Should I Be Discombobulated?

If I were Mary Beard I’m sure I could tell you about my particular current predicament with grace and self-deprecating humour. As it is my reaction is a severe case of impostor syndrome when perhaps I should be swanning around with delight. But yet to talk about such delight makes me feel in danger of exhibiting unsuitable over-confidence verging on arrogance. Perhaps this is even a case of a #humblebrag. What’s prompted all these inner devils to get loose again? Well, this picture might give a clue.


The moment of unveiling, with my Head of Department Andy Parker.

If my seven-year old self could have imagined where I would be 50+ years later, I don’t think I’d have considered the possibility I would be standing, glass of champagne in hand, next to a portrait of myself. The picture (and for copyright reasons I’m not sure I can show you the finished work of art, a delightful picture by Tess Barnes, but her website shows her characteristic style) has now been hung on the stairs outside the lecture theatre adjacent to two of the Cavendish Professors (i.e the senior professor of the day) from my lifetime of research: Sir Sam Edwards, my mentor and supporter (as exemplified by the sort of actions covered in my immediately preceding post) and his predecessor Sir Brian Pippard. I am deeply humbled to find myself in such august company, just across from Lord Rayleigh, he of ‘why the sky is blue’ fame an earlier Cavendish Professor and Nobel Prize winner. But, it is discombobulating to say the least, embarrassing and pleasing in roughly equal measure. As I walk past the portrait daily in the years ahead, which emotion will dominate on any given day will probably depend on my mood.

Tess has been painting a series of portraits of female scientists for the past several years, with an eye to an exhibition to show the world that women and science mix, mix well and that we are interesting people whose characters shine through her artwork. The exhibition is intended to showcase equal numbers of male and female scientists, a powerful group of pictures when they go on tour, I hope inspiring another generation to think about what a scientist ‘looks like’ and whether therefore it looks like them. (Clue: it is unlikely to involve sticking up hair, test-tubes or a white lab coat.) Making sure that everyone can relate to these images of scientists is clearly close to her heart, although I fear the exhibition may be homogeneously white-skinned, a challenge to be resolved another day (I may be wrong on that count, as I only know the names of a section of her clientele.).

Related to this issue is a recent report that discusses how young girls think of themselves in the context of science. For many there may be a conflict between their self-identity and their perceptions of scientists. In this arena, two specific recommendations are of relevance:

  • Give students messages that allow them to resolve the conflict between their self-identity and their perception of the STEM-identity.
  • Use adjectives the sort of people – their aptitudes – who work in STEM, as well as explaining what engineers ‘do’ , using verbs.

Should be simple then?

To return to my own portrait. Hanging, as it now does, in a prominent position straight outside the department’s main lecture theatre, there is no doubt it will be seen by all our female students in their third and fourth years (for reasons associated with the geography of the city and teaching of the Natural Sciences Tripos, first and second years have their lectures in other departments). There are few portraits around, though lots of photographs, and there is no doubt it will be very conspicuous (pause for another bout of self-pinching and panic). At this point I have to think to myself ‘isn’t it wonderful that these young women will have a role model who isn’t an old man, merely an old woman.’ Hmmm, doesn’t yet feel a very comfortable thought.

I am writing this post within the hallowed walls of the Royal Society which still has not refreshed its portraiture to reduce the overwhelming preponderance of men by even just a little, nor yet put into store pictures of lesser-known gentlemen with pith helmets – I believe literally although I’m no expert in this type of headwear – or bewigged (albeit not simultaneously). This refresh is on the cards and I for one sincerely look forward to a more welcoming bunch of individuals decorating the walls. The Cavendish, on the other hand, is well-served with photographs of individuals but has only a very limited number of paintings. The photographs are an amazing record of students past and present. And women are represented if you look hard, with splendid hats in the earliest days as seen below (1904 batch). The women are named but their history is not necessarily recorded: I have to assume they weren’t simply clerical assistants. As far as I know, the first woman to receive a PhD from the Department was Katherine Blodgett in 1926.

1904 students copy

 1904 Research Students: Photograph copyright Cavendish Laboratory.

The one thing I regret about my portrait is that I have been painted holding a red felt tip pen, beloved by me for marking up student’s work (see my thoughts here). Unfortunately, if you don’t look too closely I could be thought to be holding a tube of lipstick, possibly not giving off the message I feel appropriate for who I am. I don’t suppose I have used such a thing since I was a teenager to the extent that I’m not even sure that lipstick is correctly described as coming in tubes. No matter. I assure you it is a pen, but you’ll have to wait for the exhibition itself (or a visit to the department) to check.


Posted in Science Culture, Uncategorized, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

On Sponsorship and Kindness

Academia is intrinsically competitive, full of the need to win grants – which necessarily implies winning out over nameless others – gaining promotion and trying to beat others to a hot result at the expense of colleagues in the game. Does that mean the best science gets done? Almost certainly not. Being competitive can lead to a race to publication involving errors if not downright fraud; it can lead to one research student losing out to another due to small matters of luck or timing, regardless of intrinsic skill; and it can induce severe loss of confidence without due cause if things do start going wrong.

But competition can mean more than just legitimate criticism of another’s experimental (or indeed theoretical) data. It can turn into a war of attrition, of malice and of aggression. Post-publication peer review can seem like such a good idea, until nay-sayers hide behind the anonymity of some sites to pursue an active policy of something that can start to look very like harassment. Philip Moriarty has talked about this in his own blogpost if you’re unclear about this particular manifestation. I have known colleagues who have found such anonymous viciousness deeply distressing, making them question their own future even though externally they may look extremely successful.

I was struck by a blogpost I came across recently, entitled ‘On the need for empathy and kindness in academia‘ by Raul Pacheco-Vega, making a plea for individuals not to ‘spew[ing] vitriol on other academics’. That seems to me to be a reasonable request. Robust criticism, if something looks dodgy, unclear or unsupported seems fair enough. Personal, persistent attacks are not. We are, as Pacheco-Vega says, only humans.

Being kind takes many forms. It isn’t only a case of not being unpleasant; there are many active forms of support directed at those junior to you that can take up but a little time but make significant impact on those to whom this support is proffered. People often talk of the importance of mentoring. It is only recently that I have come across the related, but distinctly different act of sponsorship. It might not be seen as kindness as such, since it is a purely professional activity, but its impact may be significant and, I would suggest, particularly important for women who may not naturally be at the receiving end of what is historically known as the old boy’s network.

So what is sponsorship? It differs from mentoring in that it doesn’t need to be a long-term relationship, or even have much of a personal dimension to it at all. But it does require individuals actively to have a mind for those who might otherwise be forgotten when it comes to job opportunities, prizes or invited speaker slots – all those things that really matter to an up-and-coming researcher who needs something to differentiate their CV from others. Sponsors need to keep in mind, not just the obvious names, but the slightly less in-your-face individuals whose actual work may be just as excellent as those highly visible (and audible) people who tend to get the low-hanging fruit. When it comes to conference organisation, such sponsorship in making sure that a truly representative group of speakers are invited is important, but it is within HEI’s themselves that I think such people are particularly crucial.

Of course I have in mind that this is important to improve diversity, but it goes further than this. It means, in the particular context of conferences you might not have to listen to the same old, same old time and time again. Fresh faces being invited is likely to lead to a more stimulating meeting, although the odd one might be an unexpected dud at a major meeting. But then, it surprises me how often the really well-known speakers also can mess up a platform performance, probably due to lack of preparation /lack of time with the research team because they are constantly jet-setting from one conference venue to another.

Why does it matter in HEI’s so particularly? Because it is here that the early career researchers might be expected to get a helping hand from senior colleagues and, if they don’t, their careers are likely to falter. Take the case of Royal Society University Research Fellows. As I wrote previously, are women (and some men too) being handicapped in their applications either because they don’t get the encouragement to apply in the first place, or because no one casts an eye over their application and CV to check they are as strong as they might be? To read a junior colleague’s case for support needn’t take very long but it can be immensely helpful. If you can point out that they’ve forgotten to mention in their application an early career prize they won, or that they had already supervised some student projects, it could make their CV look much stronger. Not everyone knows how to make the most of themselves and it shouldn’t be down to a lottery of who you work with as to whether you get such advice or not.

Of course, to revert to the point of being kind, there is no point in reading an application and then remarking that you’ve never seen such an unconvincing load of twaddle. If the application is irretrievably weak then try to find constructive ways of saying so that might enable the researcher both to learn from your advice and also to walk away not feeling half an inch tall. Otherwise that is neither an act of sponsorship or kindness.



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

The Choices Not Taken

It is all too easy to think our lives are determined by the choices we make, and of course to a large extent that is true. But it is equally true that our lives are determined by what we actively decide not to do. We know that if we make a positive choice to pursue option A and it turns out badly then we probably made a bad decision. But this may be wrong if the alternative option B – the choice not made – would actually have been even worse. We will never know. Likewise, if everything turns out smelling of roses and one is happy it is unlikely (and unwise) we will consider that things could have been even more brilliant if we’d actually done something else.

But it does no harm to remember, from time to time, that a choice made also implies another choice not made. I was reminded of this way of looking at things when reading a book, slightly removed from my normal diet of reading (it’s another of those random choices, ah choices, made when offered books in lieu of a fee from a publisher). The title ‘How to do things with books in Victorian Britain‘ intrigued me and its blurb tells me the author, Leah Price, ‘asks how our culture came to frown on using books for any purpose other than reading‘. The text – note that distinction between text and book which turns up throughout Price’s writing – is full of all the other things you can do. One of which is clearly ‘not reading’, particularly common when books and tracts were given to others to improve them. The servants and children in this situation might have had no option but to accept. But like taking a horse to water they could then decide never to open the covers to see what lay inside.

Anyhow I digress, by way of explanation. Price quotes from an unnamed 1893 journalist ‘The difficulty of finding something to read when half the world is engaged in writing books for the other half to read is not of quantity, so that the question “What shall I read?” inevitably suggest the parallel query “What shall I not read?”‘. So, making choices, be it about PhD topic or supervisor, your next move or whether to start a blog should also be framed in terms of what you won’t be doing if you do head off in a particular direction.

Take choosing your PhD topic (or a job of some kind). Maybe you have only one offer on the table. That’s easy, but even so you will know that there were myriad alternatives in principle available to you. If you have more than one offer, what guides you? Is it the financial package? The location? The people you’ll be working with? Or the science? All may play a part, and only you can decide how much each factor plays a critical part. You may not even have all the answers at the time you have to make the decision. Charles Darwin produced a list of pros and cons when it came to getting married, which seems distinctly cold-blooded in the matter of romance, but lists may have a place in any sort of decision-making, even if only to convince you you’re being rational although in your guts you already know what you’re going to do and the list is merely cosmetic and stacked to give you the answer you secretly want.

Other topics perhaps exemplify better what I mean by the choices not taken. There are only a finite number of hours in the day/week/month but you may be asked to do more than you believe you can reasonably fit in in terms of committee work, service to the department or the wider community. If you agree to participate in a grant-giving committee – looks good on the CV but is likely to be very time-consuming because of the necessary preparation before each meeting – how do you weigh that up against being an Athena Swan lead if you passionately believe your department needs to get its act together on the equality front? Utterly different kinds of job, with very different rewards, but doing both might leave you precious little time for research and/or teaching. This is where it’s important to focus not just on what is on offer, but what would be lost if you accepted the offer, however attractive it may look. Things that go on in the background are often the things it’s only too easy to lose sight of and so neglect to factor in when considering the attractiveness of a proposition. (This apparent wisdom has only been acquired by years of not getting this right, not factoring in the things it’s all too easy to take for granted because you assume they’ll just go on ticking away.) So, these choices relate to decisions regarding finite resources, be it of time, energy (or perhaps money).

Considering life in the round is always important. A good rule of thumb my family are keen I keep in mind is that if I intend to accept something I need to work out what it is I am going to give up in its place. It’s also important always to make sure you have all the facts. This past week I was approached about two separate university tasks, both of which were important and neither of which were well time-delineated in the emails asking if I’d take them on. My response to the first was obviously sufficiently cautious, along the lines of ‘to be blunt, how much time is involved if I agree’ that before I’d even had an actual conversation to get an answer to my question they’d decided to find someone whose diary was less frenetic. A good choice (for me, in this case) and one that let me off the hook of having to say ‘sorry but no‘ on this occasion.

So as you lie awake tossing around the good and bad points of some offer, some task, consider what you should be giving up if you accepted. Starting that blog? Brilliant, but not if it comes at the expense of actually writing up your thesis. Chairing a committee? Fine, as long as you’re not already buried in committee paperwork and your lecture notes are in danger of getting lost under the mound of generated paperwork too and not updated in time for the course about to begin. It’s all too easy to see the attractions of the new and lose sight of reality. I say this from hard, and not-yet-fully-learned experience!


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Why do I Always come away from Meetings Feeling a Fool?

That was the plaintive question I saw recently on Twitter (actually not from anyone I knew). There is of course the possibility the person is a fool, but my guess is that they were simply feeling that they weren’t doing as well as they imagined everyone else was in achieving their aims/contributing/being heard. Here are ten possible scenarios which could give rise to the sad statement, most of which do not amount to the questioner being a fool at all. I will assume the meeting was some sort of committee meeting; adjust my comments to fit other sorts of meetings as appropriate.

  1. It was your first meeting and you had little background information to help you get through the meeting. If everyone else looked like they knew more than you did, you’re probably correct, but that is simply knowledge gained from attendance in the past, knowledge that you can quickly pick up if you work at it. Such knowledge can range from the ability to toss acronyms around to familiarity with the names of key characters not physically present in the room. Give it a while – YOU ARE NOT A FOOL.
  2. Closely allied is another form of inexperience when you are unsure of the rules and customs of a particular group or the arrival of a new chair, whose style you don’t know, changes the dynamics. It is all too easy (e.g. at a grant-giving committee) to talk for too long or not long enough for the format expected. Listen, work out what works and what the consensus style of presentation is and get it right next time. Unless you persistently stay out of line – YOU ARE NOT A FOOL.
  3. You didn’t prepare your arguments well enough to be able to put them across convincingly. This may be because you were lazy and sloppy (in which case foolishness may be a factor) or it may be because you’re inexperienced and/or not had an opportunity to discover what counter-arguments might be used. INEXPERIENCE IS NOT THE SAME AS FOOLISHNESS but it’s worth working to improve your ability to defend a position. Sometimes it helps to try your ideas on a willing outsider; as with giving seminars, practice in saying the words out loud can make a big difference.
  4. You didn’t manage to read the papers in advance of the meeting. This may indeed amount to folly; or it may simply be your life is out of control (we’ve all been there) and time ran away from you. But it is never a good idea to turn up at a meeting without having the slightest idea of what’s going on or, worse, to put forward an argument explicitly debunked in the paperwork which shows, to one and all, you’ve failed to prepare. You can most likely get away with it once. More than once -AND YOU PROBABLY ARE BEING FOOLISH (at the very least for not dropping some of your other workload). You may be able to hide your lack of preparation by never saying a word of course. Many a committee member has chosen such a strategy, but if they do it consistently they will end up looking rather silly.
  5. You can’t get a word in edgeways: this would suggest, either that you need to go to assertiveness classes or you have a very bad chair (I discussed various characteristics of incompetent chairs here). The latter happens all too often, unfortunately. Try to talk to a colleague, ideally someone also present at the meeting who can facilitate your words being heard. YOU ARE NOT A FOOL (but you may need to toughen up).
  6. You are on the losing side in an argument. This could be because you have been misled by others who seem more powerful or whom you respect (not necessarily the same thing). You need to work out why your argument lost. Was it just about power dynamics, or were there good arguments on the other side you hadn’t thought of? Was it because the decision had anyhow been taken outside the room or was it your arguments weren’t sufficiently researched and backed up by evidence? YOU PROBABLY AREN’T A FOOL but you should try to analyse what went wrong.
  7. You prepared everything beautifully, your arguments were sound and well-researched, but you weren’t allowed to speak more than a sentence at a time without being interrupted so that you lose your flow time and time again. Once more this amounts to bad chairing and bad behaviour by the one or more committee members at fault. Practice pushing back on interruptions; find ways of telling people to shut up that you are comfortable with; find allies who will do this for you too; talk to the chair to make sure it doesn’t happen again, although sometimes they may allow it to happen either because of their own insecurities or because they don’t want your arguments to be heard. YOU ARE NOT A FOOL.
  8. Your arguments are listened to but you yourself are directly (if irrelevantly) attacked so that things becomes personal. Call on allies if you can. It’s much easier to do this if you come prepared because some sort of attack was anticipated, perhaps because you are challenging someone’s pet beliefs and projects. Try to maintain dignity. Do not resort to name-calling yourself, but make it very clear that the attack is irrelevant and that what matters are the facts. This can be incredibly hard to do without getting emotional/angry, I won’t pretend I’m always good on this one, but practice does improve one’s ability to think on one’s feet to work out ways to counter irrelevant nastiness. YOU ARE NOT A FOOL.
  9. You come away feeling a fool, but that is just because you are a perfectionist and feel sure you could have done better. It doesn’t matter that the argument was won and that everyone seems convinced, if you suffer from obsessive perfectionism you may still feel you didn’t do as good a job as you liked. THIS IS FOLLY OF A DIFFERENT KIND but needs to be stamped on.
  10. You were drunk or suffering from a lack of sleep. If the former YOU ARE A FOOL, if the latter you have my sympathy.
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Where Can You Speak Out Safely?

The media is full of stories around men behaving inappropriately – or worse – currently. These range from #shirtstorm in the wake of Matt Taylor’s press conference regarding the successful landing of Philae (a sad distraction from the amazingly successful landing on the comet) to the video of a woman walking through New York subjected to incessant catcalling and the like. Academia is not exempt from bad behaviour and has its own horror stories and distressing tales. For instance, philosophy seems to have been having some particular problems (see e.g here  although this particular story contains so many twists it is hard to know what really went on, and here).

Even minor occurrences of sexism can prey on the mind of a victim long after the episode is closed. Did I invite this unwanted attention? What did I do that made this guy think it was OK to humiliate me publicly? How could I have handled that aggressive putdown better? Frequently there is no one that a victim feels comfortable talking to and they may have no desire to escalate matters into a formal complaint. Too often the victim of even the most egregious behaviour can be as much the loser in a tribunal hearing as the perpetrator. Petty behaviour can be very destructive if it persists. I have written before about the challenges that Philosophy in particular face, but when I asked readers of my blog back in 2012 to highlight (anonymously if they wanted) their own bad experiences in the sciences I got not a single reply. Does this mean all our colleagues are paragons of virtue? I don’t believe that, but it may indeed indicate that there is less need of a safety valve for our community than for philosophers who use the Feminist Philosophers website to share horror stories. I think this may be because issues of and for women in science are much discussed and have been for a number of years. Philosophy seems to have woken up to the problems rather recently. It would appear to be about on a par with the tech and gaming industry which seems, all too often, to possess a most unpleasant atmosphere for female coders.

Recently I have been introduced to a site for academics of any discipline to record thoughts and experiences about sexism in the workplace. This site, known as SASSY (Sharing Academic Sexism Stories with You) is based in Europe and comes with translations in Dutch, French, German and English. Its introduction states:

As fellow academics fed up with the everyday sexism that we have seen, heard and experienced, we have decided to create a safe platform to share stories of academic sexism.

In so doing, we hope to:

  1. create a space for those who have been harmed to express themselves,
  2. empower others to share their stories and challenge the structures that perpetuate this sexism, and
  3. better understand the problem in order to begin to act collectively to prevent it.

The originators of the site clearly feel that the more readers and the more stories they have, the greater use it will be. You may wish to look at it, possibly even comment. That’s what they are hoping for.

SASSY explicitly considers sexism rather than the more serious harassment cases. But sexist incidents are, if not endemic, all too common and depressing as well as deplorable. Just last week an overseas student was telling me how she had recently been accused of being ‘too pretty to be a neuroscientist‘. She wanted to know what sort of riposte she could have made. It’s an interesting question and the best answer I could come up with on the spot was to suggest she enquired what level of prettiness was appropriate for a scientist in her field. If she had had time, energy and inclination she could have debated the fundamental question of what skills a good neuroscientist actually needs, hoping in the process that the obnoxious individual involved would slowly realise what an irrelevance his remark was since looks wouldn’t feature in his list (but maybe I’m being too optimistic here).

Being talked over or ignored is all too common an experience for women, what in shorthand I’ve started to call the Miss Triggs problem after the old Punch cartoon. However, I recently came across an interesting variation of the punchline ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it’ which shows that such chauvinism is not always about sexism. The latest version I had referred to nationality in an EU context. Sitting on a committee in Europe the woman who told me the story said she had been told, after making some remark, ‘perhaps one of the other nationalities would like to make it‘. The story of the UK in Europe is a different kind of power balance from those associated with gender. Nevertheless the story reflects the fact that issues arise in the workplace for many reasons other than sexism.

We need to keep talking about the issues, calling out bad behaviour wherever it occurs (and whatever particular form of -ism is involved). We need safe spaces for individuals to talk about their experiences, to lessen the pain when these have been bad and to help them find and debate coping strategies. Above all we need to make sure that no majority continues to exclude, from any field of endeavour, those who aren’t just like them.




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