Being Unexpectedly Provocative

I have recently returned from a trip to Santa Barbara, to the conference to honour my late mentor Professor Ed Kramer, and San Francisco, where I met up with various alumni and alumnae of my College and the University. In Santa Barbara the conference was obviously about science, with talks from many of Kramer’s former postdocs and students, his extended family if you like. All of us had happy memories to share as well as details of our science (past and present). Each of us chose to present our stories in our own idiosyncratic and personal way that enabled us to pay our tribute to a great man. But I did something I have never done before at a scientific conference – at the request of the organisers. Not only did I tell a skeletal story of my science over the decades since I worked with Ed at Cornell but, reflecting the final conversation I ever had with him at a conference in 2010, I also wove in a little about my work around gender issues. The result surprised me.

Although I had agreed to incorporate some gender stuff months ago, had given as my title ‘Crazes, Proteins and Gender’, as the time approached I felt very uncertain how to bring equality issues into an international science conference. It hardly seemed appropriate to talk through something like Athena Swan specifics at a conference where there were only 2 academics working in the UK (one of whom was me), but I couldn’t do chapter and verse about any other country. It didn’t seem the moment to get very specific about the work we’ve been doing in Cambridge either, when both legal and structural frameworks will again not necessarily be comparable between nations. So, 24 hours in advance of my presentation my talk contained only two slides on the subject matter, both very general.

However, over an extremely early morning breakfast (body clock awry on California time) I was accosted by a Czech professor based in the US who told me how much he was looking forward to hearing what I had to say about gender. Umm, I said, I haven’t got much on it included – at which he looked disappointed and encouraged me to think again. So, in the gap between that early breakfast and the shuttle leaving for UCSB I did indeed think again. I found some more slides to illustrate the problem, quickly inserting a further three – two striking images and this list of what I call the ‘daily grind’ facing many women:

  • Being ignored/talked over at committee meetings
  • Being expected to do tasks others won’t, and which probably won’t be ‘good’ for career progression
  • Being ‘forgotten’ to be invited to after work drinks
  • Having to listen to casually sexist remarks
  • Seeming to be invisible
  • Being accused of being emotional or ‘not able to take a joke’, particularly when registering a complaint about someone else’s behaviour.
  • And, if part time, not being taken seriously.

(The Punch Miss Triggs cartoon was one of the images, relating to that first bullet point. The other was the Manchester Malmaison billboard of a ‘lady engineer’ with all the wrong overtones, indicative of ubiquitous stereotyping). This short list of bullet points is far from complete of the petty instances that are so wearing, but it is appropriately non-nation-specific to give a fair illustration of what so many women face.

As I say, the result surprised me. Over the next few hours I was accosted by men and women with their thoughts. I was thanked for initiating this dialogue, for opening people’s eyes, for reminding men of the challenges and for being provocative. As far as I can judge talk at several tables over lunch was driven by what I had said. I guess I am used to talking to audiences that are, as it were, primed. Who know that what they are attending is an ‘Athena Swan’ talk, or arranged by an organisation’s equality committee. This bunch of attendees was taken more unawares but were almost certainly well-intentioned folk who might not have had occasion to think too much about the issues before (there were few women present at the conference, largely for historical reasons.) It made me think maybe this is something that could usefully be done in regular seminars – just 5 minutes-worth of slides snuck in at the end perhaps – or other presentations. Perhaps some of my readers might like to think about doing something similar themselves. It doesn’t take much preparation and it might just help to spread the word in a different way from those talks clearly labelled as ‘this is about women in science issues’ which may not grab everyone’s interest or, worse, deter them from attending as bor-ing.

After leaving a rather muddy Santa Barbara – the California drought chose the few days I was there to end, with a spectacular 4 inches of rain during the first couple of days falling on hard ground which rapidly turned to mush underfoot – I went on to San Francisco. There I gave a couple of talks, one of which (to University alumni) was about Scientific Leadership, utilising the resources of the College’s Archives. With useful quotes from Churchill himself and Rosalind Franklin reflecting on visits to the Sunshine State, I also wove in a little more about issues facing women in science and how off-putting the working environment can be for those starting out. Once again that was the part of the talk that got most attention and both in the formal Q+A and also in the subsequent private conversations the question I was asked most urgently was ‘how do I encourage my teenage daughter to stick with science in the face of….’. The issues seemed to relate both to the subject being uncool for young girls and that teachers didn’t always act supportively. I wish I had had a better answer to give than that parents have a major role to play in helping to overcome the stereotypes and to counter other people’s negative messages.

Now I’m back in England these two experiences give me food for thought. It makes me realise that many good folk are still remarkably unaware of the issues but, given half a chance, they respond positively and welcome the opportunity for discussion. I will factor these realisations into talks in the future.






Posted in Communicating Science, Equality, Women in Science | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The Numbers Game

If you are the only boy in a ballet class or the only girl studying physics, it can feel uncomfortable. However much what you’re doing may be your passion, it may feel awkward. Quite likely you will adopt some adaptive strategy: perhaps talking extra loud, showing off – or alternatively trying to hide metaphorically under the table so people do not comment on your ‘difference’. Following the maxim that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger may mean you come out even more determined than you went in. But you will almost certainly also come out differently from how you’d have turned out without the loneliness and perhaps hostility. Being different is hard even if rewarding. I think for many of us, however, being unusual may become so ‘normal’ that when suddenly you’re not in a minority it can feel strange.

Recently I attended a small, select lunch of diverse academics whom I’d not met before. As it happened there were four women and three men. As it happened there were four vocal women and three rather silent men. It felt quite extraordinary and I found that terribly sad. I was sad that I’d noticed this gender split, sad that it felt so unusual, and sad that we couldn’t just be people but that I was so aware of the way we behaved by gender. I would have been interested to know if others present spotted the way the conversation was carved up but, not knowing these folk nor likely to meet them again, I don’t suppose I ever will.

I have previously been at discussions over formal meals when, with a minority of men present, the conversation has been dominated by them. I well recall one when with a ratio of 2 women for each man, nevertheless the first five speakers were all male (out of a total of seven I think). I reached a point, as the fifth man weighed in, of deciding I was going to speak next wherever the conversation had got to. I hadn’t consciously been holding back before but I had not felt the need to leap in swiftly. Again, at the time, I remember being disappointed that I had noticed what was going on.

These comments are not meant to be castigating anyone, of whatever gender. It is much more a reflection of how hard it is to be ‘normal’ or to know what should be ‘normal’. The world I move in is not gender-unaware. Just because we are not discussing anything to do with gender (the dinner I am describing was discussing school education in some specific branches of science, though not physics) does not mean that gender does not intrude. It is perhaps worth wondering what it would take for this not to be the case and I suspect the answer is only when no one thinks there is ever a need to discuss gender at all. We are not there yet, not by a long way.

This situation impacts on conference platforms, on appointment panels and other committee memberships. It is easy, too easy, to say that the numbers should reflect the population from which they’re drawn. But those numbers may be hard to access with sufficient granularity, slavishly following them may lead to poor coverage by area (geographical or disciplinary), and fluctuations in small numbers should mean some leeway anyhow. I have seen people applaud a platform that is 80% women when the population is 30%. Should this be regarded as success, as a fluctuation, or a failure because it is out of line with the pool from which they’re drawn? You could approach this in any of those ways and justify your position.

People are increasingly sensitised to this problem, without necessarily knowing what is ‘right’. A new science communication prize has recently been announced by Stephen Hawking, and Twitter reacted with frustration to the fact the ‘panel’ was all men (Brian Cox, Dr Brian May, Dr Richard Dawkins and Alexei Leonov along with Hawking himself). It isn’t clear to me that the panel is in fact a judging panel rather than simply those who shared the platform when the prize was announced, but nevertheless they could have involved some notable science communicators who also happened to be female to balance things up at the launch (Alice Roberts, perhaps, Kathy Sykes or Helen Czerski immediately come to mind). But they didn’t. I wish we had got past the point where we need to count, to notice and to complain. On every platform, in every room, it seems we still have issues to be resolved.

I started off by remarking on the boy in the ballet class. It could be the man in the nursing lectures just as much as the woman in the engineering lab. They are an uncomfortable oddity. In the UK as in much of the developed world we remain steeped in stereotypes. These may have shifted substantially over the decades but they have not vanished. A female CEO is still a focus of surprise, her dress is still scrutinised in a way no man’s would be (unless it’s Jeremy Corbyn not showing sufficient respect) and her actions analysed looking either (or both) for signs of feminine weakness or unfeminine strength. Each of us has to keep a watch on our own biases as much as on our actions, but knowing when we have reached true equality – that is a challenge.

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Armchair Travel

One of the best things about the Christmas break is the ability to immerse oneself in books without the endless distracting ping of arriving emails or the intervention of interminable committee meetings (and accompanying papers to wade through). This year I seem to have indulged myself in a feast of books on travel (loosely defined), from the largescale to the small. I will not comment here on Andrea Wulf’s new biography of Humboldt (maybe another time), but instead – in the words of that familiar old chestnut of an exam question – compare and contrast two very different books: one written by an American woman looking back at a lifetime of travel around the US, the other by a British poet contemplating 3 weeks hard slog by foot. One a vast array of stories and people, the other a microcosm. Reading both books simultaneously (a bad habit I know) I quickly realised which suited my temperament better.

The first book was Gloria Steinem’s On the Road. Although famous as a ‘feminist icon’ I don’t believe I have ever read any of her writings before. A familiar name but I had nothing to flesh the name out with content. Having read the book, which describes a lifetime of travel and campaigning on many fronts, I felt in deep awe at her spirit and determination. Starting at a time when women’s issues hadn’t hit the headlines she managed to inspire and provoke many people of different genders and races. I learned a lot about the issue of intersectionality and how the problems for women from different minority groups (native Indians as well as Hispanics and blacks) are magnified many times compared with the problems the white American majority face.

Of course, not all the problems she saw at the start of her campaigning life have vanished, although some issues are less troubling than they were. Nevertheless her 1971 speech to to Harvard Law School might still resonate in their hallowed halls:

‘With this humanist vision in mind, you can imagine how a female human being suffers at Harvard Law School. She spends much of her time feeling lonely, since male classmates often regard her as a freak. She spends the rest of it feeling mad as hell.’

Think Legally Blonde 30 years later. Is it completely different now? How many students in physics departments around the world would still recognize similar sentiments? However, whether or not you believe the world has radically changed, reading this book left me in no doubt Steinem has contributed to such improvement as has occurred in attitudes and awareness. It was a raw, honest book full of larger than life people with whom she shared the ‘campaign trail’.

The second book (Walking Away) was an account by the poet Simon Armitage of a three week trek along the West Country’s coastal path. Three weeks of living off other people’s kindness repaid by poetry readings each evening in venues of assorted kinds. Almost a diary of his trudging, with boots disintegrating and hips seizing up, it left me rather cold. At times his language was gorgeous in metaphor and simile and his alliteration alluring. Most of the time the cast of characters who wandered in and out of his narrative seemed one-dimensional verging on boring, the descriptions of the countryside laboured and flat. I know little about Armitage’s poetry (beyond the ‘catalytic poem  that hangs on the side of a building in Sheffield University on the subject of air) but this book does not encourage me to learn more. I am relieved, having reached this conclusion, to find a review in the Guardian by a self-professed lover of his writing nevertheless arriving at very much the same conclusion regarding this particular book.

So why does the sweeping narrative appeal while the miniature leave me unmoved? It wasn’t the words themselves, since undoubtedly Steinem wrote factually and with passion rather than thinking up neat comparisons or choosing words of distinction. I think it is because I learned something from Steinem; I felt her determination and enthusiasm. Armitage on the other hand seemed to be writing because he’d promised his agent that he would (and no doubt it helped to pay the costs of the trip). He was writing because that’s what he does rather than because he was moved to put pen to this particular piece of paper. Perhaps because it was obviously a tough walk for him, the people he met did not provoke apparent interest for him so much as being necessary hosts; they came and went with great rapidity, to the extent that Armitage conveyed he often didn’t know their names (or even, probably, cared overmuch) let alone wanted to delve into their life stories.

In thinking about the comparison between these texts, I also realised I should contemplate my own writing style. Other recent conversations have provoked me to consider metaphor in my writing and the way I tackle my science. Whilst my first reaction was I never use metaphor in how I think about experiments, or how I write up my conclusions, I have realised this is false and ignorant. A recent post by Brigitte Nerlich highlights how much modern biology is steeped in metaphor to the extent one doesn’t even consciously notice what is happening. Physics, perhaps less so but it is still lurking in the way I mentally think about polymer chains moving; indeed the very word to describe this – reptation – has the explicit connotation of snake-like motion.

Nevertheless, posts on this blog do not abound with metaphor. Like Steinem I am more concerned with making my case, putting an argument across with clarity (I hope) rather than seeking out evocative phrases to illustrate a point, or wishing to use linguistic devices to embroider my analysis. Maybe I should spend more time worrying about the elegance of my language rather than the conclusion I wish my reader to draw. Or maybe not.

Reading Armitage’s prose, feeling it was duty done though with the odd flash of the literary brilliance he obviously possesses, I feel I fit into the Steinem camp. Not in the sense of being a life-time campaigner, but as someone who cares about what she does and the messages she gives; for whom the goal is what matters not simply the language chosen to reach that goal. Although I have always been rather allergic to being described as ‘passionate’, forced to make a choice I would rather be described as passionate than dispassionate – at least in most contexts – or worse, (again to quote the Guardian review of Armitage’s book) ‘prosaic’.

And, at the end of the two books, I have learned far more from Steinem – about intersectionality, as I say, about the world of women in the 1950s and 1960s as she encountered it at a time when I was still barely out of nappies. Armitage’s book did not even encourage me to think about trying the Cornish Coastal Path. Travel comes in many forms, as does travel-writing. Not all of it is good.

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The Season of Presents

I have written before of my desire to get my hands on a Pensieve, that wonderful, fantastical creation of JK Rowling characterised as the receptacle described here:

One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure.

I would also find a Timeturner rather useful too, another invention of hers and one which would handily permit me to be in two places at once. Regrettably, neither of these handy items turned up for me under the Christmas tree this year.

However a few days before Christmas I got, out of the blue, an email from a German student who had worked briefly with me on her Master’s thesis nearly 10 years ago. She wrote to tell me what she had been getting up to since (at the time I had hoped she would have been able to stay to do a PhD with me, but funding did not permit) and her career was blossoming. And she also wrote to thank me for my input during the year she was in Cambridge and how that year had formed

‘the starting point of my passion for Biophysics and the knowledge acquired has been a solid foundation for the 4 major scientific projects I have been working on’.

As a Christmas present this was pretty nice. Even jaded old professors appreciate being appreciated. It is also a real boost to know that one’s actions have had lasting beneficial impact. But it is also nice that one is appreciated for more than simply one’s professional scientific activities. The email went on to say

‘I also highly appreciate your efforts to raise the visibility of women in science (and in particular in physics)– we definitely should step up and sell ourselves better. I remember that during the time I was writing the master thesis you had two kids at home. Today, I know several female PIs with two or more kids. All of you are making an extra effort to succeed in both, private life and science, and you are indeed role models for us junior researchers who aim to have a family while being recognized for our scientific achievements.’

The day I received this email I had been busy writing a talk, a quite emotional talk for me, for the conference I am going to in California next week to commemorate and celebrate the life of one of my key mentors, Ed Kramer. He died exactly a year ago (December 28th 2014). He meant a huge amount to me, as I wrote about at the time, and I have been thinking about how to put this across in a talk to show something about, not just the science I’ve done in the decades since I left his group, but the long-lasting impact his presence in my life had made. And the phrase that came to mind was he ‘treated people as people’. He took you as he found you and he worked with you to bring out the best in you. That is certainly what it felt like to me then and still does in retrospect. As I wrote to his family in the immediate aftermath of his death

‘He was a truly wonderful man who made me who I am by believing in me at a time when I didn’t believe in myself’.

One way of characterizing what I mean by ‘treating people as people’ is that he was simply interested in the science, in making sure that everyone did as well as they could without thoughts of scoring points or showing himself off to best advantage. What he wanted to come out of one’s research were the results, which excited him, and not any consequent glory; if impact factors had been invented in 1980 I’m not sure he would have worried over much about them when it came to publishing, although I may be wrong. In my case he fired me up to work as hard as he himself did (there was no doubt he was a workaholic) and it led to an impressive turn around in my publication rate, from a mere three or so papers over the first two years of postdoc-ing at Cornell under a different professor, to 16 papers over the next two. I have never got such a buzz from my research as I did during those two years, always sparked by the regular conversations we had, day in day out. (For early career researchers, do not believe one’s professor has to resemble that crusty, cynical and unsupportive professor beloved of PhD Comics.)

Thinking about how he worked, how he encouraged his research group (and drove on by example), I recall this comment from Jane Clarke, a professor in Chemistry in my university, in her interview in the university’s book ‘The Meaning of Success’ about how she felt about her own success:

‘I’ve done it in such a way that I can hold my head up and say that I never trampled on anybody’.

And that

‘I judge people based on how they behave and what they achieve scientifically – not the trappings of importance, like the size of their office’.

These remarks resonate with how Ed lived, and how I would hope that I too live. That a student who spent only a few weeks working with me ten years ago feels moved to write to tell me of her life and why her time in Cambridge made a difference to her future trajectory is a great encouragement to continue trying to follow my own mentor’s example.


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The Metrics of Reaching Out

In my College we are pleased to see that we are doing well against a specific set of metrics associated with social mobility at admissions. This hasn’t happened by accident, but is down to years of hard work and careful thought regarding our widening participation efforts. The recently published annual report of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission identifies Churchill as the highest performing College in terms of state sector admissions across both Oxford and Cambridge. It is doubly pleasing to see this given that we had our best ever undergraduate performance in exams last summer. Nevertheless, our pleasure is tempered by many different factors and we do not necessarily agree with all the analysis presented.

I am not going to attempt a deconstruction of the report but highlight, yet again albeit in a different context from my previous areas of concern (here and here), the problems with metrics. I will get personal here. I can describe myself as a state school entrant to Oxbridge, a product of a single parent family and living in what was then a socially deprived area (although the London neighbourhood I was brought up in is anything but that now). If you had a set of tickboxes to check I would look like an ideal candidate for widening participation. The reality is, though, that ask a different set of questions and I would come across very differently: I was not, for instance, the first member of my family to go to University, although neither of my parents did. Indeed, there are two examples of women from my family who went to university around 100 years ago at a time when that was very rare indeed (and they came from different sides of the family too).

They happened both to be regular visitors to the household and maybe they contributed to my aspirations being raised, I’ve no idea. One – some distant cousin whose exact degree of relationship I could not tell you – had gone to Bedford College to read maths and was a maths teacher all her life.  As she was deadly boring to a small child I’m not sure I was particularly inspired by her path. The other, my mother’s godmother (though a confirmed atheist) had gone to Oxford although I’m not sure she could have been described as having a subsequent career. She was certainly immensely intelligent. So, at first sight I look as if I would have counted as ‘widening participation’, although that language was not used in the 1970s to my knowledge, and it would have been decidedly misleading.

One can think of many similar examples to confound the metrics including the kid from a sink school who gets a scholarship to an independent school – they would not count in crude terms, whatever their personal background. And yet the solidly middle class child with impeccable educational parental background who switches to a state school for sixth form education could be counted as a state school admission. In the city of Cambridge we see this happening, because the sixth form colleges are so excellent and some parents believe it will help their children’s university admissions. This latter example strongly suggests the system is being gamed. But set a target and at least some people will game it. This is as true here as of the REF or as of hospital waiting times. Smart people can find ways around just about any target however well-intentioned.

One has to ask what would make a difference in widening participation.Cambridge colleges have been trying to improve things on this front for many years. Indeed we have seen considerable incremental gains on this score in the last decade. But what would have the greatest impact? I would say the first thing that would make a massive difference is to start early with interventions, although such interventions would not and could not be done by colleges. Educational disadvantaging starts essentially from birth. It has been well documented that by the time a child starts at primary school there can already be about a year’s difference in vocabulary between those from families where parents talk a lot to their kids using a rich vocabulary and reading them bedtime stories, and those where, for whatever reason these things do not happen regularly. The Sure Start programme attempts to redress some of this imbalance.

Encouraging children to be aspirational is another strand. If there is no family member who has been to university then there is no role model or indeed anyone to talk about the issues.  IntoUniversity is a programme that attempts to fix this by providing information and access to volunteers who can talk and inspire the next generation to think beyond their family’s parameters. Such a programme will only work if backed up by teachers’ aspirations for the children they teach and by parental support to encourage their children to aim higher than they did (or were able to achieve due to circumstances) themselves. Such parental support may itself be culturally affected, with some communities and ethnicities having very different views from others. So, if one starts to consider the ethnicity of university admissions then there is a whole set of new confounding variables: the usual term BAME (black and minority ethnic) does not represent a monolithic group, but is often lumped together as such.

It isn’t helpful when the media talks about how difficult it is for children from non-traditional backgrounds to fit into an Oxbridge college, as they seem keen to do. One of my very early blogposts was in response to David Lammy weighing in to Oxbridge’s apparent failings on the admission of black students. I’m not saying we don’t have an issue here but crude complaints implying we are making life difficult or that we are inevitably biased are simply likely to deter the pool of BAME candidates we would really like to attract. Anybody facing racism is one person too many but nevertheless one such example is not sufficient to demonstrate it is widely prevalent. The same is true about peddling the ‘elite toff brat’ angle, as was recently pointed out here .

Colleges such as mine strive really hard to go out into schools and spread the word that if you have the talent you are welcome in Cambridge whatever your background, colour of skin etc. However, sometimes schools themselves don’t reinforce that message; sometimes they try to game the system by putting forward kids who they think come across well and so will do them credit at interview, although these may not be the most talented. And some children never get off the bottom rungs of the ladder because of the disadvantages they face from birth.

However hard colleges work there are many problems which are completely beyond their capacity to solve. It won’t stop some folk blaming us all the same. Nevertheless Churchill College will continue working as hard as it can to reach out to bright sixth formers, wherever they may be and whatever their antecedents.

If you’re interested in finding out more about what Churchill College has to offer, details of our open days in 2016 can be found here.

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