Why Lazy Stereotyping is Damaging

I was very pleased to hear a male academic referred to as ‘not a shrinking violet’ the other day. Not because I was feeling particularly vindictive towards the person concerned, but because I have always thought that this unpleasant phrase was one reserved for women. It’s certainly one that’s been tossed in my direction often enough. I think I feel less bad about this if the phrase is regarded as appropriately ‘unisex’.

Stereotypes are perpetuated by careless phrases and images used without thought. It happens all the time and is of course one part of the unconscious thought processes that lead, amongst other things, to gendered letters of reference. A current example of such a lazy way of thinking fed into the recent attention when Robert Kelly was interviewed about North Korea on BBC World News. As first a toddler and then a baby in a walker came into the room, the male academic tried to keep talking with a straight face; the Korean woman who rushed in after the baby was sometimes identified as the nanny (she was his wife). And a spoof version  of the interview purported to show how a woman under the same pressured situation would have been capable of multi-tasking whereas the poor incompetent man (I.e. Kelly) could not. These commentaries annoy me on many fronts, but all of them suggest appalling gender – and racial – stereotypes.

Firstly, how would anyone feel when doing an interview ‘down the line’ on a difficult subject if interrupted by a third party, whoever it might be? It is hard enough doing a live interview, particularly if the interviewer is somewhat disembodied because you’re doing the interview from your home, so it would be natural to be flustered if someone crept up on you. That it is your own child is only going to exacerbate the problem. I don’t think one’s first reaction would necessarily be one you’d be proud of, either because you burst into hysterical laughter, shout at the child or excuse yourself from the interview. I don’t believe, man or woman, we would necessarily do very well in that first flush of ‘OMG what do I do here?’. Keeping talking, while gently pushing your child off camera, strikes me as a not-unreasonable off-the-cuff response. The only thing that it seems to me could necessarily have been done better would have been to make certain the door was firmly shut before getting in front of the camera.

Then we have the fact that the woman entering the woman was presumed by some to be the nanny because she wasn’t white. I don’t think it is worth labouring the point as to why this is racial stereotyping of a pernicious kind, so I will move swiftly on.

Finally, the parody version has a woman handling the situation entirely differently, smoothly handling, indeed cuddling, both children as well as dealing with other hurdles such as a bomb and a roast chicken. How clever women are, we are meant to think, how much more capable of multitasking than a mere gormless male. Oh dear. Parody it may be, but it is simply reinforcing tired stereotypes. Having just been reading a pre-publication copy of Angela Saini’s excellent new book ‘Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong, and the new Research that’s Rewriting the Story’, with Cordelia Fine’s latest book Testosterone Rex burning a hole metaphorically in my bookshelf, I think it is important that we don’t fall back into the use of lazy stereotypes about either men or women or assume the many myths about the sexes that people buy into without reflection.

Many men can multitask, many women cannot. Some women make lousy mothers and some men are wonderful at cuddling their children (with or without a camera being turned upon them). Not all wives are white and not all nannies are from south-east Asia. We need to learn that we are all guilty of making assumptions about skills, gender, race and more and it is a dangerous thing to do, even if intended in humour. Maybe you think stereotyping like this isn’t terribly serious, but it can affect everyone’s lives in unhelpful ways.

In the case the low numbers of girls taking Physics A level, a recent report published this week by the IOP shows just what direct impact lazy labels, an absence of diversity in examples cited and unconscious bias in teachers’ actions in the classroom can have on children’s exams choices and hence their subsequent careers.  Attitudes across the school, as well as gendered attitudes to boys and girls in the classroom, can deter girls from physics just as much as stopping boys considering becoming vets or studying languages. Teachers do not always see pupils simply as who they are, but start to pigeonhole them by gender from an early age and interact with them accordingly in gendered ways. I have never forgotten the English teacher of my 11 year old son telling me at his parents’ evening that boys ‘simply can’t do English’. Luckily he was not present to hear this vast overgeneralisation which no doubt permeated the way she interacted with her classes.

Over many years the IOP has been working with schools to try to tease out what goes on in the classroom and what might be done better. Some interesting interventions have been identified and it is clear that there are multiple ways in which things can be improved. A pilot group of schools where multiple interventions were trialled apparently saw a trebling of the number of girls going on to AS level physics as their confidence, science capital and involvement in the lessons increased as this latest report documents. The interventions involved assistants going into the schools to help in the classrooms and advise all the teachers about the issues so that the sort of comment I cite from my personal experience, gendered in the grossest way, is less likely to happen. These things cost time and money. However, if we are to have the skilled workforce we need, if we are to get the innovation pipeline flowing optimally and productivity up – things that will become only more important in the uncharted post-Brexit world we’re entering – then we need to ensure we don’t lose half the population inadvertently from our STEM A level classes. I hope all teachers will read the report and engage with it. I hope all of us will think twice about lazy stereotyping in our daily lives.


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Depersonalising the REF

Successive rounds of the RAE and its successor REF have always caused high levels of stress and anxiety. The associated workload is very substantial for institutions (and many individuals); the stakes are high in terms of both reputation and funding. Each round the rules have changed somewhat. Nevertheless, collectively academia has understandably attempted to play the system to their advantage and any new hurdle just provides an opportunity for a new way of side-stepping it.

The Stern Review (Building on Success and Learning from Experience) sought to take a long hard look at how the REF had played out and to come up with some revisions, acceptable to both the community and HEFCE, which might, amongst other improvements, reduce the scope for game-playing and mitigate the heavy administrative burden. Many of the suggestions were greeted warmly. However, one particular area that caused disquiet, particularly amongst early career researchers (ECRs) was the concept of ‘non-portability’.  I was never as persuaded as some that this was such a bad idea, although my views on this seemed somewhat controversial.

However, recently I have been a member of a working group at the Royal Society which has been preparing the Royal Society’s response to HEFCE’s proposals for implementing the Stern Review and which has tried to take a long hard work at what might provide a consistent framework for dealing with the people who populate the REF. Consistency is important and the Stern Review was did not achieve it: individuals were to be removed from the stigma of whether or not they were to be submitted by virtue of ‘everyone’ being submitted, yet still outputs were to be associated with them even if the apposite  number could be varied. So one key question that has been doing the rounds is whether the lowest number of outputs to be associated with an individual was to be zero or one. In my view, as soon as this number is anything greater than zero there is the danger of stigma being reintroduced. For those researchers with a non-standard career trajectory all the issues over ‘special circumstances’ that we saw in the last REF, and which were highly burdensome, are reintroduced for instance. And the arguments about portability for those who – just as ECRs were so anxious about – move institution become manifest. The ECRs feared that was no new institution would hire them if they couldn’t bring their stellar-but-already-written outputs with them.  (It is worth noting that this group were represented on the RS working group, and were engaged in developing the response).

The Royal Society, in its response to the proposed REF reforms on March 17th, has tried to reintroduce consistency by removing the identifiable individual completely. Instead, the number of outputs will be determined by a new Unit of Assessment (UoA)-specific volume-measure based on an estimated, averaged over time, headcount.. In this way no one has to identify whether Dr X is or isn’t ‘included’. Following on from that, since outputs are not to be traced back to the individual, the issue of portability simply evaporates. Instead, outputs must be demonstrably associated – using a textbox to explain how – with the institution submitting the output. This means any single output can be associated with more than one institution, removing many of the anxieties for those who write monographs over several years (and potentially several universities) or for collaborative researchers working in large teams.

Without the need to associate outputs with individuals, many of the perverse incentives apparent in previous rounds would appear to disappear. (That is of course not to say that ultimately other perverse but unforeseen incentives may arise in due course): for instance the hiring cycle should have fewer peaks and people won’t be hired on meaningless low level and short term contracts around a census date. To make this work as envisaged, it is important that the portfolio of outputs is seen within the context of the research strategy set out in the environment statement. This means that assessment panels should do more than simply evaluate the quality of each output. They will need to satisfy themselves that the submissions from the UoA and institution support the stated overall strategy for supporting a breadth of excellent research. Evidence might include collaborations with other UoAs and external partners as well as other activities such as the production of new research instruments and the support of research database tools. Thus the complete set of submitted outputs will need to demonstrate that they cover all the important aspects of research activity the environment statement claims.  Providing an environment where the best research can thrive and then highlighting the excellent research that is forthcoming through an appropriate collection of outputs will be the name of this particular game.

If such an approach is accepted – and because this is a more radical approach than HEFCE and others may have envisaged we recognize that acceptance of such ‘depersonalisation’ cannot be taken for granted – then it should provoke a change in attitudes within our universities to think more about the collective endeavour and less about the grand ideas of an individual Professor Bigwig. Indeed the Professor Bigwig themselves may need to think more about their team as a team and less about them as many pairs of hands delivering papers in (dare I say it) high impact journals.

This is not just a mantra for outputs. Impact case studies are already being proposed at institutional level: I believe (wearing my hat as Chair of HEFCE’s Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel, a panel which is still in gestation) that this idea as well as potentially outputs at institutional level may provide a very  direct means of recognizing research that does not fall neatly into individual UoA silos.

I believe that such a radical rethink of how the REF operates offers a new opportunity to measure things we value – the research we do, the environment in which we do it and the outcomes derived from it to the benefit of wider society – without reducing individuals to the level of fretting over whether they personally have 4 4* publications or, if not, whether their job at risk.

Also of interest is fellow working group member and Chair of the Royal Society’s Science Policy Advisory Group Ottoline Leyser’s article in Research Fortnight.

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Thinking Longitudinally and Long-term

There are many things we take for granted these days that were once mysteries. To take a specific example, relevant to the rest of this post, I’d include the fact that smoking during pregnancy has implications for both the immediate and long-term health of the foetus/child. But this discovery came about because of serendipity in a questionnaire design drawn up by some determined social scientists, medics and more back in the 1950s. The finding arose from the so-called 1958 Cohort Study. If you haven’t heard of this – or the other Cohort studies, of which more below – it’s not unduly surprising as their existence isn’t particularly well known, although they probably should be accorded ‘National Treasure’ status.

I was very familiar with the 1958 cohort, as I’ll explain, but the existence of several more longitudinal studies, additional cohorts, I had not really taken on board until I read a fascinating recent book by Helen Pearson (features editor at Nature and a regular on the Guardian pages), called The Life Project. It turns out that the first of these studies was set up in the heady post-war years, funded by the MRC albeit on a shoe string, back in 1946. Known as the National Survey of Health and Development, it interviewed mothers shortly after the birth of their children, the children being those born within a single week in March 1946. Although originally intended to examine maternal health and the immediate effect on birth outcomes, follow-ups of this cohort of children have continued at regular intervals since, thereby providing an enormous wealth of data for the medical profession and social scientists to pore over. Indeed, very early on, data from the study was used to inform the NHS as it was set up in 1948. It also dramatically highlighted the consequences of inequality, with still births – for example – far higher in mothers from low-income families. The cost of inequality on health and outcomes is of course a story that is still very much with us today, a point each of the successive cohort studies has continued to ram home.

The aims of the next British cohort study were rather different. 12 years on and again all the babies born in a  single week in 1958 were studied, but this time specifically with a view to following their long-term development. Known as the National Child Development Study (NCDS) it also continues to this day as a longitudinal study. I feel a very personal connection with this study, not because I was one of the children under study but because as a gap year student I briefly worked on the project as an allegedly ‘statistical assistant’, although my knowledge of statistics up to that point was precisely nil: statistics did not form part of either the pure or applied maths A levels I did. I was not specifically involved in the exploration of the link between maternal smoking and low birthweight babies, but I most certainly was involved with the low birthweight part of the cohort. My diary of the time is frustratingly short on the detail of what I did, but it mainly involved reading off data from the earliest form of computer print-outs to find the babies, and enter the information on index cards. My memory says most of the time was spent trying to locate these low birthweight babies (and the triumph when I tracked one down that had gone ‘missing’), to sort out those who had died at birth or within the first month, and any link with what was then described as ‘educationally sub-normal’ or ‘severely sub-normal’.

This was in 1971, when language was different and my knowledge of social science as a discipline was zero. I learned a lot from my couple of months there (and return visits over the next two summers), by which time follow up studies at 7 and 11 had been completed. Computing was just blossoming and one of my senior colleagues spent most of the time worrying about how to compress the data onto manageable magnetic tapes, an edifying experience to watch. I learned how to use a ‘card sorter’ to sort my punchcards; I even learned some very basic statistical tests, at a level probably familiar to GCSE students these days. I watched a mechanical calculator go up in flames, and I got exposed to ideas of social science which probably colour me to this day. (Occasionally, when the day job and research have been going badly, I have thought I ought to go off and satisfy my social conscience by becoming a social worker.)

I was lucky to have such an educational job for a period in my gap year. So, for full disclosure, I should state I got this job entirely through ‘contacts’. The junior viola player in the school orchestra, who seemed to look up to me a lot as the leader in our group of 3 violists, told her mother that I was looking for a job and she was one of the medical doctors involved with the project. A phone call later – not even, as I recall, an interview – and there I was sitting happily in the National Children’s Bureau where the research was based. I thought nothing of that at the time, except to be grateful, but things would be unlikely to work that way now.

So, the 1958 cohort – nearly 60 and the study is still going strong – is close to my heart. Subsequent cohorts were initiated in 1970 and 2000, although others never got off the ground; hence the 30 year gap when researchers had hoped to stick with the 12 year periodicity. The former  is focussing on development issues again, hence with a medical bias. The Millennium cohort is more social science driven, aiming at a broad-ranging set of data examining the diversity of backgrounds into which the cohort are born and how that influences what happens thereafter. Child development still features, but so do the details of the family background and life highlighting, as each previous study has, how social background confers advantages or disadvantages which essentially don’t subsequently go away. Inequality is of course still rampant and basically not getting any better, something those who set up the original 1946 study might be bitterly disappointed to learn. Everything demonstrates that being born into a family without much will, on average, impact on health and wealth for the rest of life.

I recommend this book as an eye-opener to British society over the past 60 years. The research encompassed by the four studies has laid bare many ideas about our health and development and highlighted linkages that directly impact on our everyday lives. It isn’t always cheerful reading, but it is illuminating about how the best laid research plans can go astray and how a sudden unanticipated shower of money may require pulling all-nighters to write the research case; it reminds us that political whims may impact, or even shut down, your pet project; and illustrates – as if we needed it today – that evidence is never necessarily sufficient to change minds or policy.

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No More ‘Male by Default’ Please

Another year, another International Women’s Day. This year the strapline is ‘be bold for change’. A good motto but many will feel that boldness is dangerous in the face of opposition or incomprehension. Incomprehension is perhaps commoner than one thinks: people stuck in a time warp who genuinely don’t realise how much default behaviour and stereotyping means the playing field remains tilted at a significant angle. Let me share some recent vignettes – from the bubble that is the world of higher education that I live in – to illustrate what I mean, all three arising from men who I am sure were entirely well-intentioned but simply out of touch and ill-informed. The age of the men, the youngest of whom must have been at least 60, may in part explain why they are glued resolutely in a different age, but these are still – in at least two of the cases – active and in positions of power.

Vignette 1: This is perhaps the easiest for me to forgive as the commenter is probably in his 80s and seemed genuinely bemused. He’d heard me give a talk – mainly about science but in which I’d included (as my intention always is now) some issues around gender – and wrote afterwards to say how surprised he was by some of the things I said on this front. In his day, he said, there had been many women at his (engineering) place of work and he didn’t think there had ever been discrimination. I responded, asking him how many women had progressed to leadership positions, to which he replied

“Yes, I agree with you, the women researchers we had over the years showed little upward progression but I don’t think that was because of any prejudice against them – they all moved eventually for motherhood or to follow their husbands.”

That sort of attitude would have been very common not so many years ago. I hope it isn’t reflected amongst those still actively considering who should be leaders. The presumption that lack of progression is the woman’s ‘fault’ can all to easily lead to feeling it is OK to do nothing.

Vignette 2: This one is hearsay, a contribution from a senior leader to a group discussion considering diversity issues over dinner and reported back to me in tones of disbelief. The man in question raised the issue of an appointment where the panel had consisted of 4 women and 1 man. They had gone on to appoint a woman, so he’d apparently asked the university whether there was guidance on gender balance for panels. A number of people present pointed out that for generations panels of 5 men had appointed men without anyone being worried.

That wouldn’t, of course, be sufficient of a defence if no man at all had been present, or indeed had positive discrimination been in action, but there was nothing to suggest this at all. It is true that, based on my own experience of being a lone woman amongst (many more) men in various situations in past years, I would say a dissenting voice of one – particularly if dissenting on grounds associated with gender – is unlikely to make much difference: having a lone man – or conversely a lone woman – is unlikely to be best practice. Nevertheless the apparent belief that because a predominantly female panel had appointed a woman there must be something fishy going on so that then (and presumably only then) the composition should be scrutinised indicates just how deep-grained the male presumption of male superiority is. It is very salutary for men to find themselves in a minority to discover what it feels like for women, for ethnic minorities etc. Nevertheless, as a lone voice I guess occasionally one ends up being the voice of conscience, which feeds into…

Vignette 3: At a dinner a couple of years ago I sat next to a senior member of a university who, during the course of his long and distinguished career (not all of which was in the higher education sector) must have made innumerable appointments. I asked him how his organisation dealt with unconscious bias training, to which his answer was ‘what’s that, I’ve never heard of it’. My heart sank. I hope, two years on, there are fewer people who might respond that way but I’m not convinced there are none (and if you want a quick refresher course, try the Royal Society’s briefing as one example among many).

I am getting fed up with arguments about facilitating women’s progression, or even getting more girls into science, always being couched in terms of the woman/girl having to be the one to change. She needs to have more confidence, be prepared to speak up, negotiate, perhaps even deny herself the opportunity to have children….the list of things that are considered as the woman’s responsibility can be long. We should instead be thinking in terms of why the 21st century produces women/girls who aren’t confident and what happens when they try to speak up or perhaps negotiate over pay. We need, as a society, to realise that being pregnant takes (on average) 9 months, but bringing up children – although it takes much longer – need not (and in general should not) be done by the mother alone. Nevertheless it remains sadly true that societal values intrinsically if implicitly put the onus for changing the world on the women.

To change this requires recognition of where the problems lie and who can change them. It is incumbent that the leadership – female or, statistically more probably, male – takes control to drive things forward. In universities one simple place to start would be by making it a requirement that incentives do not (unintentionally) favour those things that men are most likely to do and women less likely to be offered. If pastoral care is valued, everyone should be expected to do their bit. On the other hand, if it isn’t considered an item for promotion because it isn’t valued, then it is equally important that everyone should be expected to do their bit. We cannot have parts of an academic’s role which are key to promotion put out of the reach of sections of the workforce simply because they are pushed into the delivery of other (vital) tasks which don’t score promotion Brownie points. A level playing field (to use that overworked phrase) means not only what it says but also – in my view – uniform coverage, not that some parts are inaccessible to certain members of the workforce.

It’s time to be bold for change and change that mind set so that those – typically men – in power reconsider what actions are most likely to work for the entire workforce. And then make sure they do.

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Five Minutes Peace (and Preferably a Lot More)

Any parent will be familiar with the desire to find a quiet corner where the children can’t find them. Many readers will also know all about the antics of the Large Family, a family of elephants, in Jill Murphy’s tale whose title I have appropriated for the first part of my own title here. We all know that desire for peace, but also – as an academic – that desire for a long enough stretch of time to get the creative juices flowing. At worst all one may manage to achieve is answer one single email. But if it’s that pernicious email that has been preying on one’s mind because it is tricky, requiring a clear brain to produce the right nuance, then getting it out of one’s brain and sent spiralling into the ether will be conducive to a calmer mind enabling more exciting things to be done. It might even lead to peace of mind enough to get a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately significantly more extended time is needed for many tasks: to write a talk from scratch due to be presented the next day or to revise the paper Referee 3 has minutely dissected. These taxing scenarios are all well known to academics everywhere.

However, just as with small children, unless one retreats to a genuine ivory tower and throws the key away, it is very hard to retain the peace the calendar may purport to demonstrate. Academics often like to keep an open door policy, especially to their students. The downside of this, of course, is that it may mean the one moment you finally get to sit down at your desk a student comes wandering in. Whether their query is big or small, whether you last saw them yesterday, last week or last term, it would be churlish to tell them now is not convenient if you’ve left the door open, so precious time gets eaten up (again). However, possibly even more demanding is the administrator who wants to query the figures on your grant application or the head of department who is trying to hunt you down in order to twist your arm to do something you probably don’t want to do. They can be more exhausting and/or worse for the blood pressure. Yet they are still unavoidable.

Perhaps even more infuriating is that time when you aren’t expecting a gap in your diary but whoever should be knocking on the door is inexplicably late (students please take heed). Those precious moments are hard to use sensibly because, inevitably, there is the feeling that the missing visitor will turn up as soon as you turn to the Powerpoint presentation or paper to referee. I find it hard to do anything very constructive, beyond deleting some spam email or googling next day’s visitor, in such a hiatus. Yet when the minutes stretch to beyond a quarter of an hour how one regrets not getting going on something substantial. Nevertheless I, for one, still feel it isn’t worth getting started in a situation like this (my personal failing no doubt) and continue to fritter the time away in ways that are less than optimal. I am feeling this particularly this week after a series of visitor meetings that got seriously out of sync. All of them ultimately turned up, but by the time the last one had gone the clear couple of hours I thought I had to get started on some serious thought had vanished into thin air and my talks for Australia in a few weeks’ time are little further on.

I know, and I have written about this before, that having a multitude of different things that need doing, of larger and smaller scope and challenge, can actually lead to a curious sort of productivity. There is always something that might look interesting enough, or of the right degree of complexity, to fit into the nooks and crannies left by an exhausting schedule. However, true though I believe that to be, fragmented moments when visitors fail to materialise, or when a meeting finishes just a few minutes before the next one begins, really don’t lend themselves to productivity beyond making a cup of coffee. It doesn’t stop one feeling exhausted by the end of the day even if there have been ‘idle’ moments.  In part this explains the recent slow-down in my blog productivity: evenings that aren’t full of ‘official’ events and dinners tend to find me pretty weary and without the energy or intellect to write. This week, I am left feeling particularly that time has not been effectively used, a point reinforced by the state of my email, my unwritten talks, the consultation (REF and TEF if I can use such depressing words here) documents untouched for comment in time for some fast-approaching deadline, the unread papers and the train tickets still lurking in the bottom of my handbag unattached to their expenses claim form.

I am sure there are skills for making better use of the brief hiccoughs in my streams of meeting, and a life coach well-versed in time management could teach me a thing or two. But that would require a long enough gap in my diary that I could benefit from them. Like so many other things, there just doesn’t seem time to squeeze that in. Anyhow I suspect I am probably too set in my ways to change bad habits fallen into a long time ago!

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