Permission Given

This is a post about professional anxiety and what might be done to alleviate it. Consider who asks questions after departmental seminars or conference talks: too often it is the usual suspects (although my impression is that this is getting less common). Years ago I can remember conferences where it was always the same half dozen senior professors, who sat right towards the front, who would jump in, implying as they did so that it was the continuation of an ongoing ‘in’ debate. Of course this discouraged anyone else from contributing. Conferences are always the better for diverse questioners (as well as diverse speakers). And questions need to be about the talk itself, not about scoring points or self-aggrandisement, an argument nicely made here.

But what of those who hesitate to ask questions? Even if a wide range of people are prepared to ask questions, are you? I know that this particular skill is not my forte. I don’t enjoy it and rarely open my mouth – at conference or seminar – however senior I may have become. This is an admission I have made before in the wake of exhortations from others, notably Dorothy Bishop. Is this a gender thing? Do women ask fewer questions? Or perhaps their hands are more prone to be overlooked by chairs who home in on senior, white males in preference to any other category of speaker? It is perfectly possible that both questions may be answered in the affirmative; it is equally possible that the latter feeds the former.

If you are one of the nervous, fearful kind – be you male or female – it is worth contemplating if there is anything you can do that might help. I came across a situation recently that made sense to me as creating a possible mental intervention. Acting as host for a speaker, chairing the seminar, I knew it was my responsibility to step in to ask a question if the audience was silent. It was my job to do this and so I did it with absolutely no qualms, unlike my usual reluctance at question time. That incident made me wonder whether this isn’t a more generally useful strategy. On this occasion I’d been given ‘permission’, indeed more than that it was my duty to pose a question. So I did it. Would that work in other situations?

I throw this out as a suggestion. If you are a nervous PhD student about to give your first platform presentation in front of an audience of strangers, will you feel better if you remember you are repaying the funder’s money by speaking out? Since you would not want to be considered to be wasting the tax-payers’ money, or the medical charity’s, then perhaps you might wish to recall you have a duty to spread the word of how that money has been spent. I don’t know if that might alleviate the nerves, because I can’t put myself back in an equivalent position, but it strikes me as a plausible route that might work for some people.

The same is true of speaking out at committee meetings. There will always be difficulties of group dynamics, the incompetent chair or overweening members, but nevertheless you will be there for a reason. Perhaps you are the representative of a department, a grouping or a gender. That group will be looking to you to act on their behalf, which being silent is unlikely to fulfil. So, once again, the scary task can be recast as a duty. And duties are incumbent upon you; not opening your mouth and saying what your community feels about the topic under discussion is failing in that duty. Therefore, it is not temerity to speak up: it is an obligation. You have tacit permission.

Fear can arise for many reasons, but the feeling that one doesn’t ‘deserve’ something and therefore it would be inappropriate, putting yourself unnaturally forward or showing off (however wide of the mark such sentiments might be) may all serve to hold you back. Rephrasing speaking up as a duty might overcome that mind set. However, the fear may also arise from a sense of incompetence, again however misplaced a feeling. Nevertheless, if you are representing a group you have to believe they have chosen you for a reason. If you are talking about your research it is because someone – supervisor or conference organiser – believes you have something of note to say that others would benefit from hearing. Indeed, as junior researchers it is far more likely the audience will benefit from listening because they will not have heard your dulcet tones and hot-off-the-bench results before, unlike some of the big names whose voice, several-year-old results and anecdotes may have been heard again and again and again.

So, whatever devils you are facing, try to recast that fear into something that is less about your internal feelings and more about what you can give out to others. It might just make it possible to raise your voice above a squeak and set out in meticulous detail all the ideas that you have been turning over in your brain for weeks, months or even years. None of that means that people will actually listen, hear or act upon your words however wise, but at least you will know you’ve given it your best shot. Give yourself permission.

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Cambridge University, Widening Participation and the Government

What follows first appeared on the Times Higher Education blog platform on February 2nd 2016 (this is the unedited version). At the bottom I add a footnote about further developments since I first drafted this piece mainly regarding Cambridge admissions tests.

Cambridge is not the Villain, Mr Cameron

David Cameron is concerned about the opportunities that are offered to Black and Minority Ethnics (BAMEs) in the UK. He is right to be concerned. For everything from police stop-and-search statistics to criminal sentencing there is evidence to suggest this section of our population gets a raw deal. But throwing out blanket accusations without looking at the evidence is unhelpful to say the least. Suggesting he is planning new requirements to force universities – with a particular stress on ‘elite’ universities such as Oxbridge – to reveal how many black applicants and students from poor backgrounds are accepted is rather wide of the mark given that both Oxford and my own university of Cambridge have published this data for some years. We are not trying to hide anything. His statement may correctly state that if you’re black, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university, but, although he would like you to read that sentence as implying Cambridge is at fault, that is simply typical Government spin which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Cambridge University is also ahead of the game when it comes to monitoring the gender pay gap, another area where fingers are being pointed: for some years it was the only Russell Group University to publish its Equal Pay Review, although others may be playing catch-up now.

Cameron admits ‘if you’re black it seems you’re more likely to be sentenced to custody for a crime than if you’re white.’ That certainly has little to do with Oxbridge admissions policies and much more to do with the judiciary. It is good that David Lammy will look into this apparent discrimination in the courtroom. One has to wonder how much of the inconsistency in sentences is conscious and how much unconscious on the part of the judges. Either way, there is clearly work to be done.

Are ‘elite’ universities really sitting on their hands doing nothing? In fact they’re rather hard at work to improve the situation and to encourage the widest possible selection of candidates to apply. In Cambridge, there is a long-running initiative and a specific programme designed to reach out to BAME children in Year 9 to get them thinking about university and, by bringing them here, demystifying the place. Starting way before a UCAS form is waved in front of their faces is crucial.

In another bleak statistic out this week in a report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, it was shown that the poorest children in Cambridge’s local schools performed less well than those in London’s most deprived areas. Active discrimination? Unlikely. In fact for many years, Cambridgeshire schools have been underfunded compared with neighbouring counties. This was the legacy of a 1980s Conservative county council who slashed local education spending. Back then, the primary school my children were attending had to shed the assistants who helped the sizeable group of Bangladeshi children who did not speak English at home to master the language they were being taught in. The funding has never caught up. In 2013, the then MP Julian Huppert said ‘We receive £600 less per pupil than the English average for schools block funding…. Cambridgeshire kids deserve what everyone else gets”. During the last year, this shortfall has finally been made up largely as a result of Huppert’s actions but it will take time for this to increase numbers from the poorest families entering Cambridge. Don’t blame Cambridge for the failure. Look to who controls the purse strings that directly impact on children’s opportunities.

So, despite what the press may say and how they may interpret Cameron’s remarks, Cambridge University (and Cambridge schools) are not the bad guys in these stories. By publishing statistics on admission success rates by ethnicity of applicants and on its gender pay gap, we are ahead of where Cameron wants us to be without any legal enforcement. Monitoring is the first step towards devising strategies to improve. The figures may not yet be pretty, but people can only know that because they’re public. Other universities need to be more transparent. Indeed, when it comes to widening participation, Cambridge is also clear that another headline Government policy would be liable to cause yet more problems, as their response to the HE Green paper makes very clear: ‘…we do not support the linkage between TEF and fees: it is bound to affect student decision-making adversely, and in particular it may deter students from low income families from applying to the best universities.’

Cambridge University is far too easily caricatured as an out of date collection of toffs, but this Government claims to be interested in evidence-based policy. Perhaps it and the associated press reporting, might like to focus on evidence-based statements and analysis too to provide a little more accuracy in their stories.

Footnote added on February 3rd

On February 2nd the details of the new admissions tests that the University is introducing from 2017 were announced. This is not a decision the University has taken lightly. Certainly my own College has up till now relied very heavily on the objective marks obtained in AS levels which will no longer be (necessarily) available to us. So, some other objective measure is sought and admissions tests seem to be the least bad answer. As the the University’s director of admissions Dr Sam Lucy wrote in a letter to schools and colleges that the tests would provide

“valuable additional evidence of our applicants’ academic abilities, knowledge base and potential to succeed in the Cambridge course for which they have applied. This move is a result of responding to teacher and student feedback, a desire to harmonise and simplify our existing use of written assessments and a need to develop new ways to maintain the effectiveness and fairness of our admissions system during ongoing qualification reform”.

Once again the University has had to adopt a position (because of Government action in removing AS as part of A levels) that was not our first choice. However as usual politicians, this time from Labour, are swift to imply the University is doing something that will harm widening participation.

Alan Milburn is quoted in the Guardian as saying

“But looked at through the social mobility lens, it clearly has the potential to raise a further barrier to equal access. Bright students from less advantaged backgrounds tend to miss out on the intensive tutoring their better-off peers receive.”

I cannot believe he thinks that interview candidates at select schools are less likely to cause these sorts of problems so, given the numbers of excellent candidates applying, Colleges such as mine try to focus on hard figures which can be objectively compared. On this occasion, they have been removed. The evidence from the consultation period is that state schools are supportive and understand the logic of the move to tests.

Finally, to return to Cameron’s complaints about BAME admissions, it was heartening to see state school headteachers defending the University because of all the hard work we put into widening participation activities. Schools are very aware of this even if the Government has failed to check up.

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What’s the Extent of the Problem?

I don’t usually recycle my posts, but the time seems ripe to repost this particular one appended below. I wrote it just over three years ago. It asks ‘Just how bad is it?’ referring to the issue of sexual harassment. The stories in Astronomy coming from the US currently make for sober reading. There is the case of Geoff Marcy, now no longer at UCB. This was a man whom the university initially did little more than tell off after various allegations were upheld, but who ultimately had to resign in the face of the barrage of criticism. Then further reports came out, from Caltech and (more historically dating back to 2004 and revealed on the floor of Congress by a Republican congresswoman) a third case of an astronomer who was allowed to leave the University of Arizona and take up a new faculty position at Wyoming without his track record following him (both stories reported here; I have to assume they are accurate in the absence of evidence to the contrary). These three stories all emanate from the field of Astronomy. Is this chance? Is this because, as I have seen posited, that Astronomy is ahead of other disciplines in rooting out and cleaning up its act, or is it in fact genuinely worse than other subjects? And, a question close to my heart, is it equally bad in the UK or is there something significantly different going on in the US?

I can’t answer these questions. For sure there is plenty of sexism out there: a generous helping of unconscious bias, unwelcoming climates and dollops of patronising comments are the lot of too many women in science as elsewhere. On university campuses the laddish culture is undoubtedly a major concern, fuelled by excessive alcohol. But how bad is actual sexual harassment, perpetrated by senior (and otherwise respected) academics?

Last time, when I brought these questions up I had been challenged by a philosopher as to what the situation was like in science because she knew how bad her own discipline was (again this may largely have been in the US, although she herself was UK based). So, let me try again to discover – through (anonymous if you like) comments below, or through private email to amd3@cam.ac.uk – what is the UK science situation like today. Last time very little came to light via either route.

What follows is the full text of my earlier post, to put this updated introduction into context.

How Bad is It?

Published December 4 2012

It is easy to think that science is uniquely bad amongst the academic disciplines in the problems that some women may face. In the past few weeks I have visited various Universities to discuss some of the relevant issues and give their management a nudge about what needs to be done regarding Athena Swan submissions. During one of these, to the University of Sheffield, I was delighted to meet Jenny Saul, whose research includes the study of stereotype threat and unconscious bias, issues that undoubtedly feed into the problems that many women in STEM may face. But Jenny is a Philosopher (indeed she is Head of the Sheffield Philosophy Department) and she has drawn my attention to the difficulties in her own subject, which is also male-dominated at senior levels (although not amongst undergraduates). It seems that this is another discipline in which there are endemic issues making things difficult for women, with some close parallels to the sciences but also other significant differences.

Since that first meeting a few weeks back, I have followed up with Jenny to learn more about the experiences for women in philosophy and how they compare with women in STEM. I will also be exploring any particular issues affecting Cambridge female philosophers with the local Women in Philosophy Group since, as Gender Equality Champion in Cambridge, my brief extends far beyond science: I need to appreciate what the stumbling blocks are in the Humanities disciplines just as much as in my own. (It is worth pointing out that my university is split into six Schools, four of which relate to the STEM disciplines including medicine, plus the Schools of Arts and Humanities and of Humanities and Social Sciences.)

Before I get into what seems to be the same and what different for Philosophy, let me start with a stark question. One of the first things Jenny asked me completely stopped me in my tracks.

‘Is sexual harassment rife within the sciences? It is in Philosophy.’

My immediate answer was: no, it isn’t widespread. My more considered answer is: perhaps I don’t know. Is it? If you are a young female researcher, are there senior researchers and faculty who prey on you in lecture theatres, laboratories or at conferences? Just how bad is it? I have asked other women in the intervening weeks and they have also said no it isn’t bad. But then they’ve gone on to qualify their responses with some anecdote which would seem to say the opposite.

That qualification I suppose ties in with my own experiences. On this blog I have previously posted stories about situations in the not too distant past which have made me very uncomfortable (e.g. here  and here, although in both cases they should probably be called ‘mere’ sexism rather than sexual harassment). I have tended to shrug these off as unpleasant but not really representing a fundamental problem in my discipline. But maybe I am being naïve, because I am to a large extent protected by my age and standing. Nevertheless, I do not hear more than the occasional horror story, and those usually occurring at conferences rather than in day to day workplace experience. Alcohol excuses nothing, but I am sure reduces barriers so that offensive behaviour is more common at the end of a heavy day of conference talks rather than when just going about one’s daily business in the lab or office.

So, my blunt question is – how bad is sexual harassment (as opposed to sexism of which there is plenty) in the sciences? I’d be interested to receive comments so that we can build up a snapshot of how people perceive things, in case I am just missing the hell that some people are being put through. I am particularly interested in the UK experience, since that is where I am based and where the schemes I am familiar with  – Athena Swan and the IOP’s Project Juno – offer scope to improve the climate at least at work (though conferences may be another story). For Women in Philosophy there is a website where individuals can post their stories anonymously – it makes for grim reading. For anyone who doesn’t want to add a comment on my blog because of concern around confidentiality issues, please feel free to email me (amd3@cam.ac.uk) your experiences so that I can add them as comments to this post without disclosing names or institutions.  If harassment is still rampant, it should be possible to discuss it collectively. Zero tolerance should be the policy everywhere, but it is hard for individuals on their own to achieve or enforce for all the obvious reasons. However harassment will thrive on secrecy and fear.

So that’s the heavy, depressing part out of the way! Moving on to consider the similarities and differences between the sciences and Philosophy, there is a useful status report prepared jointly by the British Philosophical Association and the Society of Women in Philosophy UK last year. It highlights the fact that, unlike in STEM where the problems for women have been discussed and explored for a number of years and initiatives such as Athena Swan and the IOP’s Project Juno developed to try to improve the culture, nothing similar exists so far in Philosophy. Indeed, the problem does not seem to have received much attention at all. As with Chemistry, the undergraduate population is fairly evenly balanced between the sexes; numbers fall off rapidly thereafter, with only 19% of professors being women (not much above the value in Biology, although this starts from an undergraduate base consisting of more women than men).

One factor that seems to be significantly different in Philosophy is the heavy dominance of male authors on typical reading lists and whose work is being cited. Or rather, that in itself isn’t different, but it matters in a much more deep-rooted way because these texts are analysed to a degree that would be unusual for a scientist reading a research paper or standard text. In general it isn’t the language or the manner of expressing an opinion that matters to an aspiring scientist, it is only the facts and the equations. So as scientists we are probably less likely to be influenced by or sensitive to the gender of the writer. A second factor is that philosophers – apparently – use styles of argument and language that are stereotypically male. To quote the MIT philosopher Sally Haslanger (and this is a quote I’ve lifted from a very informative and illuminating article  by Jenny Saul on her website)

As feminist philosophers have been arguing for decades, the familiar dichotomies with which Anglophone philosophy defines itself map neatly onto gender dichotomies – rational/emotional, objective/subjective, mind/body; ideals of philosophy – penetrating, seminal and rigorous; and what we do – attack, target and demolish an opponent, all of which frame philosophy as masculine and in opposition to the feminine.

I don’t personally think the language and process of science operates within such a linguistic and gendered framework. Although I have seen ardent feminists object to the language of physics, because concepts such as force are ‘clearly male’, for me this seems an artificial objection. A force is a force. But, I can see how a philosopher being told their argument is emotional or subjective might feel they were being devalued at a personal level, and it could be sufficiently off-putting to contribute to their desire to quit the subject. Thus it would appear that the very structure of philosophical thought and argument as currently practiced constantly reinforces potential gender differences and so contributes to stereotype threat. The report on Women in Philosophy I mentioned earlier suggests that this is both unnecessary and could be overcome, offering some practical suggestions to facilitate a culture shift.

I wish the philosophers all the best in their attempts to level the playing field. If, as is currently being considered and piloted, Athena Swan extends its remit to subjects other than STEM, then maybe philosophy will be a discipline that can particularly benefit.

Update 29th January 2016: I did indeed visit Cambridge’s Philosophy Department and talk to their students as well as the head of department. Clearly the issues are recognized and work is in hand to improve their specific local culture.

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Telling Stories

Last week I went to talk at an event designed to encourage young girls to stick with science post-GCSE organised for local schools at Brighton College. I was paired up with the remarkable Stemettes Founder Anne-Marie Imafidon. She was Red Magazine’s ‘Woman to Watch’ in 2014 and has a host of other accolades to her name. Now – having quit her job at Deutsche Bank to work on Stemettes full time – she spends much of her time working with teenage girls to inspire them with her own love of science and coding. Since she is much closer in age to the 15-16 year olds we were talking to I’m sure she came across as a more convincing role model than I ever could. Still, in the spirit of ‘mix and match’ I expect we were a good pairing.

For both of us, though, there was the challenge of how to report the story of one’s life – and what we do and the excitement we get out of science – in a way that seemed both meaningful to a teenager and also accessible. I learned my lesson last summer about referring to my CV as a ‘standard CV’ when I got laughed at by a bunch of ECRs (Early Career Researchers). I meant, ‘here is my CV in a standard format’ not thinking that they would hear it as ‘this is the standard of what yours should look like in 30 years’ time’. Words have to be used with care. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to tell the narrative of one’s life as a Whiggish history of unassailable progression. My life hasn’t been like that and I don’t suppose anyone else’s has either.

I want to tell young women that life is not always plain sailing. Or rather, I don’t ‘want’, it gives me no joy to talk about the kicks I’ve received or the more disastrous interludes in my life that are definitely best forgotten. Nevertheless, I believe strongly these episodes are important to sketch, not just because they will undoubtedly have contributed to the person I am today, but because of the danger of the young seeing the older generation as always having had it easy and that our lives have been painlessly straightforward whereas theirs are mired in uncertainty, fear and difficulty. Being 15, a time when major decisions (e.g. about A level choices, to stay with a narrowly educational example) need to be made but when body and mind are going through the turbulence of adolescence, is not fun. I have not forgotten my own problems and anxieties of the time, although at least I had no doubt about the A level choices I would make.

So, how should one weave a narrative that expresses that success is possible despite setbacks, without making life seem unremittingly difficult and particularly so as a woman in science; or conveying that it is misleadingly easy because, hey look, I’m a professor and so can you be if you just work hard enough? Neither version of a life story is either accurate or helpful. In situations like this I feel that if I am not careful I could end up presenting my life as a series of vignettes that appears to reduce the complexity of living to a Disney storyline with the inevitable punchline of transformation from frog to prince(ss). No one travelling through the convoluted maze that is life creates a path that adds up to a case of invariably wise decisions aided by the appearance of an occasional hole in the hedge to get one from A to B painlessly and without work. Life ain’t like that, but in half an hour it’s hard to avoid giving that impression. The storyline needs to invoke also the irredeemably stupid dead end choices made and the dragon that breathed fire and scorched one’s dreams, choices, ego and/or self-esteem. But the mere mention of dragons might be enough to convince a 15 year old in the audience that science is a dangerous place for a woman and they’ll stick with media studies and English literature, thank you very much.

It is also not easy to convey the excitement of research when most school children barely touch equipment, let alone do an experiment that hasn’t been done by several million of their predecessors previously. Science is too often taught as not open-ended, not for the curious, but as a sequence of facts to be memorised and, if you’re lucky, to be understood. I know for me it was the incessant need to memorise labels, such as the parts of a plant or animal that turned me off biology in my teens. There seemed no requirement to understand how these parts connected or why they worked as they did. I believe (and hope) biology GCSE has moved on from this but school science, in the spirit of passing exams, is still far too often not about discovery and curiosity. So explaining that every time I used to look down a microscope (back in the days when that was what I did) I was excited at the possibility of looking at something that hadn’t been seen or understood before may simply not strike any chord in a teenager’s heart. The excitement of the unknown just waiting to be revealed as I prepared each sample gave me a buzz that modern school laboratory work simply cannot approach, any more than my own current daily grind of committee work (however important). Whiggish progression – pah. That is definitely a backwards step!

So, for every talk I give to the young, be it school children or those already committed to science but finding their way through their studies and early career, I have to ponder the balance between up- and down-beat comments. I never know how it will play out to a particular audience – nor can I ever know what impact, for good or ill, I might have had on any particular listener. Anyhow, how it comes out on the day may vary according to my own mood and energy levels at the time. I wish there was a simple answer for how to inspire the scientists of tomorrow. All each of us can do is to try (Just1ActionFWIS).

Postscript: Having written this and got it ready to post I have just come across  #realacademicbios on Twitter. Some of the tweets I’ve seen highlight the problems of being too naive and optimistic in summing up one’s life and passing that on as wisdom for how the next generation should behave. The tweets are thought provoking and well worth reading.

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Confidence, Rebellion and Schools

A swot and a rebel’ was how Mary Beard described herself when I interviewed her last week for Churchill College (you can listen to the full interview here). She seemed to think this was a common pairing of terms but I’m not sure I’d agree. She, like me, was a Cambridge undergraduate – although a couple of years later and at Newnham College not Girton – and has spent most of her academic life here. We talked a lot about how her career developed and how, when and why this rebellious streak mutated into the forceful, respected and outspoken public voice she represents now. But I remain slightly puzzled by this combination of attributes: indeed, for me in my first year in Cambridge I think I would have described myself as ‘trying to stop being a swot and ending up just very confused’.

Many Cambridge undergraduates come up as industrious swots. For some this wears off fast as the wider joys of freedom in a university hit home. Maybe it’s Footlights that takes your fancy (think the Monty Python crew) or rowing (Cambridge is home to many Olympic rowers who must have spent less time in the library than perhaps they first intended). Perhaps it’s the Union, although Oxford has a far higher proportion of Cabinet ministers of whom to boast than our own debating society. Many erstwhile swots find their energies diverted into activities perhaps a little less intellectual than they’d anticipated. They may or may not be rebelling against school or family when they permit this diversion; they may even barely notice it has happened so absorbed have they become in these new spheres.

Other students manage to achieve first class results apparently effortlessly, without the sweat and swotting whilst simultaneously singing in every choir going and doing volunteer work in far-flung parts each summer. Are these ones rebelling or just continuing in a contented straight line to whatever it is they deem to be success? Yet another bunch arrive and find that they are no longer a big fish in a small sea and that their school accolades are no protection against the hurly burly of intense study in Cambridge. These can really struggle with their confidence as well as their studies.

And confidence is hugely important to students as to the rest of us. Where does it come from? A recent Sutton Trust Report (A Winning Personality) seems to suggest schooling is key – as no doubt it is – but then, at least if you believe the Guardian analysis, the authors gets confused between confidence and being an extrovert. The Sutton Trust report indicates that future earning potential is all intimately tied up in this too, so getting to the bottom of what works would be important – if it could be done. It seems to me, from a cursory reading of the report and other worthy writers (e.g. Quiet by Susan Cain) that these are murky waters where many terms are thrown around but hard science and evidence (as opposed to anecdote or statistical averages of self-reported terms) is rather more difficult to come by.

You can be a confident rebel, which perhaps describes Mary Beard, or a rebel who is rebelling in order to cover up vast insecurities. You can be extrovert and yet still incredibly insecure, since extroversion only means you are energised when surrounded by people. This effect could be because that way you feel appreciated rather than because you’re overflowing with self-confidence: such appreciation may mean that the hollow at your centre where self-confidence should sit can be temporarily plugged. You can be very quiet, shy but nevertheless steely, full of both confidence and determination – and quiet is not, I understand the same as introversion anyhow (which crudely means other people exhaust you even if you like them). And you can be just middle of the road, confident in some areas and not in others.

Which all means attempts to teach this stuff at school. as is being advocated for the socially disadvantaged now, is likely to be an uncertain blessing. Does confidence come merely from attending the right school? Or does it come from no one ever pointing out your fallibilities? The two may be linked but that’s far from certain or likely to be ubiquitous. So, once you get to university you may arrive uncertain and insecure and blossom as you find your talents are finally appreciated and that you can cope with new challenges. Or you may find you can indeed cope with new challenges and yet remain the same totally uncertain and insecure person. These labels may really not be very helpful anyhow. I stick with my own personal belief that one is best off faking  confidence regardless of what is going on inside. That way, you may convince others even if not yourself. I do not think this is necessarily a gender issue, or down to having been to the right school. But I do think self-awareness of what you are doing matters.

There will be some people – a lecturer who intimidated you as a student perhaps, or a colleague whose intellect you just know trumps yours by a mile or two – who will always make you feel small. Whatever your subsequent successes I am not sure it is ever possible to eradicate a sense of awe so engendered. Whatever your confidence in general, you may be reduced mentally to the ignorant student whenever you meet that lecturer in later years, even if you are both by this time full professors. However such reduction to your shivering former self will only matter if you let it. And perhaps that is where confidence really comes in. If you can admit to yourself Professor Beta has that effect on you, but you know why (you were a dunce in his lectures, for instance) but what you are doing now has no connection with that former interaction, then maybe you can still ask his advice about funding opportunities, conference talks, or policy directions without feeling embarrassed.

In academia, as elsewhere, the ability to do the job in hand matters. But that ability does not need to equate to self-confidence so much as getting on with it, with a fake smile, enthusiasm or bravado if necessary. It doesn’t mean you have to be rebelling – although in some instances you may well be going counter to received wisdom – nor does it have to mean that you are sure inside yourself that you are the equal of all around. Which school you went to is unlikely still to be of interest to other people by the time you’ve hit 30 (at least in academia0, although privately you may feel it is indelibly inked on your forehead. But one thing is sure. If you let nerves overwhelm you to the point of paralysis you will never find out what you are capable of.

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