly in the face of nature because they make people feel better.

An interesting example in the mainstream media of a journalist/comedian who is not afraid to speak out is David Mitchell. This week’s Observer column sees him quoting a paper in PLOS Medicine on the benefits (or otherwise) of diet drinks in reducing obesity. He cannot quite bring himself to refer to this paper as a ‘scientific paper’, he ducks behind the word ‘thing’ for reasons probably of journalistic license. But as a scientist I can only applaud his conclusio:

‘If there’s even a whisper of falsehood appended to the real, important, dispiriting truth, it will give millions all the excuse they need to believe comforting lies.’

We must never forget this. Politicians get away with lies, but scientists’ work will always be challenged by vested interests (think climate change) who have the money to dig down and raise doubt over the least uncertainty or misapplication of method. I think it is brilliant to see the widely read Mitchell highlight and deconstruct why a scientific paper really matters, so his column enters my lexicon as an example of Rowan’s synaptic journalism.

More parochially within a purely academic sphere, I care about synaptic transfer between disciplines because of the importance of such transference between subject areas far apart, in other words in interdisciplinarity. Mindful of my new role for REF21, I have been reading around the subject. The recent LERU report on Interdisciplinarity and the 21st Century research intensive university highlights the need to change what we value within the University system if interdisciplinarity is to thrive, as it must. It identifies three strands we must get right, recognizing

‘1) university governance, 2) science policy, evaluation, and funding, and 3) publication and valorisation of interdisciplinary research as the main targets where actions need to be taken.’

We know that if the REF21 does not give due credit to interdisciplinary work, universities will internally give less weight to it and so the Panel I’m chairing has a significant responsibility on its shoulders. As researchers focus on the new source of funding that is encompassed under the Global Challenges Research Fund they must be under no illusions that interdisciplinarity has to be integral to solving many of these so-called Global Challenges. From sustainable energy to clean water, from local generation of and grid-free electricity to food security, the solutions will never be sitting in a single discipline. One could argue that the £1.5bn GCRF monies will transform behaviour very swiftly (although even £1.5bn does not go very far if every academic is chasing it.)

Finally in this potpourri of thoughts prompted by the phrase ‘synaptic transfer’ let me throw in something that has been at the back of my mind since the summer when I read David Kaiser’s chapter Thomas Kuhn and the Psychology of Scientific Revolutions in the collection of essays Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions at Fifty. In this Kaiser reflects on the impact of Bruner and Postman’s classic study on incongruous playing cards – such as a red five of clubs or a black ten of hearts – on Kuhn. What struck me reading this was how Bruner and Postman, who showed that subjects in their study took longer to ‘identify’ a playing card that didn’t fit their expectations, related to the phenomenon of unconscious bias that is now well recognized in so many real-world contexts (as opposed to the psychologists’ experiment), including – and close to my heart – that of women in science. I had not previously come across the study, nor have I seen others link it to unconscious bias (though that doesn’t mean plenty of other people haven’t done so), but here sits a clear example of the reinvention of the wheel. The playing card study dates back to 1949, Virginia Valian’s 1999 book Why so Slow describes the idea of unconscious bias specifically in the context of academic women and she was (I believe) was one of the first people, if not the first, to do so. Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow  includes the topic from yet another viewpoint based in behavioural economics. (I have heard it cynically said, unconscious bias was really only fully appreciated when a man, and a Nobel Prize winner at that, spelled it out so carefully, and that the concept is frequently attributed to him rather than to the female Valian).

In  all these examples what matters is that connections are made across conventional boundaries, be it between academic fields or far further afield. As our world structures appear to get more complex, as physical and social connections across the globe matter more than ever, we need people who are adept at synaptic transfer as Rowan describes it. Now I ‘ve come across the concept I’m sure I will find it a useful hook to hang so many things on. No doubt ever reader will be able to come up with their own examples.

Posted in Communicating Science, Interdisciplinary Science | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

New Year Frustrations

I spent some of my time off around New Year attempting to start as I mean to go on by tidying my ‘home office’. In the run-up to Christmas, as exhaustion took over and time ran out, I had increasingly just been dumping piles of paper precariously on the edge of my desk as I rushed in from meetings. No sorting; no tidying; no order. So January 1st seemed a good moment to start to sort through stuff, and I went further and tidied some of the shelves and nooks and crannies where I stuff bits of paper. I do not, and I doubt I ever will, run a paper-free office. From post-it notes to print outs of papers and reports, from committee work (I always want hard copies of papers for committees I chair, if not for those of which I am simply a member) to letters from strangers who heard me on the radio or read something I’d written in a newspaper and felt an urge to react, all needed filing.

So, my office is now significantly tidier and the recycling bin overflowing. What I found depressing, amongst all those papers, were the blogposts, reports and other publications I’d hoarded over the past years of issues around gender in case I got around to blogging about them. Most particularly, but not exclusively, these were about issues facing female scientists in academia. The totality of these made me feel deeply, deeply frustrated. The issues are not exactly hidden and yet progress is so glacially slow. There is progress, but for all the increasing awareness and more widespread  D(and often mandatory) training around equality issues, the change in our wider society as well as in our local academic environments has not yet transformed how women are perceived and expected to behave. Or how we are collectively treated. Maybe at some time in the future we will reach a tipping point when all the small steps forward suddenly amount to a deep change in our collective minds that means male (and a particular version of male at that) by default as the appropriate model is no longer regarded as adequate. Maybe my children will live to see this, but I no longer expect it will be during my working life.

To illustrate my point, let me list some of the articles I found stuffed in a folder as material I might have been going to blog about:

I could go on, but the message is clear. The problems have been identified, they have been reported on in the scholarly press as well as in more mainstream media, yet they don’t go away. Laura Bates gave her summary of how women have been treated over the past year in her end of year round-up in the Guardian: more sober reading within a much broader context. American society was treated to the unedifying tape of Donald Trump boasting about how he could assault women with impunity and get away with it – and get away with getting away with it, as millions of American men and women didn’t think such behaviour immediately disqualified him from about the most powerful position on earth. We are not, collectively, making great strides forward are we? We know harassment is present in our hallowed halls of academe but haven’t found a way to handle, let alone eradicate it effectively.

All one can do is keep on pressing on. Being discouraged is futile (although perhaps inevitable) and there is no doubt we have moved from the ‘there isn’t a problem anymore is there?’ thoughts of a decade ago, to a realisation that yes there really is still a substantial problem. The challenge in academia is that the problems are not rooted there; the problems are similar in the media, the legal profession, indeed everywhere one looks. Industry seems to take the issues seriously at the lower ranks yet Boards are still overwhelmingly composed of straight white males, even if less overwhelmingly than in the past.

Many of the problems start at birth. The baby girl who is greeted as a delicate princess and over the years supplied with dolls (and little else) and pink dresses; the toddler and young schoolgirl encouraged to sit still and not explore the world, take things to pieces or take risks. The female student around GCSE time who receives subtle and not-so-subtle messages that engineering is not a suitable career aspiration and that doing maths, computing or physics A level might be a little ‘odd’ – why doesn’t she do psychology or English instead? And the student who ignores this advice and goes to university still wanting to pursue engineering who then feels isolated and dismayed by being surrounded by an overwhelmingly male cohort. All these factor into the ongoing paucity of role models and the lack of women entering the STEM workforce in academia and much more widely.

What we can do in academia is continue to push for change in areas that are within our control such as promotion criteria, the way appointments are made, support for parents (including enhanced parental pay and childcare support costs on conference and fieldwork trips) and non-standard hours of work. Some of these are cultural rather than procedural. Why shouldn’t a part-time academic be promoted? They can be (and have been) in Cambridge but as I travel I frequently hear an implicit message that part-timers aren’t taken seriously so what’s the point of applying. If you want an argument against a so-called motherhood penalty, take a look at this article which indicates averaged over the years parents are more not less productive. The presumption in academia is that the ideal professor is someone who is simply never ‘off’, who works ridiculous hours, travels extensively and for whom research is the only thing that matters has to be challenged explicitly. It doesn’t do any favours to many men as well as most women. Furthermore I believe it is a presumption and I’m not aware of evidence supporting the view that people like this are best for the institution taken in the round.

So in 2017 these are arguments I will continue to press. I hope readers will do the same in their own organisations. Don’t forget #Just1Action4WIS.

Posted in Equality, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The History of Keeping the Damned Women Out

It is easy to forget that what is your daily life today is tomorrow’s history: history is not just about the great white men long dead and buried. A talk I attended a few weeks ago vividly brought this to life for me. The talk was by Nancy Weiss Malkiel, one of the first women hired as faculty at Princeton back in 1969, a university where she has been ever since. The talk was about the move towards coeducation on both sides of the Atlantic and was based on (and ‘advertising’) her recent book Keep the Damned Women Out. Churchill College was a very fitting venue because it was the (then) all-male Cambridge college which first voted to admit women as undergraduates and its Archives hold the College papers detailing the road to coeducation within it, one of the sources used by Malkiel.

1972 was the landmark year when women first entered the colleges of Churchill, Clare and Kings. I remember it well. I came up in 1971, disappointingly just a year too early to be one of those pioneering women (as I had hoped I might be; my memory, which may well be false, is that I had initially understood some colleges would go mixed in 1971 and I had aspired to be in that first cohort). I went to Girton instead. But the period of ‘history’ she was describing was exactly what I lived through. As an undergraduate Natural Scientist student (all science undergraduates study Natural Sciences in Cambridge, then as now choosing three experimental sciences in their first year and specialising more and more during their course) and moreover one focussed on the physical sciences, I got used to being part of a tiny minority. Particularly in practical classes I sometimes might have been the only girl in a room containing perhaps 50 men. I know I didn’t like that, but that was just how it was and as far as I was concerned one simply had to get on with it. Three colleges adding a few women a year later wasn’t going to transform the environment. I did have what I quite consciously thought of as the advantage of going back each night to an all-female college and to female friends with whom I could moan – be it about coursework, lecturers or boyfriends. That the college just happened to be up the only hill in Cambridge plus a mile or two further out to cycle was another of those things that was just how it was. I had wanted to go to Girton, to Girton I went and by Girton I was nurtured.

But this was a time when female lecturers – in any subject – were rare across the University and when the competition to get into Cambridge was substantially harder for girls than for men, since there were far fewer places open to them. At the time I didn’t realise how this meant that the women’s colleges tended to sit right at the top of the ‘league’ tables for exam results (something which ceased a while back). As I listened to Nancy Malkiel’s talk I realised how much I didn’t know about the years that might have been turbulent for the university, but ultimately didn’t turn out to be so. The issues that seemed to have exercised college minds as they contemplated going mixed were whether a college’s reputation in sport would suffer, and whether there were sufficient baths and long mirrors. Hardly great existential questions.

I saw none of the catcalling that Jocelyn Bell Burnell described from her years as an undergraduate in Edinburgh a little earlier, nor was I aware of any antagonism to female dons. That it existed in those years is illustrated by a story I heard of a Girton fellow whose husband was a fellow in another and fervently all male college which had a ban on the entrance of wives into their SCR. When the pair – both acting as examiners, hardly behaving as an amorous couple – retreated to the SCR after an examiners’ meeting for a restorative cup of coffee, all the (male of course) fellows present hid behind newspapers in their disgust. This same college, where my husband was at one point a research fellow, equally forbade him from taking me into lunch although, ludicrously, other fellows could bring me along (and in the case of Sir Sam Edwards, did).

Churchill is proud of having been the first college to vote to go mixed but this wasn’t without its own internal conflicts, as the book makes clear. Sir John Cockcroft, the first Master, had been all in favour of the move but died suddenly in 1967. The discussions did not stop with his death, and other fellows remained enthusiastic and kept the debate and formalities moving forward. It turned out the next Master, Sir William Hawthorne, was not of like mind. Nor, a cautionary tale I was told as soon as I entered the College as Master in 2014, did he read the mood of the overall fellowship. He stood out against the admission of women and very publicly lost the ensuing vote. Not a position a Master should ever get themselves into, particularly on such a high profile issue.

Nevertheless, minor glitches such as plumbing apart, the move to coeducation in the previously all male colleges in Cambridge – and indeed in Oxford where these days, unlike Cambridge, not a single single-sex college remains – went smoothly. This is in stark contrast to the US where things seemed much more heated and protracted in the late 1960s and 1970s as Ivy League universities contemplated making the change. One immediate difference in context is that in the US – where open hostility towards women within the hallowed walls of Harvard, Yale and particularly Malkiel’s own Princeton remained present for a decade or more after the first admissions – is that Cambridge and Oxford were already mixed at the university level: women in themselves weren’t new in the lecture hall or amongst lecturers, just rare. The fights over admitting women had, particularly in Cambridge, been long and unpleasant but had taken place many years before, culminating in the admission of women to full degrees in 1948 (Oxford had been much more open-minded, admitting them in 1921).  Secondly, college affairs are not dominated by alumni to at all the same extent as in the US. Although alumni-giving has become increasingly important in both Cambridge and Oxford, it was not a central (or indeed even peripheral) anxiety in the run up to coeducation as at Princeton or Yale.  The very title of the book comes from a letter from an alumnus to his alma mater expressing the horror of many that women on campus might be treated equally with men, rather than welcomed solely for weekend dating opportunities.

Reading the book took me back to my undergraduate years, making me realise how much, if unknowingly, I had been living and studying through a time of rapid transition, through ‘history’ if you like. The way we Girtonians lived had by the ‘70s changed immeasurably since the college first opened in 1869 (in Hitchin, a suitably safe distance from Cambridge, although it moved to its current site in 1873). A brief illustration of this is encapsulated by a visit to my student room from my grandfather, himself a student in Cambridge before the First World War, who asked anxiously if it was OK for him to be there without a chaperone. I enjoyed the book – and Malkiel’s talk – for all the sense it conveyed that I had been part of that significant transition, even if blindly so. The book provided much scholarly meat for thought, a sense of contextual history plus amusing anecdotes and is well worth a read (although not a quick one).

 

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The Cost of Education

There are many myths about the University of Cambridge (and indeed Oxford), based on historical misinformation, literature and a general feeling that it is ‘different’ from the rest of the world. Novels like Brideshead Revisited – admittedly referring to Oxford rather than Cambridge, but we are generally lumped together – must have something to do with this. The constant drip feed of messages implying the University is stuffed full of toffs, the élite, champagne parties and out-of-touch dons with which some of the newspapers like to feed the public is singularly unhelpful. Hard evidence, as 2016 has shown all too clearly, is not necessarily the basis for decision-making by anyone these days. Indeed, hard evidence may not even be sought by those beginning to consider their future studies (and their parents), although there is plenty of it out there; the myths may put them off before they start digging out the facts.

It was refreshing therefore to see, admittedly Cambridge’s own local paper, highlighting the fact that the University is actually not that expensive. Given how costly housing in the city itself is (as many university employees find to their literal cost), it is encouraging to see that for students Cambridge actually ranks way down the university pecking order for cost of living (38th according to the analysis). Reading the article many questions are begged, of course, since the actual costs will depend on College not to mention life style. Nevertheless, in a case like this, the headline message is perhaps the most important: you do not have to be a swanky toff with well-heeled parents to be able to afford to come to Cambridge University. If the belief that those from modest backgrounds cannot financially survive here could be eradicated once and for all, it could only be of advantage to both the potential applicants who are deterred and the university who could benefit from their talent.

Churchill College is proud of the fact that, with the opening this autumn of our new undergraduate accommodation block Cowan Court (accommodation that is already catching the architectural profession’s eyes), all undergraduates are promised accommodation on the main site throughout their course. Many colleges can provide college accommodation for their undergraduates, but the distinction here (possibly unique for Cambridge, although I can’t swear to that) is that what we provide is not in distant hostels but on the campus of the main College. The furthest room is only a couple of minutes’ walk from the Porters’ Lodge and Hall, the Buttery (aka the bar) and all their friends.

The newspaper report is also proud of the fact that Cambridge is actually considerably cheaper for students than Oxford. As it says:

Students at the University of Cambridge are forking out thousands of pounds less a year than those studying at the University of Oxford, new research has found.

That difference in price is in large part down to the cost of accommodation – which is in turn is down to the rents that Colleges choose to charge (using endowment and other income to keep this low – or not), but also to what might be thought of as more frivolous activities which are less easy to unravel, as it goes on to spell out.

However Oxford halls of residence cost students £568 a month compared to Cambridge’s £433, while in Oxford students spend on average £182 a month socialising, while in Cambridge the figure is £95.
Fashion conscious Oxford students are said to be buying clothes at £182 a month, dwarfing the Cambridge student spend of just £30.

If our students choose to buy their fashion in discount stores and drink less, I don’t see that as a problem, but it is a very curious gap between Cambridge and Oxford. It all goes to show that assuming we are the same is as unwise as believing many of the other myths that abound.

Churchill has a proud record of admitting students from the state sector, and with all the energy and investment it puts in to supporting all students who come here – support such as a part-time Counsellor and a nurse, a superb Tutorial system and now (as I said) providing accommodation on site for all. Newspapers that so often propagate outdated and incorrect messages counter to the reality are infuriating. The media are believed too easily and the facts available on websites are overlooked. All colleges work hard to address pupils’ concerns through visits and open days, but a family that has imbibed the negative messages early on will probably not listen or visit. Even a simple story reminding readers that Cambridge is not out of their reach financially, and indeed is significantly cheaper than many other universities whose image may indirectly imply the opposite, is to be welcomed.

 

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