You know the story about Marcel Proust and the madeleine – how the memories came flooding back when he nibbled at one with a cup of tea. I always thought this was slightly ridiculous, but perhaps ageing means I now have more memories to recapture. Suddenly it all made much more sense. And certainly, walking down the back streets of London from Kings Cross to UCL last week, I felt assailed by memories. Not of (or because of) cakes, but of episodes and people which inhabited the streets I was walking past. Memories long buried, many from my teenage London years.
As I crossed in front of Torrington Square I was reminded of the friend I’d made in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra who lived there and was a double bass player (to my viola). I lost touch with her so many years ago when I went to university, hadn’t thought of her in years, but suddenly I wanted to know what happened to this exuberant personality. I walked past the Waterstones, familiar to me in my youth as Dillons – the University of London’s bookstore – a place I always thought was worth popping into, although now it’s just like every other Waterstones in the country. But I also remembered a cheering cup of tea there (no madeleine) with a slightly estranged friend who opened up enough to tell me he and his wife were expecting their first child. Looking over to the tower of the Senate House, I remembered how I used to go there at lunchtimes from my gap year job with the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) to read Nature – goodness knows what I made of it at 17 or 18, but it made me feel grown up. And then there was the Student Union where a group of us would head off for a cheap(ish) lunch the summer I was working at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine during a vacation (though continuing the NCB project on the 1958 cohort, as I wrote about before).
As I approached the venue for my meetings with UCL folk, the memories became less cheering. My first session of the day was held next door to the MacMillan building where my mother had had an emergency blood transfusion a few years ago. UCL’s Cruciform building used to house University College Hospital where I visited both my grandmother, after bone cancer led to a broken hip and a need for it to be pinned urgently (that was the first we knew for sure of the cancer); and also my grandfather after his stroke, where he rapidly became institutionalised by the environment on the ward, making conversation about the world outside incredibly hard. That building was also where I went to get my allergies treated when coming home every vacation caused me to sneeze my head off in misery (with hindsight, I blame the cats at home, but I’d always lived with them so it wasn’t obvious at the time that I might suddenly be allergic to them).
But my day at UCL was not about memories; it was part of their Athena Swan initiative. Kicked off with a session of Q+A with around 25 early career researchers, I was bombarded with keen questions. The one that stumped me was ‘what single action would you like to be able to carry out, given the opportunity?’ Because of course if one thing could transform the world for women and men, to bring genuine equality about, then it would already have been done. It is, rather, the need to change so many parts of the system that is the problem: appointment and promotion procedures and criteria; reporting and handling bullying, harassment and worse; child care provision; long hours culture…the list goes on and I’m sure every reader can add more points of their own.
I have long been an enthusiastic champion of the Athena Swan Awards, but I am getting more and more uncomfortable with the workload imposed on those who take the local lead. Too often it is a junior woman on whom this load is dumped. Whoever gets to take this on may be – as my host for the day and fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger Jenny Rohn is – totally committed, but what recognition do they get for all their efforts? Do they get their time bought out, statistical or other administrative support and a gold star in their application for their next promotion because of all their hard work? Unfortunately, the answer to all those questions is all too often a resounding no. Even worse, if they are relative junior, how much change can they make to a unit’s practices, however obviously imperfect they may be? It needs the senior leadership to carry the burden, someone whose word really can effect change.
When Athena Swan started it was exclusively directed towards the STEM disciplines and, after a few initial teething problems (which Cambridge, as an early adopter, certainly encountered) it seemed relatively light touch and non-bureaucratic. But as the process has assumed more importance, it has also assumed more rigidity whilst simultaneously giving – to me at least – the impression that the level of awards is not always consistent. There seems too much emphasis on ‘novelty’, not enough on things that might be anything but novel, but are proven to work. I am aware of departments winning silver awards, either because the author can write a good case, or because they have made a lot of progress from a very low base, yet which are actually less favourable as a place of work for women than departments which fail to get their bronze award renewed. I have heard stories that make me very worried that, now the awards cover all disciplines and a broader take on diversity at all levels, there is less scope for genuine reflection about local circumstances and too much emphasis on what looks like a ‘tick box’ mentality. Given that I once wrote a post for the Guardian saying absolutely the opposite, I feel very worried by these trends.
I hope others can convince me I’m wrong in my increasing feeling of discomfort with the process, because I wholeheartedly believe in its aspirations. But currently I feel it has become overwhelmed by, if you like, its own success, becoming large and influential but perhaps no longer agile and responsive. As UKRI take over the oversight of diversity issues, I am optimistic they will pay careful attention to the way Athena Swan now works. I know this is an issue close to Phil Nelson’s heart (the current Research Council chair who will take the diversity lead in the new UKRI structures) and I am glad already to have had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues with him. For everyone, men and women alike, it is important that inclusion really works for all and that the historical inequalities in academic STEM departments get swiftly eradicated.