We Need to Work at Breaking the Barriers

Leaders in science are generally those who are excellent at their science, but no one may have checked their leadership credentials. Someone like Lord Rutherford may have got away with barking instructions at his underlings (for which loud voiced behaviour Peter Kapitza nicknamed him ‘crocodile’), but such behaviour is frowned upon now. The trouble is, it may still happen. Whether barking equates to bullying may be hard to determine; to one person the answer may be yes and to another it’s of no matter. However the topic of bullying and harassment, closely linked to poor management practices, is becoming something of a hot potato in academic science. Now, a report from the Royal Society of Chemistry entitled Breaking the Barriers highlights the problem, using its work with focus groups and individual interviews to tease out anecdotal information that should give us all pause for thought. Their solution? To set up a helpline.

With all due respect I do wonder how helpful this will be. If you want to let off steam and hear a friendly voice at the end of the phone, maybe it will console some people. But I don’t see how the RSC can effect the systemic change needed to eradicate the problem. Every person who reports bullying (or harassment) will have a slightly different set of circumstances. Is it a PhD student complaining about their supervisor, or a lecturer complaining about the head of department? Does it involve, as it so often does, a power imbalance or is it peer-to-peer, as in the case of one student who acts dog-in-the-manger about some vital piece of equipment? And, each institution will have different procedures for handling although, I fear, too often they are woefully inadequate. Science may be no better or worse than most other sectors, but it certainly is not good.

One only has to follow the story of Andrew Neil and Carole Cadwalladr to see how the powerful can attempt to silence others, in this case in the world of media. Neil’s actions seemed a crude attempt to bully a brave investigative journalist into silence. And the BBC is hardly demonstrating the shining face of intolerance in the face of such bad behaviour. Deleting a tweet is apparently sufficient to get Neil off the hook. Yet, in a startlingly different response in the wake of the Carrie Grace equal pay story

“BBC staff were told afterwards that use of the Twitter hashtag [#I Stand With Carrie] would bar people from doing interviews on the subject. So people had to pull back…”

according to her recent speech on Equal Pay to the Fawcett Society.

For science and scientists, anything – such as this recent report – that teases some of these murky practices into the open has to be beneficial, Anything that gives confidence to those suffering under a barrage of insults or daily petty humiliations from those around them, should feel there is somewhere to go to permit them to speak up. But systemic change will not come about from a few brave people speaking up. To quote the RSC report

Significant change does not happen when one group acts in isolation. It is essential that every part of our community – academic funders, academic employers, societies and you as individuals – works together to drive momentum and promote further change.

How can the word be spread to those who don’t want to hear? I’ve recently been reading Catherine Fox’s Stop Fixing Women. She describes, for instance, how the Australian Army has attempted to redress gender imbalance, and to eradicate generations of male-only-thinking by strong leadership from the top. Or you might want to read about Ireland’s new action plan around Gender, described briefly here, an ambitious programme to get progress to move forward at more than the existing glacial process in terms of numbers. Bullying does not simply relate to gender and slow progress on seeing more women rise up through the system is not only handicapped by bullying. Although the two may go hand in hand they do not have to. But undoubtedly leadership from the top – and at every successive layer too – is imperative if change is to occur, be it around bullying or gender imbalances. But it has to be cascaded down to leaders at every level if it is to make a difference in every nook and cranny. The head honcho alone will not change the culture although equally if they take no interest it will be hard for those below in the hierarchy to transform the workplace.  The RSC Report makes very clear, working together is vital.

However, full of sensible words and recommendations as the report is, I fear I found it overall a little underwhelming and there are statements I found somewhat hard to digest. Take this from a senior chemist (male)

‘I went to a [university diversity] committee and I was the only man there, and a senior man. This demonstrated that chemistry was making a commitment [to diversity]. Several commented on it when I walked into the room. That was a sea change. It is important not to say ‘women, this is your problem’.

That statement worries me. The senior man should have been saying, ‘Where are all the other men? This isn’t good enough.’ He should not have been patting himself on the back because he showed up. (Once or regularly? We aren’t told.) Change needs the involvement of everyone and one man paying a token visit to a diversity committee is not an adequate response. I have been running workshops as part of the work of the Athena Swan Review listening exercise and have so far attended three universities. At two of them the gender balance was good. At the third it was, again, a case of a single man amongst around 20 women. I found the former experiences encouraging; not so the latter.

The buy in from some senior men was heartening. So often they are the ones with power or access to those with power, although obviously that need not be so. It is good to note that increasingly they are also leading on Athena Swan applications. I hope – although I know this won’t always be the case – they have the clout to change behaviours, policies and processes unlike the junior women so often tasked with doing all the hard work of compiling the Athena Swan paperwork thereby holding back their own career progression. No man should pat himself on the back, chemist or otherwise, because as a man he has actually set foot in an E+D committee. It requires us all to step forward, both to eradicate bullying and to encourage true inclusion.

The Breaking the Barriers Report is a good start but, as it shows, Chemistry as a discipline has a long way to go. The fall-off in numbers as women progress up the career structure seems particularly stark in this field. Much, much more needs to be done. But reading the report and acting on its recommendations can only be positive, even if there is a long way to go.

NB The RSC’s full pack of digital resources to accompany the report to share can be found here.


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2 Responses to We Need to Work at Breaking the Barriers

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    Peter Kapitza went further by getting Eric Gill to carve a crocodile on to the brickwork of the Mond laboratory where he worked. https://www.phy.cam.ac.uk/history/years/croc I don’t know what Rutherford thought about this.

  2. Stephen Eichhorn says:

    I actually really liked the RSC report, although I share your views on the quote from the man who attended a diversity committee. The report itself did something that desperately needs discussing – race. When I mention this I often wonder why more white people are not raising this. It’s often as though if it is raised we will be found out. There is a fear of discussing it. I listen to a lot of black people about their experiences and their need to identify with others in STEM is not catered for at all.

    People might say there are many issues down the line. Indeed this is true. In Bristol alone there are only 26 black teachers out of a total of 1346 (https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/black-teachers-bristol-schools-only-1958455.amp). This lack of role models is certainly not helping. This is where your anecdotal evidence is necessary. You have to view the problem through the lens of those affected and hear the voices of the few in number, otherwise those specific issues will get drowned out in the noise. The intersections (black female) even more so, to the point where they may even be considered unimportant or a minor problem. I truly believe that a focus on the very least represented will raise the level for all. The RSC has at shown us how to start to do that by listening to those least represented in the STEM community.

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