Success does not preclude Humanity

Mental health on campus is frequently in the news. It is widespread, as it is within just about every other sector. If you haven’t suffered from a period of depression yourself, it is almost inevitable you know someone who has or who has other mental health issues such as bipolar disorder. Yet those you know about probably only represent the tip of the iceberg of those who suffer (or have in the past). Academia – probably even more so for staff than for students, although I can’t back that statement up with hard evidence – is a community where people are reluctant to speak up. Mental health issues are still, as Prince Harry has recently made abundantly clear, something many do not feel able to talk about, be it because of a stiff-upper-lip-upbringing or because they fear an admission of weakness may be used against them to hold them back or even to be taunted with.

It is all too easy to judge people in academia by misleading proxies for ‘success’ – perhaps not quite as crude as evaluating someone based on the size of their office, but sometimes not much better. Admitting that one has been depressed will be regarded by many at the antithesis of success and therefore is ‘obviously’ better never mentioned. Despite many great scientists who have quite openly suffered – I’d cite Lewis Wolpert as one who not only admitted to dark depression, but even wrote eloquently about it in his book Malignant Sadness: the Anatomy of Depression – depression still seems somewhat taboo within universities.

Furthermore, academics frequently end up running groups – and of course group size is another of those crude proxies for ‘success’ that academia probably relies on more than is healthy – without necessarily receiving much training in how to support the less-experienced researchers in their care. Success may not obviously reside in looking after PhD students and postdocs as opposed to swiftly extracting as much data from them as possible. Yet, doing this latter may be a very short term gain, rather like a company that does not invest in long term research because it’s expensive with uncertain payback, preferring instead to focus merely on improved packaging and marketing/advertising because the dividend on this is quickly obvious. This is short-termism at its worst as well as, in the context of a research group, in danger of becoming inhuman.

As my last blogpost indicated, I have been away in Australia and the Far East talking, amongst other things, about gender issues. I found myself repeatedly coming back to the book Cambridge University published a couple of years ago The Meaning of Success, in which we attempted – sadly with less impact than I would have hoped – to initiate a dialogue across the Higher Education sector about what success means to and for women in different roles within the university. I hope readers of my blog will continue to dip into the book to gain insight and inspiration: it has a telling narrative drawn from the interviews of those women whose profiles feature as well as many more.

One particular woman featured in the book who has worked hard not to bleed her students dry, whose career has been anything but typical (she only started her PhD at around 40) but who is shortly going to join me as a fellow Head of House in Cambridge as she takes up the reins as President of Wolfson College, is Jane Clarke. A protein chemist, she spells out very clearly her attitude towards her research group in her interview:

I judge people based on how they behave and what they achieve scientifically – not the trappings of importance, like the size of their office. You can be a successful scientist whilst recognising that you have young people in your care who deserve your support, your mentoring and proper training. These young people are not cannon fodder to be thrown in to do your research, regardless of their own needs. There can be too much of that in academia – it’s highly competitive and it’s tough sometimes.

I think she is a fascinating exemplar of someone who has never pursued the standard academic trajectory, nor seen success per se as the name of her particular game, yet who has simultaneously demonstrated that achievement can be reached by non-standard routes. An FRS, someone who has made scientific breakthroughs and won prizes – in other words, someone who ticks the boxes of what most people would judge as success – she has done it her own way and according to her own set of values. We need to celebrate such women and others like them, be they male or female, who have risen through the system without forgetting their – and others’ – humanity.

However, as my discussions both here and during my recent travels abroad make very clear, too often the ‘caring’ side of academia is not valued, be it caring for those with mental health issues or a much broader interpretation of caring. As Australia attempt to set up their Athena Swan lookalike SAGE, they will be calling on scientists to step back from their research in order to put effort into the necessary paperwork. In the UK giving due credit for this has long been an issue. The required hard work that needs to be put into completing action plans and more is too often tossed thoughtlessly in the direction of the latest female recruit regardless of the importance – for her and for her department – of getting her own research off the ground. Working on Athena Swan action plans does not require a female brain; it needs the brain of someone who cares enough to make it work. Men may even have the advantage that any recommendations they make will not be seen as special pleading; seniority may mean recommendations are more likely to be implemented. But, be it a man or a woman who takes on the workload, they need to be properly recognized for the hours they put in just as much as if they were running the departmental research strategy committee or acting as chair of examiners. For the health of a department in the long run, getting diversity right is as important as any other aspect of strategy.

When I formally stepped back from my role as the University’s Gender Equality Champion I naively thought I’d done my stint and that I could step back mentally too. As the topics I cover on this blog must make obvious, I don’t feel like that now. There is too much work still to be done. The attitudes towards women, towards academic careers, towards what success means and towards supporting those setting out are all as yet in a very imperfect state.

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