Red Lines Don’t Need to be Political

Despite the introductory couple of paragraphs, this is not meant as a political diatribe….it’s just hard to avoid parliamentary affairs currently. I did foreswear following Brexit news for several months after the last deadline in the spring for the sake of my well-being, but somehow I’ve got sucked in again….

We’ve heard a lot about red lines from UK politicians over the past many months. It turns out they didn’t do much to help Theresa May in her negotiating stance with the EU, although we seem to have a different type of rigidity being played out right now (‘die in a ditch’ hardly seems like a pragmatic or flexible approach). The PMs current position looks set to leda to potentially even more disastrous outcomes, hard though it would have been to imagine that a few months back. It is often informative to read the foreign press to see how others view our current political antics. I’m off to Canada soon for a brief visit for the College and was particularly struck by an editorial in their Globe and Mail which was full of pithy, if derogatory comments about the current parliamentary mess and its arch purveyor the country’s prime minister (his Special Advisor didn’t get a look-in in this article, although many see Dominic Cummings as the puppet-master behind the scenes). The article says:

Megashambles? Summa cum laude shambles? Tyrannosaurus shambles? The-Chernobyl-reactor-just-exploded-and-the-dosimeter-reads-15,000-roentgen shambles?

Mr. Johnson is the author of 11 books, some admittedly banged out in the careless haste that is his style. But this week, without breaking a sweat, the PM penned the Odyssey and the Iliad of shambles. He faced his first votes in Parliament and lost them; lost his minority government’s governing majority; sacked 21 of his own MPs, including his party’s longest-serving member and Winston Churchill’s grandson; provoked his own brother into resigning from cabinet, citing a conflict between “family loyalty and the national interest”; and lost control of the House of Commons while remaining so offside the chamber’s confidence that it will not yet allow him to resolve the matter by calling an election. Mr. Johnson did all that, and more, in the space of two days.

(One of those eleven books I actually possess: the one about Winston Churchill based extensively on his papers in Churchill College’s Archives and substantially compiled for Boris Johnson by his research assistant Warren Dockter. I’ve even read it but did not fall for the line that Johnson is a latter-day Churchill, despite it being implied throughout the book by Johnson. Somehow, I now seem to have mislaid that book….)

Nevertheless, whatever you may think about those particular red lines of May’s, let alone dying in ditches, there is no doubt that personally I have sometimes approached difficult meetings with mental red lines in place. I was reminded of this when talking to a younger colleague recently who could see such a meeting speeding towards them (nothing to do with Brexit I should add). Being not that much younger than me, with plenty of managerial/leadership experience, I was surprised that they did not seem to think in these terms. I know when I worked out the importance of creating clear no-go lines before a meeting started rather than on the hoof I felt much more in control.

Even so, I was myself late to the realisation that planning in advance for challenging situations can only be helpful. It is too easy, in my experience, just to think ‘this is going to be dreadful’ allowing panic to filter in rather than organised thought. And panic does tend to bring on absolutely everything you fear because it drives out clear thinking. ‘This is going to be dreadful’ can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, even if you would like to think you are merely preparing for the worst. So, the day I went into a tricky meeting about resources around the turn of the century, armed with a bottle of water (to prevent my lips sticking together and my mouth feeling like sand) and some red lines, I felt I came out in better shape and with a better outcome than my experience up till that point might have led me to expect given the other protagonists involved. I emerged with my dignity intact and without being made to concede ground (in this case literal ground, i.e. space – isn’t space always one of the inevitable battle grounds in university life?) beyond what I had known from the outset I would have to give up. I had laid down some conditions of my own which had, apparently, been accepted and I felt I had more confidence in my negotiating abilities than at any point previously in my life.

Unfortunately, although I won that battle ultimately I suspect I lost the war, not least because the convenor of that meeting decided to send an email around widely shortly afterwards which did not entirely reflect what had been agreed. A second lesson to learn there; make sure notes are taken and agreed at the time. In many situations that is a strategy to bear in mind, so that there can be no ambiguity about what decisions have and have not been made. For younger readers note I may be, now, the Master of a Cambridge College but I doubt many of my colleagues would have given good odds on me achieving that accolade at the time of that meeting 15 or more years ago.

I guess, political diatribe apart, my aim in writing this down is twofold. First to pass on the tip – that no one had ever thought to mention to me, however obvious it may be to those born with (too much?) confidence or schooled earlier in tactics rather than pure science – know what you are willing to concede and what is too important to give up without at least some extremely firm resistance and counter-offers. Secondly, not just to those of mature years but those setting out, remember that experience counts for a lot. Many of those at the top of their game are not – unlike former Bullingdon Club members – born with a sense of privilege or an expectation that everything and everyone will bow down in front of them. Remember that senior leaders are not necessarily born with Leader engraved on their foreheads, but have had to learn the hard way what works and what does not, given their own personalities, strengths and quirks. We are all different and our strategies for survival and achieving positive outcomes will also differ. Learning on the job is crucial, reflecting on failed strategies is at least as much, if not more important, than simply thinking about success stories.

So, next time you can see a tricky meeting looming – be it with your supervisor, your head of department or even a grant-funding agency – consider what your red lines are. What is so fundamentally important to you that you would walk away from any agreement in preference to conceding this one issue? What could be a sacrificial pawn? And what are you willing to do to meet in the middle of some disagreement? Don’t be too rigid, but do be prepared.


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Trying Not to Discourage Others

What should one say to school children about to make university choices regarding life after school? Of course there are lots of positive things – clichés abound to supply them – but there are also the darker elements of the conveyor belt they are on. Talking to a group of around 50 teenage girls considering applying to Cambridge for maths or natural sciences last week, I found myself wondering whether honesty is always the best policy.

As the local student newspaper Varsity described earlier this summer, Cambridge maths remains overwhelmingly male. This isn’t because the faculty want this to be the case (I know, because I’ve talked to some of them and they feel very strongly how disappointing this is), but they do expect, and probably require although there may be slight college variations, students to do well in STEP (Sixth Term Entry paper) exams as well as Maths and Further Maths A level. It is clear that this is less attractive to girls who, the evidence suggests, disproportionately don’t want that additional uncertainty and stress. In 2018 Varsity quotes a mere 35 female students were admitted to study maths at Cambridge, out of a grand total of 234 accepted students, the lowest proportion for many years.

To stress the low numbers being admitted, might just make potential applicants feel put off or presume that it’s all just too difficult for them, particularly if they in any way already lack self-confidence. Not to be open that the numbers are low seems misleading at the best. I was struck some years ago by an article from the USA stating that at high school the only successful intervention keeping female students in physical sciences (so not maths explicitly) was pointing out that women were typically under-represented. Not, as one might have thought, having female teachers, or single sex classes, or talking about female scientists or having female scientists come into the classroom. In this one study only talking about under-representation mattered.

It isn’t clear to me how much follow up work there has been by other groups, but a later paper from the same team indicated that talking about under-representation ‘explicitly creates an opportunity for students’ figured worlds of professional and school science to change, and facilitates challenging their own implicit assumptions about how the world functions.’ Which, in layperson speak I think means that children can re-evaluate some of the stereotypes they have internalised without necessarily noticing, but only if the low numbers are discussed in a supportive environment. So, from those studies, perhaps pointing out low numbers is not a bad thing to do, although after my talk there wasn’t really much indication of the students wanting to discuss this. It was the end of an intensive three days, there really wasn’t much sign of them wanting to do anything other than go home.

So moving on from these specific challenges, in my talk I discussed my career path, trying to point out – as I so often do – that life doesn’t necessarily go in straight lines and that things can go wrong without it meaning you personally are a failure. Perhaps to that audience that too was a mistake. Those girls presumably all have stellar track records at school; the hiccoughs that most lives throw up may not yet have assaulted them. Do they want to be told that my first post-doc was an unmitigated disaster and that luck enabled me to overcome those two years of nothingness? Different members of the audience may react with anything from ‘whatever’ to, if it’s all down to luck what’s the point of trying. It is so easy to tie myself up in knots (never mind those listening) with worrying about what the ‘right’ message is.

I have learned that talking about my CV as a ‘standard’ CV is probably the wrong thing to do. I remember using that phrase once to an audience of ECRs and being pulled up. I meant this was what my CV looked like in the way it might appear on a job application (really as opposed to one in which life-events such as marriage or children might feature, versions of my CV I also typically share). The challenger in this previous case obviously felt the word ‘standard’ came across as if everyone’s should end up with a big shiny FRS or professor’s title attached. Not my intention, but it just shows how careful one has to be.

However, whoever the audience and at whatever career stage, I do believe the mantra ‘seize opportunities’ applies; that it is hugely important not to be passive and wait for others to tell you what you should be doing but make your own deliberate life choices (even if they turn out not so well, they are at least your choices and you can usually change your mind or direction); that seeing confidence in others should not convince you that their confidence is warranted, so it should not undermine your own faith in your abilities; and, yes, luck plays a part in everyone’s life. I hope that by finishing off with those messages, leaving that slide up while answering the few questions that came my way, meant one or two useful take home (literally) messages may have resonated and may stay with some of the listeners. And I hope we will be seeing some of those students return to Cambridge in due course.



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How Groupthink Contributes to Harassment

I was recently challenged by a colleague after a meeting as to whether we had all been guilty more of ‘groupthink’ than was apparent at the time or that any of us would have wished. I’m not sure that I think he was right in his conclusion, but he was certainly right to ask the question. The trouble is, it is such an insidious way to behave. We have all been in situations where you arrive at a meeting convinced the answer to the problem under discussion is scenario A, but by the time the first couple of speakers have gone for scenario X you are left wondering if you want to be the only nay-sayer. Sometimes it feels easier to go along with the majority than appear awkward and out of line. This is a phenomenon psychologists are well familiar with.

Having recently read Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s eloquent book about the teenage brain Inventing Ourselves, I am (even more) aware how adolescents in particular are susceptible to wanting to ‘fit in’ and not go against the consensus of their friends. But we all are guilty of this, to a greater or lesser extent and it can be disastrous. My current evening reading is Margaret Heffernan’s book, published some years ago but since updated, Wilful Blindness, which takes a much broader look at the wide range of situations in which an unwillingness to face up to facts hiding ‘in plain sight’ has lead to devastating consequences. One familiar example would be Harvey Weinstein; another the recent report about abuse of up and coming young footballers at Chelsea and Crewe. People knew but didn’t know.

If the majority of the people are ostriches, why are some people prepared to be whistleblowers? Heffernan gives the example of Steve Bolsin the anaesthetist from Bristol who spoke up regarding the high mortality rate of babies and children undergoing heart surgery. Bolsin had tried more conventional routes to raise the problems he identified, but was brushed off by the hospital leadership and his peers; no investigation was conducted until he went public with the media, at which point it became a ‘national scandal’. Others could have backed Bolsin up much earlier in the process, but hierarchies (and hospitals are full of these) meant that others in the hospital preferred to look the other way rather than risk confronting senior surgeons.

Of course, isn’t this just what happens too often in our universities when it comes to bullying and harassment? I fear that only too often managers, loosely defined, want not to investigate a complaint against a so-called brilliant researcher with multimillion pound grants. Even when investigations are carried out, I have heard one senior university leader bemoan the fact that – despite all the evidence to the contrary – the person chosen to lead the investigation found in favour of the alleged perpetrator rather than the victim. In that situation it wasn’t clear what he, the leader, could do, despite what he thought was a pretty clear case against the senior colleague.

Both Heffernan and Blakemore cite studies utilising the early video game of Cyberball which was manipulated by psychologists to make the volunteers participating appear to be excluded by other players (who were in fact pre-programmed non-humans). After a session of such exclusion their moods were markedly lowered. We like being part of the in-crowd. Apparently we want to conform if the alternative is to be excluded. Conformists are less likely to step out of line and blow a whistle, or support Scenario A in opposition to Scenario X when that is what everyone else appears to be recommending. It is telling that Bolsin had to emigrate to Australia because, having spoken up, he could not find a further position as an anaesthetist in the UK, despite his actions highlighting poor practice having saved many children’s lives at Bristol and elsewhere. Despite this being a landmark action within the NHS. Indeed, one might fear it is precisely because it had been such a landmark case that he had to leave the country.  There is at least one other case (following a whistleblowing story regarding Alder Hey Hospital) where again the whistleblower has ended up leaving the country.

Although I haven’t reached the end of Heffernan’s book to see if this is the denouement (I fear it is not), I would like to think that diversity is one answer to the challenge of groupthink; that in a diverse group there is more likely to be someone who is willing to speak up against actions that other people appear to find no fault with. Furthermore, maybe if you are a minority, you are more likely to feel excluded from the in-group already so there may be less to lose by not being conformist. It would be interesting to know if there is any evidence to suggest ‘misfits’ (minorities in particular, but anyone who for whatever reason is outside the mainstream) are more likely to be outspoken!

Certainly it seems to me that much Heffernan writes about is redolent of what I have written regarding the importance of bystanders, but she is referring more to them in a negative sense: bystanders who stand around and do nothing when they see things go awry, relying on someone else to act. She alludes to research that suggests this behaviour starts at school when children see, for instance, bullying behaviour. As in any organisation this often goes on in plain sight. Teachers do nothing – perhaps thinking children just have to learn to deal with this (we all know how well this can work out in practice) – and other children learn from that observation that doing nothing is OK. Teaching children instead to relate with the victim, to talk to them and check they are OK actually removes some of the power of the bully. The bully, not the victim, becomes the one who is isolated. Lessons for us all there, as we watch bullying occur. Bystanders can, indeed should, help victims even if they are not prepared to intervene directly with the perpetrator.

I have written previously in the Guardian about my own attempts to bring some sort of retrospective justice with regard to the inappropriate behaviour of a senior colleague. I was prepared to speak up publicly. Others, other women, were not. One (more senior than me) told me afterwards she had always just slapped the guy down but had not thought to tell anyone else. Another (slightly more junior) woman assured me the guy was very supportive of women in general and so had equally ignored his inappropriate advances. I don’t think either of these is a sufficient response. I think they should have called him out (both had far more to do with the person concerned than I did, moving more in his circles). His behaviour was well-known but, as Heffernan spells out, the more people know of an issue the less any individual is willing to act.

As I have said, to me this amounts to complicity. We need to find allies and act. We need not to assume that just because no one else is prepared to act, it means that is the best way to behave. We need to be willing not to bury our heads but to challenge decisions. If they are all for the best, the decisions will stand up to such challenges. But otherwise we will, as Heffernan spells out, end up with yet more Enron’s, Harvey Weinstein’s or deaths of Bristol children. Equally, in our universities, we will facilitate bullying, forcing out the less confident rather than the less smart. Collectively we need to do better.



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Sausage Machines in the Academic Lab

There was a bit of a spat over Twitter last week regarding how many hours students (and postdocs) should be expected to do at the bench. This originated in a tweet from a professor of chemistry but I don’t think it is necessary to go through the exchanges in any detail. Suffice it to say that the originator believed that it was impossible to

‘do world class science in 38 hrs per week’.

Others challenged him that work-life balance was important, amongst other complaints, at which point a whole series of defensive tweets regarding the originator’s credentials in the E+D space ensued.

However I think there is an alternative but fundamental point of concern I’d like to raise, important though all the issues of diversity and being able to lead a life beyond the bench simultaneously with completing a PhD are. I didn’t see my concern touched upon, but I wasn’t following the exchanges slavishly as the originator is not someone I personally follow on Twitter so I only saw occasional bits of the conversation. Maybe I missed someone complaining that not all PhD students can or should be expected to be doing world class science. However, I think we should always remember that students who don’t go on to academic careers are not failures. Indeed, we know perfectly well there simply aren’t the jobs in the academic market place to satisfy anything like the numbers who do (initially at least) aspire to be PIs (Principal Investigators), career researchers and ultimately professors. So, either we should not be training so many or we should recognize that there are many other jobs where the skills learned as a PhD student will be invaluable.

What worries me is that those group leaders who head up big groups too often simply see the students as slave labour, pairs of hands or bench monkeys – you get the idea, whatever phrase you care to use. (Note I am not charging the initial tweeter with this sin as, to the best of my knowledge, I have never met him so cannot pass comment. I merely know he has a large group.) They see the students as there to fulfil their own needs – to churn out the papers they need for career progression and the data that will fuel the next grant application – at least as much if not more than they see them as eager young minds, blank vessels to teach and inspire for a myriad of different careers, passing on (and spelling out as they do so) many different skills.

The larger the group is the more I fear this is liable to happen but, beyond a certain size, the problem is exacerbated by what one might term a layer of middle management. The postdocs in a large group are often used as an interface between the lofty professor and the lowly student, mediating the interactions and de facto acting as student supervisors. This can be a wonderful experience for a postdoc and offers them the possibility of learning the skills of supervision and the joy of working with others. I know how much I gained by acting in that capacity during my time in the USA. However, if no one keeps an eye on the postdoc and their interactions with the students under their wing, things can go horribly astray.

Postdocs are rather obviously themselves pushing to get to the next rung on the ladder. Why should they care whether the students themselves are thriving? For many of them it is their own nests they want to feather. A good group leader will make sure this doesn’t happen, that bullying, appropriation of equipment or data is not allowed to take place, and will teach the postdocs good habits of supervision. A PI who is too busy (or selfish) may simply not care as long as there is an impressive stream of results – ideally which fit their pet hypothesis rather than contradict it – and they can see the Nature and Science papers emerging from other people’s hard work. The postdoc who has been left unfettered in this way may then reproduce the same unthinking and uncaring culture if they do continue in academia.

So, what of those students who started their PhDs ambivalent about a career in academia, who perhaps always wanted to move on to industry or scientific publishing, maybe they’re attracted by policy work, science communication or teaching, what of them? They may simply want a ‘good enough’ thesis to pass; Nature papers will not always be crucial for their future aspirations and they may well feel 38 hours a week synthesising tiny quantities of some subtly different compound that is a pig to produce but whose worth turns out to be negligible, is more than enough. What of them? Should they be written off? Should they be put under pressure to work long(er) hours?

The truth of the matter is too often that is exactly what happens. When people talk of the leaky pipeline (of course, usually of women, but these leaks apply whatever your gender) they imply that those who don’t stick around in the academic lab have ‘leaked out’ and that’s the end of them. Instead of seeing these students as a success story – students who will have, or at least should have, learned a wide range of skills which will fit them for diverse careers –they are merely regarded as failures who were a waste of space at the bench, time and money. We should instead, I believe, be celebrating those who leave our universities but who will be well-placed to speak up for science in Whitehall or to inspire future generations with a love of science in our schools. If we talk only in terms of students producing ‘world class science’ all we do is encourage a sense of failure in these individuals. Our academic world is competitive enough, we do not need to fuel fear and destroy confidence in this casual way.

Large groups, working insane hours. Is this what we want or need? Do we really see the PhD stage as no more than a sausage machine in the hands of a big boss with a big grant income? Can we not value the PhD years as a training ground for many different directions of travel, not all of which involve academia but many of which will contribute at least as much to society as we academics do, but in a multitude of diverse ways.

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Do You Know How Many Children Boris Has?

Today I was giving a talk within the University about building an inclusive workplace; more than just about gender, of course, but that is where the majority of my experience lies. There are so many obstacles, big and small, which prevent inclusion for minorities of all sorts. They need articulating; to be evidenced, accepted and acted upon by those with the power to effect change. The trouble with a talk like today’s was – talks not being mandatory in most cases in most departments in most universities – the audience had of course self-selected and, in this case, the vast majority were women. This was not a physics department, needless to say.  But how do you build an inclusive environment when only half the workforce turns up? I will return to this below, but first a slightly surreal moment as I was tweaking the talk beforehand.

One of my slides contained the bullet point

We need to re-evaluate how society values women and their action

when this tweet turned up in my Twitter feed from Hetan Shan

Hetan Shah

quoting a headline from the Times regarding Ursula von der Leyen’s appointment as the new President of the European Commission

What kind of time warp are we living in? That headline harks back to the dark ages of 1964 when the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Dorothy Hodgkin was greeted with a series of headlines that, I would like to think, were pretty dodgy even then. They ranged from The Daily Telegraph’s

British woman wins Nobel Prize – £18,750 prize to mother of three”

to the Daily Mail with its even briefer headline

Oxford housewife wins Nobel.

The Observer confined its comments on Hodgkin’s domestic skills to the main text stating that

affable-looking housewife Mrs Hodgkin” had won the prize “for a thoroughly unhousewifely skill: the structure of crystals of great chemical interest.

(The use of the title Mrs is itself pretty demeaning.) That, as I say was 1964, yet more than 50 years on we don’t appear to have progressed as much as one might have hoped.

How can a senior woman’s child-bearing history ability possibly be relevant to this new role as President of the EU? And, as the title of this post questions, would such a message be headlined regarding a man? I think the answer to that is emphatically no. After all, do you know how many children our possible next Prime Minister has, born in or out of wedlock, and by how many women? Do you care? Should you care? Aside from any message you may extract from his child-getting history about his morals, what is the relevance? If it is relevant for a woman it is relevant for a man. And if it isn’t of interest in the case of Boris Johnson, can we please shut up about the women too.  So, the bullet point in my talk stating ‘We need to re-evaluate how society values women and their actions’ feels just as pertinent in the world of politics and the media, although that was not where my talk was heading.

However, as long as the press think it is OK to focus, not on Ursula von der Leyen’s experience and qualifications for the Presidency of the EU, we are clearly not going to make much headway in changing our culture in our workplaces, schools or places of political decision-making. As long as half a department’s staff feel that it is OK to pay no heed to discussions about building an inclusive workplace, an inclusive workplace is not likely to materialise. Yet, it is equally the case that mandatory training is no silver bullet either; I highlighted this in the case of unconscious bias training recently. Progress needs to be made, one drip at a time, by pushing the conversation forward, engaging more and more parts of the workforce regardless of gender identification, colour of skin and so on. Some people (and typically it’s the minorities bearing this burden) get pretty burnt out doing this, but it’s hard to see what the alternative is in the short term. More allies are needed – step up, readers, please; share the burden.

Furthermore, as long as transgressors not only look the other way when training is offered, but face little by way of sanction when inappropriate actions (if not actual criminal acts) are identified, we will remain stuck in an environment where there are too many victims who feel there is no justice for them. Will the Warwick rapechat scandal facilitate more thought being applied to the daily environment and processes to resolve harassment issues for students and staff at Warwick? One would like to think so, although clearly one of the victims in this case has little confidence that lessons have been learned.

If processes can be so badly carried out by inexperienced and untrained ‘investigators’ as appears to have been the case in Warwick as the report about the process makes clear, universities should not be surprised if trust in the system is not high. If the leadership doesn’t recognize when things have gone astray swiftly, if they look the other way and believe what they want to believe, they should not be surprised if they are criticised. Transparency can be hard to achieve where disciplinary affairs are concerned, but lack of transparency unfortunately leads to suspicion and – if NDAs are not in place, and there should be no need for them – stories have an unfortunate (or possibly fortunate, depending on your viewpoint) habit of escaping into the public domain. Think Geoff Marcy, for instance, to choose a well-documented American example. Harassment and bullying is alive and well in universities, as I’ve written about many times (as here in the mainstream press). Institutions do not do enough.

An inclusive workplace is a worthy goal, but it isn’t just around the corner. Some organisations are probably rather closer than others. I think we can be sure our House of Commons, whether headed by Boris Johnson or not, is a long way away from reaching that happy plateau, but it would be an improvement if our press did not perpetuate outdated stereotypes and treat different members of the population in such unbalanced and uneven ways.

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