The Importance of Evidence, the Need for #Just1Action4WIS

I’m sorry, this is yet another piece of writing in the wake of the Tim Hunt debacle. I find I am still very angry. We are, I hope, reaching the end of the saga yet little in the way of concrete actions which will actually help women in science has emerged or is likely to; this is why I am angry. All those shrill commenters who shrieked ‘sexist foul’ at the outset have not necessarily done any good for the cause they purport to support. Instead, we have seen the public humiliation of a man who has spent much of his life supporting young colleagues, of whatever race or gender, and who has a good track record specifically of being a promoter of women. I saw a tweet saying essentially who cared what happened to one old white man. If that was the only casualty I might agree, but it isn’t. We should be worrying, as scientists, about evidence, truth and integrity and all too often in commentaries and over twitter they have had far too little of a look in.

I do not want to rehash what happened or even to point fingers. It’s futile and will just continue to stoke the fires. It will now be impossible to ‘prove’ exactly what Tim said and how, but we can disprove some of the wilder claims that have been made. Louise Mensch has done an excellent job of uncovering timelines and facts, as can be seen in her series of blogposts where the hard evidence is gathered together, as has Debbie Kennett on her blog. I may not agree with Mensch’s politics, but I applaud her piece of investigative journalism. Why have others been so lazy right from the outset? Had facts been checked on day one, this whole horrid tale would have been nothing but a damp squib. Tim’s remarks were inaccurately and incompletely quoted; words of others were initially attributed to him and the reception of his words was described as ‘deathly silence’ when a recently released audio tape, available on the Mensch blog, shows there was laughter (and the beginning of applause is audible before the tape stopped).

At the end of this post I put down how I interpret what has been learned over the weeks as more and more people have spoken up (including people who were present on the day beyond the originators of the story). I have put it at the end so that people can first read the messages I want to tease out without having to wade through the minutiae of the tale, crucial though these are. For me I am convinced Tim’s reputation has been traduced based on what can only be described as, at best, sloppy journalism fuelled by a self-righteous fervour. His ability now to go and inspire the young (see this video for an example of him in action) has been unnecessariilydestroyed; invitations to him have now been withdrawn (e.g. the Italian Society of Anatomy and Histology withdrew its invitation to him for its September conference because ‘some hazardous occurrence for you and for the regular course of the event might happen’). What a waste!

I want to focus on evidence and how scientists and journalists alike have not done a good job on this story of seeking it out and using it as the only basis for their stories. Article after article around the world has taken St Louis’s tweeted three sentences and used them as the platform on which to act as judge and jury. They have not even, as I hoped might have transpired quite fast, used them as a catalyst to introduce change in our workplaces, change that is so desperately needed. But worse than this, it is also clear that this story has highlighted how journalism can look like it presents facts when actually there is all sorts of colour being added (or removed) to change appearances. It makes it all but impossible to know what to believe sometimes. I have become very disillusioned with the ‘truth’ of the written word.

Let me start by demonstrating my personal concerns using a piece I wrote for the Observer on June 21st in the wake of the furore. This article enabled me to build on the call for action I had made in my previous Tim Hunt post on this blog, encouraging everyone to do their bit to improve conditions for women in science (recall the pledge I asked people to make: #just1action4WIS)

I wrote this Observer article so it must accurately reflect my views, right? Well no, unfortunately not. The editor chose (and has since apologised for his actions to me) to remove one key sentence and replace it with another without checking with me first. So, in the piece I submitted I wrote

‘That his remarks appear not to have been recounted in full has probably fuelled the view that they were appallingly sexist.’

By this point, as a member of the ERC Scientific Council I had already seen the complete version of Tim’s toast from the EU report that was subsequently leaked to The Times. I knew of the second part of his speech beginning with the ‘Now seriously….’ which he had referred to in his own interview with the Observer. Without wanting to refer explicitly to the report, which as Council members we had been asked to treat in confidence, I wanted to make it clear that all was not as it might seem at first glance. In fact the more extended quote did not appear for several more days (see here (£)) , by which point neither Blum nor Oransky were prepared to deny the correctness of the additional remarks. (It should be noted that Jean Pierre Bourguignon, the ERC’s President, has gone on the record, in one of Louise Mensch’s blogposts, on what the ERC knew right from the outset and how he had personally talked to the Korean host face to face after the event to establish the facts: she had reported that the audience collectively had not noticed anything amiss at the time.)

So, in my Observer piece that crucial sentence went missing to be replaced by something I would never have chosen to write, namely

‘On Saturday, eight Nobel-winning scientists criticised the summary dismissal of Hunt by University College London.’

That eight white male scientists were closing ranks with Tim may have mattered to some, but to my mind it simply looked like the establishment sticking up for their colleagues. It did not strike me as relevant to what I wanted to say. But, there it is in black and white, I ‘said it’ for all to see. And no doubt for people to worry about why I felt what the other Nobel Prize winners said was relevant. But, if even something written in my own name can be modified in this way, why should one trust anything that has been written?

Let us look next at the question of interviews as they appeared in the newspapers. Paul Nurse, as President of the Royal Society as well as co-winner of the Nobel Prize with Tim, was inevitably going to be drawn in. He was interviewed by the Telegraph and when I read this I was quite frankly pretty surprised. I had heard Paul express his own views at length shortly beforehand and what he was quoted as saying was not really consistent with what I had heard him say in person. I think it would be fair to say that when he appeared on Broadcasting House the next day – a live appearance so no tinkering with his speech possible – we hear his views more accurately represented:

‘It became a complete Twitter, media storm, completely out of proportion. He should never have been sacked by University College, London.’

(Audio available on the Mensch post.) Something got lost in translation in the Telegraph interview. What a journalist chooses to include, and the context in which words are quoted, can completely change the nuances of how an ‘interview’ comes across. Clearly true in this case; likely to be true in general.

So, all those who think that the Observer interview with Tim Hunt and his wife Mary Collins demonstrate them as ‘whingeing’ or ‘asking for sympathy’ as I saw stated, might pause a moment to consider whether the flavour of his words are likely to be totally accurate – although I think the point he makes that UCL might have sought to hear more about what happened before they asked for his resignation is hardly a whinge, simply asking for due process (Some people explicitly seemed to think, via Twitter, that was an unreasonable thing for Tim to ask for. Why should he be denied due process? If he had actually been employed would UCL have behaved in such a cavalier way one wonders?)

So it’s time to turn to UCL and a related story about them (Disclosure: I hold an Hon DSc from UCL). They use the Garrick Club for dinners. That’s right, the Garrick Club that recently voted, again, to exclude women as members. The Club that the Times points out has a quarter of all the high court judges and QCs as members but who make it impossible for women judges to join. Not exactly a bastion of equality then, yet UCL – which keeps boasting about its commitment to equality as in the Provost Michael Arthur’s statement

‘Equality between the sexes is one of our core values’

– chooses to hold official events there.

I was asked to comment on this for the Times, which ran the original story. My views were accurately quoted this time, except that the second part of what I said was omitted, no doubt for reasons of space.

‘Individuals can of course make their own choices about where to dine but that professional working dinners should be held in a club which formally excludes women from membership seems totally inappropriate. This is particularly true if the dinners are associated with an organisation, such as UCL, publicly pledged to gender equality. As the incoming Master of Churchill College, last year I found myself attending a dinner at a club which does not admit women as members. I made it clear at the time I was very uncomfortable with this and I would not attend again at the same (or any similar) venue: this year the dinner will indeed be held elsewhere.’

I would have liked this second part to have appeared because it again stresses something I very much believe: we are all in this together and we need to work collectively and individually towards gender equality and improving working conditions for women in science. UCL have failed on this front.

Let us look at what the Garrick event organiser (UCL’s Tony Segal, a club member) said:

‘It has nothing to do with sexism. I love women. The more the better.’

I was tempted to tweet out those last two sentences, without any context (learning from the habits of some journalistic colleagues perhaps) – which personally I find outrageous even in their proper context. He was expressing the view not that it is excellent that we have many women who attend by right, rather it reads to me as if having lots of pretty women around makes for a pleasant evening. Personally I find his remarks offensive, although it prompted no Twitter outrage that I saw. But, he may well be being misreported. How can one tell? But, at the very least, I hope UCL – and Tony Segal in particular – will move next year’s event to a more fitting location. It can be done, as I know from my own experience as stated above. Giving custom to the Garrick financially allows them to perpetuate their injustices against women, such as QCs. Whether or not such women want to belong to a club like this is irrelevant.

So, to conclude, all I can say I have learnt about ‘evidence’ in this sorry tale of Tim Hunt is that little is as you see it. Print journalists, for all kinds of reasons which may be valid from their perspective of selling newspapers, are going to mould stories to fit the narrative they have in mind. Quotes will be selective, words may be inserted into written pieces, interviews will adopt the shape the editor wants not how the interviewee necessarily wants to come across. Evidence is to be used here, as with politicians, when it suits. Cherry-picking will occur.

But we scientists, we don’t need to do the same. Undoubtedly there has been cherry-picking by both eminent scientists and those with less clout throughout the Tim Hunt debacle to fit the image the original misleading tweet conveyed. That view seems to have been that Hunt is a sexist pig who deserves to be outed for all the damage he has done over many years to poor unsuspecting females in his group who haven’t a good word to say for him. Those assumptions were made implicitly – and sometimes explicitly alluded to – without a shred of evidence to back them up. At least one journalist has now made a fulsome apology to Tim Hunt and his (eminent in her own right as an immunologist) wife Mary Collins. I would wish that many of those others – scientists and journalists – who wrote bile based on bilge do likewise now the fundamental inaccuracy on which everything else was based is manifest. The scientists who instantly jumped in saying Tim should be removed from any committee where judgements were made about individuals should consider their own positions on any similar committees, since their own judgements are shown to be capable of bias.

The trouble is there are far too many people who are indeed sexist out there in our universities and labs. The rage unleashed is genuine because so many women have suffered too much at the hands of too many. But none of the evidence demonstrates this has been at the hands of Tim. There was no need for people to jump onto this specific bandwagon, at least without a lot more thought. This sort of behaviour is indeed how a mob behaves. Someone draws blood and that releases others’ inhibitions. More blood is drawn and more, forgetting the fact that there is a person involved.

Now, not only is that person damaged, but so is science – because it has lost its sight of truth and evidence – and so is the situation for women in science. Has the situation in our labs around the country (indeed around the world, since this has been a global story) been improved? I fear not. In fact, no one seems actually to have used this as a trigger to action. I was asked by a journalist whether my previous article of proposed actions led to any known changes in processes or behaviour anywhere, and I had to say not to my knowledge. I could at least add in the caveat that this had occurred during the examination season when universities had other things on their mind, but I fear that fact, although convenient, is actually irrelevant. People are good at wringing their hands, not good at making change happen. And we have to if we are to arrive at that true equality UCL and so many others lay claim to.  I am far more worried about the existence of the many who may never say a word out of place, who explicitly make all the right noises about sexism and the importance of diversity, but who day by day act to hinder women’s progress by their actions. Smooth talkers but actual opponents of true equality.

Please, let us not waste the opportunity. Please, pledge just one action for women in science from my original list (#just1action4WIS) or other actions you want to add in and then make sure your own organisation collectively does a great deal more.

Looking at the evidence

So, journalists and scientists alike, please always consider the evidence and any time in the future that you might ever want to attack someone think carefully as to whether you have reproducible evidence from more than one source. The damage was done by the original Connie St Louis tweet which was at the time backed up by Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky (although they subsequently seem somewhat to have backed off from their original positions and would not confirm or deny the more extended remarks). Nevertheless, it was essentially one person’s word and the many others in the room were not asked for their take on what happened. The evidence now, from a variety of sources including an audio tape from an attendee of the end of the speech (available on the Mensch post) shows the statement from St Louis that the speech was met with ‘deathly silence’ is quite simply not true. Audible laughter can be heard in the tape and the beginning of applause. This tape was made by Russian journalist and attendee Natalia Demina who has throughout tried (through Twitter) to give a contrasting view of what happened to St Louis’ tweet and statements without having had much attention paid to her, at least initially.

There is a very interesting scientific analysis of how people may have ‘heard’ what happened differently, presented by Narinder Kapur and Debbie Kennett here. Eye witness accounts can differ for all kinds of reason, including cognitive bias and what is perceived as humour. Maybe to some listeners the speech really did feel the 6-7 minutes long St Louis stated, even though no account of the words spoken could possibly add up even to a time of half that duration, however nervous and full of umm’s it might have been. Maybe the ill-fated words made such an impression the rest was silenced and the laughter and applause was simply not heard by some. But, the audio proves it existed and that has to be a more reliable witness.

Yet, that one original tweet caused all the damage. Those parties who immediately sprang into action based their entire interpretation on that initial tweet of Tim’s remarks, a tweet that has been shown to be incomplete at the very least, certainly misleading and not correctly portraying the context (see Bourguignon’s comments in Mensch’s post about the reaction from the Korean host

‘Without being asked, [the Korean female host] said she was impressed that Sir Tim could improvise such a warm and funny speech (her words). Later she told me that all other Korean lunch participants she talked to didn’t notice or hear anything peculiar in Sir Tim’s speech.’

There is also a good timeline account here by Debbie Kennett who constantly updated her account as the story unfolded in which she cites much of the evidence. )

Nevertheless these angry readers of the St Louis tweet immediately sprang into action, making many assumptions, their brains racing as they convinced themselves that Tim was sexist, had a long history of sexist behaviour and indeed was a misogynist. I don’t want to give sources for those remarks, although I obviously could, because I hope those people who started throwing words like misogyny around have reconsidered their judgements. In all the sorry story not one woman has come forward to accuse Tim of misogyny or mistreatment. I don’t buy the idea that they would be frightened to do so: at the time (though perhaps no longer) I suspect they would have been greeted with open arms. But, on the contrary, all those who came forward talked warmly about the man: Maria Leptin’s tweet where she states he had been the one who appointed her director of EMBO; Ottoline Leyser, present chair of the Athena Forum and whom Tim had taught, in Times Higher Education (disclosure: Ottoline and I wrote a joint letter to the Times (£) supporting Tim); a collective letter (£) from those who had worked with Tim at UCL  and many more, as well as previous unsolicited comments made over several years by those who’d interacted with Tim gathered together in this storify.

So, as I argued in my previous post, where was the evidence of sexism? People took three sentences that one person reported and built an entire edifice upon it, thereby jettisoning a man’s career. And let’s not forget what important work this man did in cell cycle regulation and its relevance to understanding cancer.

What lessons can we learn? Firstly, evidence matters. Why did so many people not stop to think whether it was likely someone would be so overtly sexist to a largely female audience when he had no prior form? I do not accept the argument that the one previous interview  everyone quoted (N.B. it was always the same interview not many different occasions) demonstrated he didn’t believe in equality of treatment. I am frequently challenged why I think we need 50:50 in the population of physicists, something in fact I have never said. The problem is not the absolute numbers of female physicists or male vets, it is the number that get turned away for sexist or cultural reasons. Tim’s previous remarks (I give them here in full, not just the limited couple of sentences usually quoted) were:

“I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.”

I interpret these as consonant with the idea that there isn’t a problem if there aren’t as many female scientific leaders as male if that is how it turns out when everyone is treated equally. All this proves is that he, like many another, has not caught up with the idea of unconscious bias. Since Tim has been interviewed many times – and given many talks over the years since his Nobel Prize – and all the evidence people can find for his alleged sexism is their interpretation of  one single interview, I don’t find it very convincing that he is sexist through and through.

My own evidence of his nature is based on actual interactions with him over a number of years. I found it strange that people believed that a tweet of three sentences was more informative of the character of the man than my many conversations and observations of him in action at committees. I was accused of defending ‘a friend’ instead of people stopping to think if the few words quoted actually amounted to anything more than a bad sense of humour and that my greater knowledge might actually be saying something useful. In my previous post I called his words indefensible. I regret saying that. Now the full content of what he said is available it is clear that his remarks may perhaps have been idiotic and unwise but they were self-deprecating humour about his own tangled emotional life, not thoughts about the emotional state of women. What I fear is that forever more far too many people will remember nothing about the story and the actual facts beyond that original, misleading tweet.

The BBC Today ‘interview’, which even to my ears didn’t sound like a convincing apology, is now shown – via the transcript Louise Mensch has managed to access  – to have been mixed and matched in ways to mean one can’t deduce anything much from it: the two versions broadcast an hour apart have the crucial ‘I’m just trying to be honest’ phrase moved around so that it is clear that what is being broadcast is not actually the words in the way in which Tim spoke them. The actual questions to which he was answering have never been released by the BBC. Furthermore, the timing of his recorded response was such that he probably had as yet no idea of how his remarks had  been reported and were being perceived, in which case how was he supposed to know for what he was to apologise? As Fiona Fox has indicated, we should not expect our scientists to have to behave (or be judged)  like politicians.

So, for me, it is clear that Tim’s actual words convey nothing more than a disastrous attempt at self-deprecating humour about his own emotional entanglements in his life, followed by enthusiastic words about women doing science, entirely consistent with everything he has done throughout his life. He was being honest, but not in the way the original stories chose to portray. His ability to support scientists, of any race or gender, has now been compromised by the actions of others. I see it as a tragedy for him personally, for science in general and for women in science in particular.



Posted in Science Culture, Women in Science | Tagged , , , , | 163 Comments

Where are the Wild Places of our Souls?

I’m not sure if it’s unconsciously deliberate, but this year – as last – I took a fascinating book about our countryside to read during my week’s holiday away from Cambridge. This year I went to the south end of the Lake District, to a part that was mercifully free of coachloads of trippers. Indeed it seemed devoid of even serious walkers and the paths around Broughton-in-Furness were frequently unwalked and poorly waymarked. Yet it was delightful countryside to explore and some of the paths we did locate were clearly ancient ways with mossy-covered drystone walls still in good nick on both sides and which conveyed a strong sense of past lives.

My book choice this year was The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane. It starts in a good place: up a beech tree looking out over the land, including a definitive description of a hospital chimney. That immediately told me he was Cambridge-based (which I hadn’t at that point realised), something I can obviously relate to: it turns out he is an English faculty member here. His book covered his travels to far-flung places in the British Isles, demonstrating a penchant for bivouacking under extreme geographical and weather conditions, in a search for the eponymous wild places that might still be left untouched. His conclusions were that in fact such places are a) not untouched anyhow, even if currently uninhabited and b) you can find wild places much closer to home if you look at the microlevel and broaden your ideas of what wild means.

I’d like to echo that second point following a recent close encounter of my own in the streets of Cambridge. Walking along the city’s Kings Parade, that well known wild place merely inhabited by hordes of tourists with selfie sticks and cyclists with scant knowledge of the Highway Code, I was assailed by a noise as of a very sick seagull. When I looked up I was surprised to find myself staring, a few meters away, at a peregrine falcon landing on the top of the front gate of Kings. There was no mistaking it (and just to be sure, a quick Google told me that they had bred this year somewhere in the town centre, although I had failed to catch up with that piece of news). But this, to my mind, is a bird of remote cliffs in Pembrokeshire and Devon, not a city bird. This is of course wrong. They are now breeding in many city centres (indeed I had seen them myself on Lincoln Cathedral a few years back). Yet still they are true birds of the wild, with their eerie cry and swift flight, although town pigeons may prove easier meat than the rock doves of the cliffs. For me, it was a delight to see one so close; you can be sure I’ll be looking out for further sightings in the city streets in the future.

But to return to the book and point a) above. Not so long ago I read George Monbiot’s Feral about ‘rewilding’ the land, letting it revert to how it was before intensive human interference took place. The idea being, without intensive sheep-farming or the creation of grouse moors, more and more diverse natural fauna and flora would return to land like the Lake District. As I walked around the hills above Broughton, I was confused as to what this landscape might look like without the sheep to graze everything down (although, to be fair, they’d done a lousy job of this, with many places overgrown with brambles and bracken). Certainly the landscape was pretty devoid of wildlife. Never mind the beavers and wolves Monbiot clearly would like to see reintroduced, there weren’t even many squirrels (and they were all of the grey variety) or rabbits in evidence; few birds beyond the odd buzzard, crow and raven. Not a single lapwing did I see all week, nor a ring ouzel, although I did hear skylarks and spotted the odd wheatear. It was disturbingly quiet and unpopulated with the wild things one might hope to see in the wild places.

MacFarlane’s book was a stimulating read. It was wide-ranging and I was pleased to see that he had many a scientific explanation for things he saw. He may be an English don, but he certainly didn’t shun the technical approach nor the scientific simile. As an example of the latter consider his description of hares:

‘zigzagging and following unpredictable deviations, like particles in a cloud chamber.’

Nor is it every literary scholar who would sit on a grassy bank, holding a stone trying to

‘list to myself the motions that were acting upon it at that moment: the earth’s 700 mph spin around its axis, the 67,000mph orbit about the sun, its slow precessional straightening within inertial space and containing all of that, the galaxy’s own inestimable movement outwards in the deep night of the universe.

This guy gets my vote on being a well-rounded humanities scholar who clearly did not eschew science at the earliest possible moment, as I discussed here.

Where are the wild places of our souls? I think they could be anywhere. As MacFarlane says, we are too tied to the (literal) road map telling us about our world, and hence neglect the other kinds of maps we can make, either physical or mental. It is worth remembering we do not have to stray too far to find them. He realises this when looking down a ‘gryke’ in the Burren in Ireland, a crack full of plant and invertebrate life in the limestone pavement. But we can find it in spying a peregrine in the centre of Cambridge or, in another recent close encounter of mine, in the bat that mistakenly found its way into the Master’s Lodge here at Churchill (and then would not relocate the open window as egress as we tried to encourage it to leave late one night). We can find it by watching ants dart hither and yon on the pavement or the motley colours of the Virginia creeper on the wall. If I can locate wildness more easily in the Lake District than in Cambridge, it is because I have briefly divested myself of the chains of email and the feelings of guilt that assail one when stopping to look around instead of speeding off to the next meeting rather than because my own home town lacks its own especial flavour of wildness.

Holidays are good for giving balance. Holiday reading, in my case at least, seems good for refreshing the parts scientific (or policy or governance) papers can’t reach.

Posted in Book Review, natural history | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Why Such Tepid Governmental Aspirations?

The Government talks about ‘naming and shaming’ to close the pay gender pay gap, aspiring to close it within a generation. It is perhaps worth remembering when the Equal Pay Act came into force – 1970! 45 years on and we’re still only aspiring to close the gap within another 20 years. This is not aspirational thinking, to say the least. Why do gender issues raise so much heat and so little light? Pick up a newspaper and you will find a story about today’s ‘laddish culture’, or why the tech industry is so hostile to women, the effect of social media on silencing certain voices – or about which celebrity has or hasn’t lost her pregnancy bulge after giving birth or how some star wore the wrong clothes on the red carpet. Society knows it has a problem in giving equal respect to men and women, it reveals it day after day in our newspapers, on the web and on our screens, and yet fundamental change still seems a long way off. It seems one step forward and one step back: more women in top jobs, but of those women a large proportion then removed for reasons that no man would be subjected to, as in the recent case of Ellen Pao; more girls entering the professions but their attrition rate subsequently much higher than for men; those women who speak out about the issues that matter to them (e.g. Christine Criado-Perez regarding the face of a woman on the £5 note) being trolled viciously as a result. Our society remains deeply inimical to women, whatever our laws say.

Last week I spoke to an organisation only just starting to move on the diversity agenda, preparing its first Athena Swan application. As an institution steeped in engineering it starts from a low percentage of women in its workforce. As I established as I prepared slides for my talk, only about 8% of the engineering workforce in the UK are women (whereas in Latvia around 30% are, which rather gives the lie to it all being down to our chromosomes); the percentage of new apprentices who are female is only about half that number so things aren’t going to turn around any time soon. Indeed, of a current specific apprentice programme I was told out of 500 or so entrants only 7 were female. The problems in encouraging young girls to consider engineering as a career start very early; we are not simply talking about the women dropping out.

I also talked at a second (not specifically engineering) organisation with a female director and a higher percentage – though still low – of women in their workforce also setting their sights on Athena Swan. In both organisations I heard similar stories. Women too often weren’t listened to when they identified problems, perhaps about part-time working, perhaps when being talked over during meetings. The management wanted to address the issues but changing a workplace culture doesn’t happen overnight. It is hard and many women will still suffer setbacks and possibly victimisation for speaking out.

Everyone has to play their part and, unfortunately, not everyone wants to. People have axes to grind, egos to fuel or just intrinsic blindness to the lack of equality surrounding them. Management has to take a clear lead so that they are responsive to the issues every time they are raised. It is not adequate to say ‘we are gender blind’, whilst simultaneously failing to appoint women to senior roles or allowing managers to ignore requests for flexible/part-time working without giving the matter any thought.  An organisation pledged to gender equality which nevertheless fixes official events in a club that doesn’t permit women to be members is breaking its own ethos. Leaders need to walk the walk as well as ensure that ideas regarding improvements in the workplace environment and career support that bubble up from workers lower down the hierarchy are heard and, if appropriate acted upon.

I was very struck when one of the women leading the drive for such improvements said of my talk that it was wonderful I was saying all the things that she had been saying. Whereas she had had pushback when she had spoken out, having an external voice coming in and saying similar things (there was no collusion between us!) meant she was optimistic people would start listening to what she had been saying all along – and doing something about it.

For organisations just starting their local programmes for improvement, beginning the thought processes that lead to an Athena Swan action plan, I would hope that they might take a look at my list of suggestions individuals (and organisations) might engage with to improve the local working environment. People at all levels should then add in more of their own, specific to their local working culture, and then the top brass should make damn sure to hold everyone to account. It is not sufficient just to have the words and not the actions. Too often one hears an organisation saying how effective they are when, down in the ranks as it were, inappropriate behaviour goes on unchallenged. Having increased the number of women at the higher levels does not mean a changed workplace culture if these women are brought in from outside because all the locally produced women have dropped out due to a toxic atmosphere. A claim that there is no bullying because managers make anyone raising complaints shake in their shoes before they’ve got past the first sentence of their nervously prepared statement is meaningless. A meeting where concerns are aired and but then the manager leaves with a friendly pat on the arm (at best) of the most attractive woman in the room is not indicative of progress. Having recently been present at a long discussion of equality issues – in yet a third organisation – I was astonished to observe more than one of the senior colleagues pat several of the (senior) women in a jocular way as the meeting adjourned. Harmless in this context, yes. Professional – well no.

So, I am not impressed by the government’s statement of intent to move towards pay equality in a generation. Nor am I impressed by organisations that make the right noises but don’t follow through. The government, and leadership everywhere, has to pay heed to the stories that abound in the newspapers of everyday sexism and worse. Glib mission statements get us nowhere.

Posted in Equality, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Public Speaking Challenges

Technical glitches during talks are all too common, but never easy to cope with. Recently I had a simple talk to give, one which could safely be brought along on a memory stick to the event: I was giving a brief talk to a CUSPE meeting on ‘Effective Policy to Bridge the STEM Skills Gap’  in which I had only a handful of slides with some relevant data on, plus a few striking images of the sorts of things that deter girls from sticking with subjects like physics at schools. I couldn’t imagine a problem.

How wrong can one be? I have never seen a computer manage to mangle ten simple Powerpoint slides so comprehensively! Even had I checked beforehand I’m not sure what could have been done. It began with the title slide losing all colour, a trivial irritation. Thereafter it went from bad to worse. The slide advance had a life of its own completely unconnected with the clicker in my hand. This meant the punch of my punchy images was wasted, the slide appearing behind me unbeknownst to me and bearing no relation to what I was saying. Every slide was wrong in a different way. The title words moved randomly over the entire slide, sometimes obscuring the very words/image I was trying to emphasise. The penultimate slide, which contained all my recommendations, appeared in ca 6 point font so that I couldn’t read a word of it from where I stood. So I was left blathering about the policy interventions I thought would be useful since I had no notes to remind me of what they were and peering at the miniscule print did not help. The whole experience was a nightmare.

What should I have done? Done what the other 3 speakers did I suppose. Brought notes written in longhand. One of the speakers had slides but chose not to use them, in the light of my experience (they were all set up in one continuous file); the others had only words and their notes were all they needed. Belt and braces. I’d got cocky and thought I didn’t need anything but that stick. I should have known better (or should have read my own previous post about (Taking Precautions) .

I am, as a scientist, used to giving talks with Powerpoint backdrop. That is the standard presentation format. It works well for other sorts of talks too, when data is to be presented as was the case with this recent failed attempt. But Powerpoint is no use to me in my role as Master of a Cambridge college, in which after dinner speeches – or indeed brief words of welcome and thanks – turn up with a frequency to which I have not as yet got acclimatised. Powerpoint does not work for the after-dinner slot. I fear that if I attempted it I would be met with the barrage of half-eaten rolls I once saw being directed at an after dinner speaker, at a conference dinner held in this very same college of Churchill, when he attempted to sing his way through his speech. He may have been a fine singer, but the international audience had no idea what was going on and lost patience.

So, I am trying to find a new appropriate modus operandi. I have the notes of my predecessor to guide me a little as to content for some of the set piece speeches; but, with the best will in the world, I cannot speak another man’s words in my own voice so on the whole I don’t find these helpful. I have had bad experiences of using paper notes when the venue gave me nowhere to put them and I managed to drop some of the (foolishly unnumbered) pages on the floor. Too often I am given a hand microphone to speak into so that one’s juggling of it plus paper gets irritatingly complicated.

Too often, also, I find that women’s clothes are ill-suited to the lapel microphone (when supplied) with its battery unit. Men in suits have no problem with this: jacket pockets are always available, usually a choice of them. Even if I am wearing a jacket, though, women’s clothes are sadly deficient in pockets. Occasionally I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security at purchase only to find the ‘pocket’ is a mirage of superficiality. Dresses are even worse. It is a rare (and extremely welcome) dress that has useful pockets. I would opt for convenience over the line of my dress anytime, but that is not what the designers believe of us. They dictate what we are allowed to wear and convenience when giving after dinner speeches obviously isn’t high up their agenda. I have, upon occasion, had to borrow a belt from a stranger in order to have somewhere to affix the battery.

My most recent attempts at speech-giving have moved away from paper to iPad (same problem with hand-held microphone of course). This has the advantage of providing its own illumination and I can choose my font size to suit the venue. By which I mean, by the end of a long day in a candle-lit hall, my aged eyes cannot cope with a print size as easily as I can accommodate in full sunshine at 9am. Not even reading glasses can always save the day in bad light. So, iPad speeches with the key facts and headlines highlighted in yellow is my current style. Even this will, regrettably, not solve the problem of the desirability of restricting alcohol consumption through the meal in order to achieve clarity of diction.

Nevertheless I am hoping (at least until I forget to charge the iPad) I will be able to avoid future presentation meltdowns as I attempt to utter words of wisdom to the assembled dinner guests.

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A Basketful of Metrics?

For those who were involved with any aspect of REF2014, it had similarities to a slow speed nightmare. For those embroiled in preparing the submissions, not only was it extremely, ridiculously time-consuming, but it was also a heavy burden of responsibility because the potential financial stakes were so high. I have no idea what it was like to be on the receiving end of the submissions this time around, but I do know what it felt like for RAE2008, when I sat on one of the panels: it was most certainly no bed of roses. I cannot imagine this time was any different. The person who commented to me in 2008 that after reading all that paperwork I must have a wonderful overview of the state of physics in the UK had no idea how hard it was to retain any facts at all by the end of the mind-numbing process. Indeed, in the interests of not making any improper disclosure of salient facts about performance, it was rather important not to remember anything.

So, as I wrote about during the preparation for submission, I could find nothing remotely funny to say about REF2014. On the other hand, I also had little conviction that any purely metric-based analysis would be viable, despite Dorothy Bishop’s strongly expressed view supporting the idea. Now, the publication of The Metric Tide, the ‘Report of the independent review of the role of metrics in research assessment and management’ commissioned by HEFCE, supports my belief. Metrics on their own, however convenient, are simply not robust enough to stand in for peer review. That is the bottom line of their findings, as it was in Elsevier’s analysis reported a few weeks ago (and if ever an organisation had a motivation for finding the opposite conclusion, surely a publisher who wants to trumpet impact factors might have been expected to have one).

The problem with metrics is that academic research is simply not monolithic or in the least bit homogeneous, plus academics as a community are smart and so can probably game most (all?) systems devised. Even within a discipline, heterogeneity of approach is the norm not the exception. In physics, for instance, there is a huge difference between the field of particle physics – where teams of hundreds will be involved in most outputs from CERN – to my own sub-discipline of soft matter physics where five authors would be a lot. Even in REF2014 this difference caused issues for different panels about when you had to justify your specific contribution to a submitted output and when not. Trying to find a set of metrics that worked uniquely across the board is just too challenging a task.

So the report comes out in favour of a ‘basket’ of metrics to be used in a light touch way in conjunction with peer review. Not even a nicely constructed (woven?) basket, in their view, can be constructed to cover all situations without accompanying peer review. So, in one sense, this report isn’t very interesting. On the other hand, the carefully gathered evidence, the correlation analysis the group were able to produce in that short time window before the information on output scores were permanently destroyed (provided in detail in an appendix to the main report), mean that we really are in a stronger position to say no to simple metrics. Which in many ways is regrettable. It means, as successive governments require us collectively to be assessed, monitored and scored, huge amounts of time, energy and consequently money will need to continue to be devoted to the exercise. Many senior academics will lose sleep over the forms as they try to doubleguess how best to present their department’s case to optimise the cash they receive.

However, there are some really helpful snippets of information to be found in the report and useful recommendations for different parts of the academic ecosystem. Some refer simply to the importance of an open and interoperable data infrastructure, to enable data to be captured robustly, as James Wilsdon, the chair of the steering group, reports here.  Naturally I was interested in what they had to say about equality and diversity issues. And what they said seemed very constructive and worthwhile for the community to reflect upon. They brought together evidence on unconscious bias as manifest in the lower number of citations that papers with women as ‘dominant’ author receive. Additionally they noted the evidence for the lower number of self-citations women tend to make. It is also clear that systems such as h indices are likely to disadvantage early career researchers, who may anyhow feel under extreme pressure to publish in journals with high impact factors – however much the JIF may be a discredited concept. All these factors indicate why pure metrics would be disastrous for the health of the academic community.

Which leads me into the final aspect where I think the report is really helpful. It highlights what sort of practice institutions may indulge in themselves with regard to metrics that are far from helpful for the wellbeing of individuals and the community. It is becoming increasingly clear that performance-informed research assessment increases the pressure on researchers without necessarily leading to any improvement in the research they do. Any identification of the use of internal metrics can lead to unintended (as well as intended) consequences. Organisations that have signed up to DORA (Declaration on Research Assessment)  should ensure all parts of their institution abide by this declaration; it’s not always clear that that happens currently. Clear recommendations are made in the report (I pull out three from a much longer list):

‘At an institutional level, HEI leaders should develop a clear statement of principles on their approach to research management and assessment, including the role of quantitative indicators.

Research managers and administrators should champion these principles and the use of responsible metrics within their institutions.

HR Managers and recruitment or promotion panels in HEIs should be explicit about the criteria used for academic appointment and promotion decisions.’

These recommendations are to be welcomed. Let us hope organisations pay heed.


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