The Challenge of Taking Time Out

I have been marking exams. However much students may and do hate taking the exams themselves, marking is also a very stressful period for those of us who have to do it. We wish to do it with the utmost rigour, yet the sheer number of scripts piled up on the desk makes that a formidable challenge. This year, for reasons beyond my control and that are irrelevant, I faced a particularly demanding task ending up with unexpectedly having to do a lot more than I’d anticipated and in a compressed time frame.

The trouble is that for any of us, ‘reasons beyond our control’ may intervene. Sick children, elderly parents, broken limbs, let alone catastrophic fires can disrupt the best laid plans. Last year I marked my scripts within a week of my mother’s death. Interestingly, I appeared to manage to do this with zero errors in transcription into the mark book, I hope an indicator of the overall accuracy! Marks are always checked by a second examiner and this was a better record than I am usually able to muster, demonstrating just how hard I was concentrating when my mind would have preferred to be free-wheeling elsewhere on sombre thoughts.

And that is a problem. For all of us at some point in our life, personal tragedy can get in the way, yet academia is pretty unforgiving. This applies to the students (for instance the girl who was described as doing her GCSE exam in her pyjamas on the morning after the Grenfell Tower disaster) as well as to the markers. Indeed it will apply to any member of academia who is under constant and indefinite pressure to write grants, meet students, write lectures, attend committee meetings, travel to conferences, read papers, mark student work, travel to committee meetings, give a seminar, referee grants, check health and safety reporting, attend professional training, fill in paperwork, upload data, write manuscripts, correct student papers, meet funders, referee papers, write letters of reference…..the list goes on and on. Academics just don’t get time to think, possibly upon occasion even to sleep. There is certainly little time for personal tragedy – and yet it happens.

Over the past year – as is probably clear from some of the posts I’ve written – I’ve been trying to snatch time to reflect on life, death and grieving. I have read many books on the subject, although few, however strongly recommended by others, have really struck a chord (I’ll put a list of some of the ones I’ve found more helpful at the end). Grieving is personal. Individual circumstances mean my reaction to death, and my relationship with my family, can never be the same as anyone else’s. Yet somehow one hopes that by reading about another’s experience one’s own will make more sense. The one thing that is helpful is to know that, a year on it is hardly surprising that my mother’s death is still close to the top of my mind regularly if not incessantly. Had one lost a loved one in an untimely or brutal fashion, how much more difficult it would be to assimilate. I know I have it ‘easy’ – it doesn’t really help to know that, in case you’re wondering, it just doesn’t make it worse.

I find myself reading all kinds of articles online I would never have considered before. For instance, this one about how much time for compassionate leave employers provide upon a death really struck a chord. It indicated just how long-term and unpredictable the grieving process is. And it demonstrates – given the extent of the different tasks academics must master – just how hard it is to ‘fit in’ anything that perturbs one’s peace of mind, despite the trivial observation that we all must do so. This isn’t just about grieving, but could apply equally well to family long term ill health, unhappy children, divorce or other personal trauma. Yet we rarely speak about such things.

I can confirm the fact that for many people a quick ‘how are you?’ muttered in embarrassment is all the recognition some people, however kind and well-intentioned, feel able to give; that comment to be made once and never again. We aren’t automata yet sometimes the system expects us to behave as such. Or, as I fear in my case, we expect it of ourselves. I could have dropped out of marking exams last year; I wouldn’t have been ‘blamed’, but it didn’t seem reasonable. I was physically capable of doing it, it was a specialist paper for which it would have been hard to find an alternative particularly at short notice, and so I did it. Likewise many other tasks I did not drop out of although, with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight I probably should have done. I have put that burden upon myself because, as with so many academics, I don’t like to let people down. I am not trying to claim any virtue because I didn’t drop out of stuff. A year on, on the contrary, I wonder if I made some really silly decisions and would have picked up faster if I’d been kinder to myself from the outset. I’ll never know.

What I do know is that I react very differently to people in comparable positions than I would have done previously. Everyone has to make their own decisions about what works for them. For many, soldiering on is probably a good thing to do rather than indefinitely to sit and weep, but not for everyone and certainly not for everyone all the time. I am looking forward to making more time for myself over this summer. Last year, with the immediate aftermath of the death to deal with and a house to empty and sell, this was impossible. I will start with a week’s holiday away from Cambridge before Graduation in Cambridge next weekend, when it will be time to don gown and bonnet and rehearse my Latin once more.

Reading List

On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the five stages of Grief. Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler (Probably the most resonant for me; I had read E K-R’s book on Death and Dying many years ago, an absolute classic. I only discovered this more recent work comparatively recently).
Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving. Julia Samuel (newly out this year, and also a book I found helpful, though not as much as the reviews ‘promised’ me.)
Losing a Parent. Fiona Marshall
Death of a Mother: Daughters’ Stories. Rosa Ainley (I found the introduction particularly helpful, more so than the individual accounts).
Loss of a Parent: Adult Grief when Parents Die. Burchett Jackson
Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Max Porter (more literary, well-regarded but it didn’t speak to me)
The Grief Book. Debbie Moore and Carolyn Cowperthwaite
The Glass Mother: A Memoir Rosie Jackson (Less immediately about grieving, but by implication strongly so).
And of course H is for Hawk. Helen MacDonald ( A searing account of personal grief, rather than a self-help book, which I had read a while back and reread looking for my own answers – which I then couldn’t find.)

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The Patronising Colleague

Patronising and mansplaining are both irredeemably etymologically male. I cannot think of female equivalents. That isn’t to say that women can never be patronising or indulge in mansplaining, but I suspect the frequency with which they go in for such activities is rather less than for men. For many women, being patronised is an ever present annoyance. Mansplaining – a term of much more recent creation – is equally really, really tedious. The only thing in its favour is it tends to be on a one-off basis, whereas being patronised may be a long-term experience.  I wrote about an incident which got close to mansplaining several years ago, I suspect before I’d encountered the word. There are far more egregious examples in the public domain: as an example, a woman author being lectured on a book which they themselves have written, and flatly being contradicted when they try to point out this straightforward fact. One should be very careful of who you write off as an idiot simply by virtue of their gender!

But, to turn to the long-term irritation that is patronage and/or being patronised. Maybe once upon a time patronage was a good thing (although it surely always smacked of the old boy’s network). There is no doubt that sponsorship would be the modern version of patronage in the sense of putting someone’s name forward in the context of job vacancies, prizes etc. But being patronising now has a significantly different and more negative connotation. As a quick look in the dictionary indicates, it has overtones of being superior even if ostensibly the actions are kind. Certainly I am sure many of us recall being treated by someone apparently with praise, but the remarks are qualified by ‘at your stage of career’ or ‘that’s impressive for you’ or something equivalent. Or, the variant I well remember from mid-career episodes of frustration, to be allowed to make a point of view and told that it was all very interesting but, in essence, no one was going to take the slightest bit of notice. The people who did this to me no doubt thought they were being very kind in even permitting me to open my mouth, but they had already decided before I did so to pay no heed.

It is interesting to try to analyse the motivations for this kind of behaviour. I would hypothesise that the worst offenders of being patronising are those whose egos are most fragile. A confident person knows they are not always right – be it about science, or strategy or what colour to paint the walls. The context to some extent does not matter. And since they know this, but are confident enough to believe that they may be right more often than not and if they are wrong they have something to learn, they want to hear other people’s views so that progress can be made. Those people who, on the other hand, have little confidence in their own judgement are much more likely to bluster and wish not to hear anyone else’s views in case their own ignorance is shown up or it becomes plain just how bad their judgement is. And then there are those who are so convinced of their brilliance – even if the evidence for this in other people’s eyes may be thin – that they simply cannot conceive that anyone else has anything to teach them or offer the wider world. They know it all and have done it all, regardless of any actual facts.

So, in the face of patronising behaviour, what can you do? This is a hard question to answer. In the case of mansplaining it may be tempting to tell the offender that they are ‘an ignorant little twerp who should have humility enough to check their facts before opening their mouth, who should read more and speak less’ – but, apart from the momentary satisfaction of seeing the guilty party squirm, it is unlikely to do much good. Personally, I suspect a quiet correction followed by deliberately walking away, turning one’s back, is probably a more dignified response and better for the blood pressure too.

But long term patronising colleagues are a different matter and it isn’t clear that direct action on the victim’s part can usually solve the problem. It is, however, probably another situation where third parties can help out either publicly in meetings or having a quiet word later with the guilty party.

One tactic the sufferer could try to adopt, when the offender is someone who is higher up the ladder, is to take them up on their, quite possibly insincere, offer of help. Try lines such as:

‘Would you be so kind as to read my grant application?’
‘Thank you so much for being so supportive. Would you be willing to nominating me for this award please?’
‘I’m facing this tricky problem with a student and I’m sure your insight could be helpful.’

With those lines you have nothing to lose. They may choose not to help (but they’ll probably not offer ‘help’ again which may be a blessing). If they do help out you can choose whether or not to take on board the advice they give, but if you do get the grant or award they are likely to believe it was their brilliance that made the difference. That way the relationship will not go west in the way that is likely to ensue from saying head on ‘stop being so smug and patronising’.

The challenge I still (perhaps surprisingly) seem to face, is how to deal with people who aren’t higher up the ladder but who still seem to regard it OK to patronise or mansplain to me presumably simply because I’m a woman. If anyone has some useful tips for that situation I’d love to hear them, because I haven’t got beyond thinking in terms of a passive aggressive response, which I really don’t think is helpful or wise. It is a sad fact that many people do not seem able to stop being patronising regardless of their audience or the unsuitability and unattractiveness of such behaviour. If only they knew that others do note it (and indeed compare notes about it) and it isn’t actually going to assist them in their own progression.


Posted in Science Culture, Uncategorized, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Get a Life

I should have known better. At the Hay Festival last week, as my last post alluded to, I mentioned the gendering of toys. This point was one of many I tried to put across during my talk on why the cultural stereotypes we impose essentially from birth on our children, boys and girls alike, is not likely to lead to the best outcomes for individuals or for the country. I was specifically trying to make the point we are losing talent from the pool of potential innovators and, if one of the key problems with our economy is our lack of innovation in the UK, losing this talent has to be detrimental. The questions I was asked after my talk covered the full spread of issues I raised; they were intelligent, searching question from an involved audience. I ended up with a slide of the 20 actions I believe everyone can find one or more to make their own: Just1Action4WIS. But I should have known better than to introduce toys into the conversation.

Two years ago, in my Presidential address for the British Science Association it was Barbie: I mentioned ‘her’ in a sentence or two – out of many pages. And it was Barbie that was the one angle that every mainstream newspaper picked up in the UK. And it was Barbie that formed the focus of every single radio interview I did – for the Today programme and what felt like a large proportion of local radio stations. In one sense I didn’t mind.  I was impressed by the way the interviewers approached the topic. I felt – and this was no doubt why it was picked up  for local radio – it was a topic the presenters could easily understand in the context of their own families and they wanted to know why I felt only giving girls Barbies and not offering them the choice of Meccano (or Lego), for instance, mattered. I know not everyone does believe this matters, and goodness knows there are enough other ways in which our society collectively imposes gender stereotypes (as my Hay talk made plain), but it does seem to me to be something that is very easily avoided. So why do toy manufactures and toy shops continue to make gender choices so stark? And why do more shops and parents not heed the advice of Let Toys be Toys? Nothing wrong with Barbie, pink Lego Friends or whatever per se, but it should not be the unremitting diet of a young girl’s playtime.

After Hay, after I came away feeling pleased that I had survived my experience and felt I had been heard with interest, when I got up the next day I realised my mistake. By the time I checked my email at 8am interview requests were coming in and the fact that this aspect of my talk had made it onto the front page of the Daily Telegraph had already been brought to my attention.  Nevertheless, the interviews with local radio once again went well, in the same spirit as two years ago. The problems arose with TV.

I agreed to do an interview through Skype with Sky News over lunchtime. This did not go well; the interviewer seemed less well informed and the questions weren’t so helpful in drawing out the points I wanted to make. I found doing this interview ‘down the line’ disconcerting, since all one can see is oneself, and the angle the iPad was propped up to make (balanced on fat tomes of University Statutes) was not calculated to be flattering. Nevertheless I was slightly surprised, not to mention appalled, by the instantaneous hate-tweets that appeared. Just a handful and I’m not going to repeat them all, although none quite amounted to death threats. One I did report to Twitter as abusive and harassment  (who acted promptly); one of the more bizarre, which appeared to refer to me as a terrorist – unless my eyesight is worse than I think – seemed to be rapidly deleted.

So I will merely mention two explicitly. The first ‘inspired’ the title of this post: Get a life. I found it intriguing someone should write this to me, someone who had nothing better to do on a Friday lunchtime than watch Sky News and send immediate tweets about an interview to a complete stranger. No doubt it helped them believe their life had some point after all, that trying to shut a woman up who was speaking publicly was a productive use of their time. It was tempting to reply something along the lines of ‘I’m the Master of a Cambridge College. What do you do all day?’, but remembering the wise advice not to feed the trolls I refrained.

The other tweet I will mention took a different line in attempting to shut this particular woman up: go jump off a bridge. I don’t think that amounts to a death threat, but it is hardly pleasant. I am reminded of Mary Beard’s detailed accounts of public women being silenced, about which she has written here and more recently here so eloquently. (It is perhaps not irrelevant that when I mentioned these charming messages to a fellow female head of a college tweeter she remarked she’d often had death threats.) I am puzzled why remarks about toys are seen as so threatening to what some perceive as the ‘natural order’ to require intimidatory messages to be fired off instantly.

There is no doubt that this set of messages upset me more than perhaps they should. Whilst I understand that not everyone agrees with what I say, it doesn’t strike me these remarks justify attempts to silence me (they won’t of course succeed though it is possible they will make me more cautious). They pale into insignificance by comparison with recent acts or even the racist and misogynistic commentaries that too often adorn some mainstream newspapers. I am lucky to be in a position where the literal threat level is low but it only serves as a potent reminder that many people, whatever their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, daily run up against hate for no reason other than who they are. As we watch a new government forming we all have work to do to create a society of which we can be proud, rather than live in bunkers where if someone is not in the same one as you they instantly become the enemy.

Posted in Communicating Science, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Masquerading Amongst the Literati

Things did not get off to a good start as I travelled to Hay-on-Wye this week. I arrived at Hereford railway station to be greeted by – nothing. No sign of the car meant to be picking me up to take me to Hay, only another woman looking equally anxious. A few minutes later the driver emerged from behind us in the station. Both us women had failed the first test – looking everyone standing at the barrier in the eye to see if they were our driver (that seemed to be what he had expected of us). At least it was only a brief moment of anxiety.

Unfortunately things did not get better when I got to Hay. Nothing wrong with the B+B I was being put up in; it was delightful and comfortable and I was greeted by a lovely, friendly woman. No, the problem arose when I tried to put the key in my bag (a large bag suitable for transporting my laptop to the venue) only to find my supper of a Pret yogurt and muesli concoction had shed its lid in transit and was now liberally spread over the laptop connector, my glasses and the lining of the bag. I’ve had worse accidents in luggage. By comparison with the lid coming off a small tin (yes, tin, this was a long time ago) of Nescafe in my rucksack when youth hostelling round the Highlands on a day when there was torrential, incessant rain was definitely worse. A rucksack full of liquid Nescafe can make a mess of all one’s dry clothes. Yogurt travels less far, less fast – although any remnants left may get a bit smelly in a few days of summer’s heat.

So why was I in Hay? I came here 6 years ago to participate in a Festival, but not ‘the’ Festival. I came before to speak in what was called a Philosophy Festival (How the Light Gets In) and, as the post I wrote about it at the time made clear, I was not terribly impressed by what I found. I came to Hay last autumn, purely for a holiday and I think I felt the benefit of it. This time, my visit to Hay was to speak at the Literary Festival – which I would deem ‘the’ Festival – now celebrating its 30th year.

I’m not sure what I expected, having been so disappointed six years ago. Certainly I had not taken in just how vast a site the Literary Festival now occupies, having grown from small beginnings to something that makes a significant splash on BBC Radio coverage. But when (having cleaned up as much of the yogurt as I could from my bag) I strolled over to the venue in the evening I was taken aback by the sheer scale of the enterprise. To reassure myself that I, as a mere academic who was flogging no book but merely there as part of the Cambridge University series, had a suitably obscure location in which to deliver my talk, I sought out the particular marquee to orient myself. Unfortunately this was a very bad move. Impostor syndrome leapt into play as I found that I was due to speak in one of the big, many-hundred person tents. This did not reassure me or lead to a good night’s sleep. Why the potential of a large audience should so have thrown me at first sight seems surprising. I am used to lecturing to 400+ first year undergraduates; I have often talked to audiences of hundreds. But the Hay Festival felt different to me. It is (or at least started off as) a literary festival and I have no pretensions in that direction. Hence, I truly did feel an impostor and had hoped to slip by largely unnoticed. (Of course, had my audience consisted of two men and their dog I would probably have been mortified in the other direction. Hard to know what is ‘just right’.)

The tent, the next morning, was not quite packed but I’m told around 400 had registered (or rather, paid) to come, and that looked about right. As comedians would say, a lovely audience who laughed in all the right places. Nerves vanish, of course, once you get going – particularly if you feel the audience is on side. This is hard to judge until a few minutes in. As I have written before, audiences and dynamics vary in ways that are hard to anticipate, but a warm audience undoubtedly will bring out one’s best (and a cold one may lead to an ever-worsening performance). My talk was not a standard one of mine, given that the audience was very different from my regular fare. I’d given the title ‘How Cultural Stereotypes Damage Innovation’ so I was moving a little outside my comfort zone (always to be encouraged; it keeps one on one’s toes). I won’t rehearse the arguments in this post, but you can find an interview I did on the back of it here (though you may have to wade through a few irrelevant pages first to get to the actual interview).

There were a plethora of hands thrust into the air at the end of the talk, far too many questions for me to answer before I had to hand the platform on to the next speaker. Interestingly, although I’m sure there were plenty of men in the audience (I hadn’t ‘checked’), every single question came from a woman. Thoughtful probing questions, although I was slightly taken aback to be challenged whether my university should take steps to stop the promulgation of Simon Barron Cohen’s research on the extreme male brain.  I am very obviously not a neuroscientist, but I personally think Cordelia Fine, in her book Delusions of Gender, has done a good job of critically analysing some of his experimental methods. Nevertheless I do not believe the University should start ‘censoring’ serious research.

I came away from Hay absolutely drained. It had been a real performance, as talking to large audiences always is in my experience, be they undergraduates, the public or whoever. I came away wishing I didn’t have to rush back to Cambridge to mark exams. Maybe another year I’ll get to go back and spend longer at the Festival, avoiding exploding yogurt pots en route. In the meantime I leave you with a few images which illustrate why I believe, not only do stereotypes damage innovation, but we are moving in the wrong direction in the way we interact with children and encouraging children to consider diverse roles.

Lego words 1974
Text to be found in a 1974 Lego box – encouraging diversity of play!

Compare Lego ads from 1981 and current….
lego then and now copy



Posted in Communicating Science, Equality, Uncategorized, Women in Science | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Writer’s Block

Regular readers of my blog will have noticed there has been nothing new to read for a while.  I guess this could be ascribed simply to the familiar problem of writer’s block, but it felt more like a complete loss of mental and creative energy. Whereas I have, over the past nearly seven years, found writing my blogposts a refreshing change from the ‘day job’, for the last month it has simply felt beyond me.

I could blame my travels in Australia and the Far East for messing with my body clock, and hence my energy levels. Plus, fast following on this trip I went to Edinburgh (admittedly for a brief holiday) and then Padua (as I wrote about here). So, leaving aside disruption to my circadian rhythm, melatonin levels or other quasi-biological problems, all those absences certainly permitted the email mountain to mushroom uncontrollably. If the inbox has swollen by a factor of four or more (for your own personal breakpoint insert the relevant figure dependent on what your ‘usual’ and acceptable inbox-count is); if the knowledge that people are chasing you for swift answers to questions you don’t know the answer to; and if the sheer act of not-answering causes you to lie awake at night sweating anxiously, then it perhaps is not so surprising that one’s energy is sapped. I realised, ultimately, that all that procrastination of responses to emails that had already been delayed by my travels was only adding to my discomfort. Eventually I managed to summon enough energy to deal with some of those that were causing me most mental guilt/pain/anxiety and that helped to unblock things further, a sort of virtuous circle.

I know there are a few invitations still sitting in my inbox preying on my mind. Other people will have different tactics for dealing with such messages, ranging from accidentally-on-purpose deleting them to continuing to ignore them in the hopes that the sender will lose interest. The reason  my inbox is as big as it is lies in part in the fact that there are some ancient emails in this category which I have never yet filed or disposed of. Every now and then, I go back and finally ‘deal’ with some of these, but that in itself requires energy and time. What this past month has shown me is that my usual tactic of responding fast is really the only one that works for me personally. Even if the response is only along the lines of ‘I’ll get back to you in due course’ I feel less overwhelmed than if I am actively ignoring them. Consciously feeling unable to deal with stuff only multiplies the problems, so better never to enter that state (jet-lagged or not).

In fact there is another input into my state of mind, relating to the fact that the first anniversary of my mother’s death has just passed, the only other period when my blogging came to a halt for an extended period. Honouring her memory, reflecting on who she was and what she made me, has inevitably been a further tax on my strength and is an ongoing work in progress, but not one for public record.

Writer’s block for academics is of course nothing new. Many a student has struggled over their term paper, dissertation or manuscript. Sometimes the task just seems too large and shapeless for the hapless would-be-writer to know where to begin. I have always believed – and advised my own students accordingly – that the only way to get over this is to write, anything, in any order, just to release the blockage. Once some part, some easy part, is down on paper another bit and then another may seem more conceivable. Worrying about structure and flow of disconnected paragraphs can come later. Or, as my mother used to say when I couldn’t settle to revision during my teenage years, ‘il n’y a que le premier pas qui coûte’ – it’s only the first step that costs. In other words, starting may be hard but it’s likely to be downhill after that. (She wasn’t French, but she was full of cliché’s and bons mots.)

Of course it’s not just students who suffer from writer’s block. It can happen at any stage in the academic life and most people get inhibited or stuck from time to time. It’s just that, for me, I’m not used to it happening with regard to my blog writing. I have been very conscious of my silence, but hope I have now shed the blockage and will revert to something approaching regularity in these posts. Meanwhile I am looking forward to reading a book about science writing I have just come across to get some tips from my peers about style, motivation and outcomes. Written by New Zealander Lisa Emerson, Amazon tells me that ‘The Forgotten Tribe: Scientists as writers’  will ‘offer[s] an important corrective to the view that scientists are “poor writers, unnecessarily opaque, not interested in writing, and in need of remediation.”‘ She argues that scientists are among “the most sophisticated and flexible writers in the academy”.

I look forward to finding out whether I agree with her in due course.

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