One Hundred Years

Today we celebrate the Suffragettes’ victory 100 years ago: votes for (some) women. A timely moment to reflect on the state of play in terms of equality. More than seven years ago I wrote the post below about the Equal Pay Act and how the gender pay gap operates in universities. Rereading it last week – in the wake of an article by Gaby Hinsliff – it still rings as true  to me today as then. As Hinsliff says, true gender equality is about more than pay, but pay, as events at the BBC recently have demonstrated, is a good place to start. The same is true in universities and now all universities will legally have to report their gender pay gap, just as Cambridge University has been doing since 2009.

But on this day, as we celebrate the centenary of  women’s suffrage, as we remember the suffragettes and suffragists and think about what they were prepared to do to get the vote; as I think – as Master of Churchill College – about our Founder’s rather duplicitous position on women’s rights and the vote; and as, perhaps even more importantly, we attempt to peer into the future about equality, it is worth reflecting where we are today. We women may have the vote, but we don’t have equality in the eyes of too many men. From Trump downwards (or upwards, depending on your point of view) women may be seen as shrill and to be silenced, as Mary Beard’s recent book Women and Power illustrates so beautifully. We may be overlooked in the promotion stakes or side-lined as a result of child-bearing, regardless of the justice of such acts. We may be attacked verbally and physically at work, in the streets and at home. As an articulate, middle class woman I am undoubtedly more privileged, less cash-strapped and vulnerable, than so many but still I get annoyed when I am told I don’t belong. Yes, that happened again this week when I was kindly told I must be in the wrong room at an ERC panel meeting in Brussels which I was attending as a Scientific Council member observer. I hope the male in question was embarrassed when he found out my credentials. It didn’t matter, but the sense of a presumption of exclusion wounds time and time again for many women the world around.

So in 100 years, do I think we will have reached true equality? As my brief quotes in today’s Guardian spells out, I am sceptical. I would love it if I lived to see gender cease to be a discussion point in the pages of that paper. I simply don’t have any expectation that I will.


What does Dagenham have to do with Higher Education?

This week sees the release of the film ‘Made in Dagenham’ , a film about a group of women sewing machinists at Ford in Dagenham who went on strike to get equal pay with men doing the same job. And it raises the question, is equal pay the right target? Anne Perkins in the Guardian has used the film as a basis for saying ‘it’s the wrong cause at the wrong time‘ to work to close the gender pay gap. Germaine Greer, also in the Guardian, seems to believe that focussing on the idea of equal pay for equal work has meant ‘a generation has been sent off at a tangent’. Are they right? And why should that matter for us in Higher Education?

My university is one of the few in the UK that publishes its Equal Pay Review (e.g.2009 report).  To my mind this is a crucial first step in establishing what is going on in any organisation, but it is only a first step for many different reasons.  Esther Haines has taken this debate about equal pay (though not in the context of the film) through a statistical analysis, and concludes an institutional gender pay gap is an incomplete and ambiguous measure of inequality.’

Absolutely true, the figures in themselves – like any statistics – cannot be used without thought and interpretation about what they mean. There will almost always be vertical segregation in a population such as a university – in other words women are over-represented in the bottom grades which include cleaners and clerical staff, but under-represented at the top where senior professors and administrators are overwhelmingly male. Different numbers and different proportions in the various grades can distort the value of the ‘gender pay gap’ in several misleading ways.  So, such an equal pay review must simply be used as a kicking off point. Nevertheless, it is predicated on the basis that people should receive ‘equal pay for equal work’, exactly what those women in Dagenham fought for and for which we in the 21st century should be grateful.

The reality is that they didn’t actually succeed, they had to settle for receiving 87% of the men’s rate, an increase equivalent to a mere 2p an hour, but they did make a real difference. In part this was because they provided ammunition for Barbara Castle to move towards the 1970 Equal Pay Act.  Just like Rosa Parks they awoke consciousness in places not awake before and started off the politicians – and society – on a long, tortuous path which appears still to have no ending. I find it rather patronizing to be told that this was the wrong cause, because to my mind that is looking at it from the (relatively) comfortable position of 2010 and shows little recognition of the 1960’s reality when there were, for instance, entirely different pay scales for men and women. Equality was so far away it must have seemed unimaginable in a way that is hard to envisage now.

So why do I believe Dagenham is relevant to the Higher Education sector? The mathematician in me tells me that equal pay for equal work is a necessary but not sufficient condition for equality, despite the limitations that are implicit, and the myths that Esther Haines identifies that have become associated with the phrase.  For academics it is actually quite easy to see that rather simple ideas and hypotheses can be examined in some cases. At lecturer grade for instance, the gender of the lecturer is irrelevant, the work is ‘equal’ for all and we are not trying to compare sewing machinists with spray painters as at Ford in the original case.  So, if there is a gendered distribution in pay, that must be telling us something about the organisation’s practices.  Perhaps men are systematically being appointed at a higher point on the pay scale; or women are progressing more slowly through the grade (you will note I am making the tacit assumption that women are being disadvantaged if there is a pay gap).  Identification of any pay differential should enable us to analyse why, and in principle do something about it. In practice, in Cambridge University if I am interpreting the tables correctly – and the payscale here is sufficiently complex  (even if formally transparent) that I should issue a health warning – there is less than 2% difference. This is sufficiently small there is no statutory duty to do anything about it. But we can still just pause and think if there is an underlying issue we need to consider.

However the problem for academic pay here – and I would hazard in most universities – lie at the upper reaches, where the number of women in the professoriat are small, the bands cover a wide range and we have market supplements on top of this which can be negotiated to aid recruitment and retention. All of this information is publicly available as statistical information, but of course not the details of any actual deal. When numbers are small it is extremely difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions, except that the numbers are small. But we cannot readily say there is anything systematic about the way women are or are not rewarded.  A lot more work needs to be undertaken (and will be) to explore that.

I also believe that there will be issues within my own university (and I doubt it is alone) about non-academic pay where it is not so easy to see if there are systemic problems because of our grading system. In particular, historically there were separate pay-scales within the University for clerical and technical staff.  In practice, of course, women populated the former pay-scale much more than the latter though this didn’t add up to actual different pay-scales for men and women. These pay-scales have now all been assimilated onto the single spine, but one can imagine that in some way this assimilation may have continued to favour the historic assumption that technical staff ere ‘more skilled’ than clerical staff. This situation is much more closely equivalent to the original Dagenham case; at that time the crude view was undoubtedly that anything a woman did was inherently less skilled than a man, and this was a view the Unions at the time fully supported (a  useful description of this position is presented by Beatrix Campbell in the second half of the article I mentioned above).  So here, even more than in the academic part of the university workforce, there will be a need to monitor, gather data and then analyse to see whether a substantive pay gap exists and if so why.

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When Should You Say Yes?

I am prompted to ask this question by a whole slew of different events and stories this past week. The question is in part a general one about what is good for careers, and in part it reflects gender issues – as they impact on both men and women. Let me start with the general careers’ question: how do you decide when something you have been asked to do is a wise thing to accept? There are a wide range of situations, and I’m sure I will omit many, so please feel free to add comments to open the debate up wider.

1 It’s something you’ve always wanted to do – the obvious answer is say yes. At once. But two notes of caution. Firstly, check that it really is something that is still desirable, rather than something that was exactly what you wanted to do two, or perhaps five years ago. Maybe your circumstances have changed sufficiently that it is now a distraction rather than a delight; or maybe your own aspirations have changed in the light of other circumstances. Secondly, even if you are going to say yes it is always wise to say to yourself ‘have I got time?’ (If you don’t say this, your family probably will). To fit in this new role/responsibility, what do you need to give up? It may give you the perfect excuse to drop something that has just become a tedious chore, or it may be it simply gives you more clout to carry out the roles you already have. But a quick sanity check is always in order.

2 It looks desirable but you are extremely nervous whether you’re up to it. Think hard before giving your answer in this case. Are you suffering from impostor syndrome, holding yourself needlessly back? Or are you genuinely not ready to step up to this new challenge? Getting other people’s opinions may be helpful here, but it is worth pausing to remember you have been asked to take this new role on by someone who presumably thinks you have what it takes. Few people are deliberately set up to fail by malicious colleagues; that would be a rare phenomenon in my experience. It is also worth asking around to see if there is any training or mentoring that would rapidly give you the skills you need to fit right in. Sometimes you are right to feel nervous, but impostor syndrome can be the devil. You could always agree a let-out with the committee chair (or whoever it might be) by saying that you’ll take the task on ‘on probation’ as it were, and that you will resign if it isn’t working out after some fixed time, which should be agreed in advance.

3 You have a strong suspicion you are being asked because half a dozen people have already said no because it’s a thankless but time-consuming task.  Or you are being asked because they’re short on their quota of (wo)men on the committee (for instance) and are just desperate to find someone who will make the membership look reasonable. You might well want to say no quite rapidly in these cases, unless it’s a cause close to your heart however greedy of time or however much you feel you’re not genuinely being asked because your talents are appreciated. Sometimes thankless tasks can win you many friends just because you show a willingness to take something important seriously when others have not.

4 Much more difficult to decide are those requests where you feel in principle it could be interesting but you know you will permanently clash with one (or more) of your bête noires (e.g. already serving on the committee) or that there is a real danger of the task expanding to fill all available hours and that it will keep you awake at night. On such occasions working out the balance of where the plusses and minuses work out may take a while. I do feel a gut reaction one way or the other is often the right thing to follow, although others will no doubt produce careful lists of pros and cons (think Charles Darwin trying to decide whether to get married here). Whatever, if you say yes (or no) and wake up the next morning feeling convinced you got it wrong – tell them. Changing your mind, as long as it’s fast enough for nothing to have been cast in stone, is better than enduring something in the long term that you realise only looked good on paper but actually will be a nightmare for you personally. I did this once with quite a key role, one that had all been resolved with my department in advance in terms of buy-out, but still within 24 hours I knew that the way the negotiation had been carried out meant there was little likelihood of a happy working relationship transpiring. I never regretted walking away, nor did I detect a loss of respect because I had done so.

But the other situation I want to raise is rather different. I posted a tweet this weekend to a very thoughtful post, by a man, about manels (a male-only panel) and what they indicate about the working environment for men and women. Be you, dear reader, male or female, please read this article because it neatly illustrates how something that can look trivial can form part of a culture that is actively damaging for everyone. If you are a man and think agreeing to sit on a panel that is all male is OK then I’d urge you to consider what message that gives to the audience about the power balance and structure of research in the topic area under discussion. There may be times when it is indeed appropriate for all kinds of reasons, but it is worth considering before you participate in such a panel.

However, it isn’t always clear cut. When agreeing to serve on a panel, in my experience you usually get asked without being told who else is involved – after all, everyone may be being asked simultaneously. It may seem ‘difficult’ to say you’ll agree if there is appropriate gender balance, but perhaps we all should. Until this week I would have said that such a question would be redundant in my case since I’m always the minority gender, but now I realise I’m wrong. I was sitting on a panel which was, in essence, all women. It was a bit more complicated than that as it was a single session in which different people were on stage at different times and a couple of school children were also involved one of whom was male. Nevertheless, the key ‘advertised’ speakers were all women. Did this matter? We were, after all, specifically reflecting on the world 100 years after (some) UK women got the vote, but I do wonder if it was healthy. Perhaps I should have pushed back at the outset, but it simply didn’t cross my mind. The original plan had been to have a male chair (although he had to drop out); does that make it better or worse?  I feel in principle single sex panels should simply always be avoided. I’d be interested to know readers’ views about such a ‘womanel’, to coin a phrase.  What do you think?

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Now I understand Proust better (but feel less positive about Athena Swan)

You know the story about Marcel Proust and the madeleine – how the memories came flooding back when he nibbled at one with a cup of tea. I always thought this was slightly ridiculous, but perhaps ageing means I now have more memories to recapture.  Suddenly it all made much more sense. And certainly, walking down the back streets of London from Kings Cross to UCL last week, I felt assailed by memories. Not of (or because of) cakes, but of episodes and people which inhabited the streets I was walking past. Memories long buried, many from my teenage London years.

As I crossed in front of Torrington Square I was reminded of the friend I’d made in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra who lived there and was a double bass player (to my viola). I lost touch with her so many years ago when I went to university, hadn’t thought of her in years, but suddenly I wanted to know what happened to this exuberant personality. I walked past the Waterstones, familiar to me in my youth as Dillons – the University of London’s bookstore – a place I always thought was worth popping into, although now it’s just like every other Waterstones in the country. But I also remembered a cheering cup of tea there (no madeleine) with a slightly estranged friend who opened up enough to tell me he and his wife were expecting their first child. Looking over to the tower of the Senate House, I remembered how I used to go there at lunchtimes from my gap year job with the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) to read Nature – goodness knows what I made of it at 17 or 18, but it made me feel grown up. And then there was the Student Union where a group of us would head off for a cheap(ish) lunch the summer I was working at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine during a vacation (though continuing the NCB project on the 1958 cohort, as I wrote about before).

As I approached the venue for my meetings with UCL folk, the memories became less cheering. My first session of the day was held next door to the MacMillan building where my mother had had an emergency blood transfusion a few years ago. UCL’s Cruciform building used to house University College Hospital where I visited both my grandmother, after bone cancer led to a broken hip and a need for it to be pinned urgently (that was the first we knew for sure of the cancer); and also my grandfather after his stroke, where he rapidly became institutionalised by the environment on the ward, making conversation about the world outside incredibly hard. That building was also where I went to get my allergies treated when coming home every vacation caused me to sneeze my head off in misery (with hindsight, I blame the cats at home, but I’d always lived with them so it wasn’t obvious at the time that I might suddenly be allergic to them).

But my day at UCL was not about memories; it was part of their Athena Swan initiative. Kicked off with a session of Q+A with around 25 early career researchers, I was bombarded with keen questions. The one that stumped me was ‘what single action would you like to be able to carry out, given the opportunity?’ Because of course if one thing could transform the world for women and men, to bring genuine equality about, then it would already have been done. It is, rather, the need to change so many parts of the system that is the problem: appointment and promotion procedures and criteria; reporting and handling bullying, harassment and worse; child care provision; long hours culture…the list goes on and I’m sure every reader can add more points of their own.

I have long been an enthusiastic champion of the Athena Swan Awards, but I am getting more and more uncomfortable with the workload imposed on those who take the local lead. Too often it is a junior woman on whom this load is dumped.  Whoever gets to take this on may be – as my host for the day and fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger Jenny Rohn is – totally committed, but what recognition do they get for all their efforts? Do they get their time bought out, statistical or other administrative support and a gold star in their application for their next promotion because of all their hard work? Unfortunately, the answer to all those questions is all too often a resounding no.  Even worse, if they are relative junior, how much change can they make to a unit’s practices, however obviously imperfect they may be? It needs the senior leadership to carry the burden, someone whose word really can effect change.

When Athena Swan started it was exclusively directed towards the STEM disciplines and, after a few initial teething problems (which Cambridge, as an early adopter, certainly encountered) it seemed relatively light touch and non-bureaucratic. But as the process has assumed more importance, it has also assumed more rigidity whilst simultaneously giving – to me at least – the impression that the level of awards is not always consistent. There seems too much emphasis on ‘novelty’, not enough on things that might be anything but novel, but are proven to work. I am aware of departments winning silver awards, either because the author can write a good case, or because they have made a lot of progress from a very low base, yet which are actually less favourable as a place of work for women than departments which fail to get their bronze award renewed. I have heard stories that make me very worried that, now the awards cover all disciplines and a broader take on diversity at all levels, there is less scope for genuine reflection about local circumstances and too much emphasis on what looks like a ‘tick box’ mentality. Given that I once wrote a post for the Guardian saying absolutely the opposite, I feel very worried by these trends.

I hope others can convince me I’m wrong in my increasing feeling of discomfort with the process, because I wholeheartedly believe in its aspirations. But currently I feel it has become overwhelmed by, if you like, its own success, becoming large and influential but perhaps no longer agile and responsive. As UKRI take over the oversight of diversity issues, I am optimistic they will pay careful attention to the way Athena Swan now works. I know this is an issue close to Phil Nelson’s heart (the current Research Council chair who will take the diversity lead in the new UKRI structures) and I am glad already to have had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues with him. For everyone, men and women alike, it is important that inclusion really works for all and that the historical inequalities in academic STEM departments get swiftly eradicated.


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Changing the Patriarchy (Perhaps)

I’m afraid this is going to be a derivative blog. Derivative because I’m prompted to write it due to two recent articles I’ve read, but I’d like to turn their ideas into the world of academia. The first was in Saturday’s Guardian by Hadley Freeman in which she said many things that will strike a chord with at least some readers. For instance:

‘I’d been waiting: waiting for someone to give me permission to start writing…’

Doesn’t that sound familiar to those who should be writing a thesis or article but somehow just go on and on reading before they feel confident enough to put pen to paper? Or, remove the word writing, and it describes a much wider range of activities: permission to apply for a new job or to walk out of some tedious committee perhaps. We sometimes need external validation that what we want to do is ‘permitted’, a point I made in the more mundane sphere of asking questions at seminars in an earlier post.

Now so far I haven’t mentioned gender, but Freeman goes on to say

‘I don’t know if this is a specifically female quality, but I have yet to meet a man who has worried he’s not good enough for a job he’s been offered, whereas I have yet to meet a woman who hasn’t.’

I certainly recognize that sense of ‘help!’ when some new opportunity lands at my feet. The ubiquitous feeling of impostor syndrome sneaks up again. But that anxiety on the part of women does seem fairly generic in anticipation of what might be. Just this past week, a male scientist said to me about two women who were contemplating taking on new and important roles in his organisation but very anxious over whether they had sufficient time to do the jobs properly (and to their satisfaction too I’d surmise):

‘I can’t help feeling the fact that they are women is relevant. If they’d been men, they’d accept the role and worry about the time they were able to put into it later.’

After hearing that just a few days ago, the message Freeman gave simply reinforced that yes, there probably is a gender difference here. And it is the women who may be holding themselves back, no doubt because they’ve been socialised not to push, not to feel supra-confident, by their upbringing. They need good mentoring and good sponsors; it may be more important for them than for men because of their background.

Which brings me to the second article: this time it’s an interview I was pointed to through Twitter, between Sean Illing and Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne, about misogyny but also discussing the socialisation we are all impacted by. I have only the interview to go on, not having got hold of her book yet, but I was struck by the definitions she gave distinguishing sexism and misogyny. Illing says

‘I always thought of misogyny as an ideology: a body of ideas that exists to justify social relations. But you argue that this is sexism, and that misogyny is better understood as a moral manifestation of sexist ideology’

with which Manne agrees. Further, Manne says

‘I think most misogynistic behavior is about hostility towards women who violate patriarchal norms and expectations, who aren’t serving male interests in the ways they’re expected to. So there’s this sense that women are doing something wrong: that they’re morally objectionable or have a bad attitude or they’re abrasive or shrill or too pushy. But women only appear that way because we expect them to be otherwise, to be passive’.

That all makes sense to me, although one of my Twitter followers objected to the way Manne defined sexism. I don’t want to dwell specifically on the semantics, but I do feel that that attitude towards women who break the mould is very prevalent. Think of Hillary Clinton or Mary Beard (see, for instance, the attack Harvard’s Nicholas Taleb subjected  the latter to, described here). They get attacked for daring to be outspoken on subjects they are very well-informed about. It is not seen, by the establishment patriarchy, as acceptable and hence they need to be pushed back into their place, often quite viciously as Taleb did over Twitter, egged on by others. But, if I bring it back simply to the academic world I personally work in, I can see the same attitudes at work all too easily. Indeed, in the way some of my colleagues have reacted to me as I have moved up the ladder.

I can think of one particular colleague who was very willing to talk things through with me when we were both relatively junior. I was struggling with a young family, certainly not aiming to push my career anywhere very fast, whereas he was definitely on a high-flying trajectory. But I think he found me a useful sounding board and perhaps I was, not necessarily consciously, flattering his ego. (Was that what I was socialised to do?) But a few years later, once I was able to work in a more concentrated way and started to get interested in the political currents around me in the department and wider university, suddenly I became – it would seem – a danger. I got very different treatment from him, to the extent that he would publicly express his irritation and put me down. I well remember a comment he made loudly at a drinks reception, so that everyone could hear, paying me a very double-edged compliment about being appointed to the RAE2008 Physics panel when he was not. You could watch the other attendees’ jaws drop at what was clearly a quite unnecessarily aggressive remark. And so our interactions went on for some years. I was clearly regarded as ‘too pushy’ and ‘doing something wrong’ to quote Manne.

So, what is to be done? Manne is somewhat stumped by this, as no doubt we all are. If misogyny was easily dismantled I’d like to think it would have happened by now. She concludes by saying

‘What would need to change is for men in positions of power to accept that women can surpass them without having wronged them.’

That sentence reinforces what many men appear to fear: that if women are to come into their own it necessarily will be at their expense. This was the conclusion of a study reported last summer in the Harvard Business Review

‘These findings help show that sex discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace is a way to assert power and control. Traditionally, being the breadwinner is an important part of men’s — especially married men’s — gender identity, and when that role comes under threat, men assert their masculinity in other ways.’

In other words, the only way matters are likely to change is if society collectively adapts what masculinity means, away from what seems largely to be labelled as ‘toxic’ masculinity towards a belief that men and women genuinely are equal, even if not identical. That’s a big ask!



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‘I do like kissing games’

After Harvey Weinstein there have been suggestions that we’ve reached a ‘tipping point’, that the genie can’t be put back into the bottle and that our society will clean itself up with respect to sexual harassment. I wish. In the meantime, the low level denigration of women continues, from wolf whistles in the street to offensive casual remarks, as illustrated by the Virgin tweet enquiring if someone who had objected to being called ‘honey’ by one person, would prefer ‘love’ or ‘pet’ instead. Some people simply don’t get it. The recipient of this tweet, Emily Cole, wrote a very well-argued piece in the Guardian about what this episode demonstrates about ‘toxic masculinity’ and how it impacts on everyone, whatever their gender. I would like to think Virgin trains will be running some training sessions for staff, both those on trains and those who are in charge of their social media, so that similar embarrassing and offensive remarks do not recur.

What can the community do? To begin with it behoves all of us not to tolerate disdain and belittling behaviour, whether addressed to you or directed at someone else in your hearing or sight. Remind people that the world has changed and what might have been regarded as OK in your parents’ or grandparents’ generation is simply not OK anymore, be it in words or actions. In order to achieve this, all of us in a strong enough/senior enough position to do something need to be mentally prepared to act and to follow up after the event where required. I am not particularly optimistic that collectively society will change, but it certainly won’t if pressure is not put upon it. I, like many another woman I’m sure, has tended just to grin and bear the tediously common low level misogyny I’ve faced, from teenage years on: I used to think there was something odd about my face which meant people shouted ‘cheer up love, it may never happen’ at me repeatedly. Being wolf-whistled at on the way to school was just a fact of life (and it happened despite our not particularly fetching dark green school uniform and knee high socks; even, for a couple of years, being required to wear a beret).

However, from now on, I will be less tolerant of taxi-drivers calling me darling in a sneering kind of way, as illustrated by my recent explosion – and complaint to the firm – under these very circumstances. I will speak up about people’s inappropriate behaviour when directed at me. If people are prepared to do this to me, they almost certainly will also have been doing it to much more vulnerable, less senior people. So, if I’ve been touched inappropriately I will let people know, politely but in no uncertain terms when they have crossed a line that is likely to cause some people offence. Since such behaviour may also land them in hot water, you could be saying I’m doing them a favour! Not so long ago I was even kissed by a very senior, even elderly, someone who told me ‘I do like kissing games’, I quote, before they acted. This was in the not so distant past, but I did not complain let alone stamp on their foot. I regret that.

During my career the senior male who patted me on the arm has been all too common. In most cases it was a case of old-fashioned patronage that surely was not meant to cause offence. Probably, these older generation folk thought they were just being friendly and supportive, although plenty of people – for instance, my one-time mentor Sir Sam Edwards – could be both without ever getting close to arm, shoulder or any other part of my anatomy. Nevertheless 20 years ago, let alone 40 years ago, I thought little of it other than ‘here we go again, I wish he’d desist’. But, this particular worm has turned; I’m not going to shut up any longer.

Before Christmas I was at a dinner when my host and neighbour at the dinner table repeatedly patted me patronisingly on the arm. It happened to be in the presence of the University’s new Vice Chancellor and it did not feel the moment to make a fuss or slap the guy, however irritating he was. Instead, I decided to mention his behaviour in my note of thanks, being very conscious the guy in question would be likely to interact with many students from all round the world; some of them might justifiably be not at all happy about such unwanted and unwarranted light touching, and/or might well feel they were being inappropriately condescended to.

I wanted to keep this low key and, rereading what I wrote, I still think my email was to the point and hardly abrasive:

In today’s rather febrile atmosphere, and with changing attitudes, you might find that some people – from different cultures, gender and degrees of seniority – might find your friendly pats on the arm unacceptable. It doesn’t particularly bother me, but younger folk may feel differently. Hope you take that in the spirit intended!

I got no reply, but subsequently saw the email appeared still to be sitting in my drafts. Feeling embarrassed that the thanks which had started off the email was going to turn up awfully late, I decided nevertheless to send the email. To which the curt reply came

I got your message the first time. Thank you

That was it. An inadequate response if ever there was one. I have to hope that, despite the unforthcoming tone, my message had got through. If it happens again, with him or anyone else, I think it is incumbent on me to do the same again.

I am glad to say the men with whom I work on a daily basis are not of this inclination. The men with whom I’d choose to go out for a drink do not casually dismiss women as post-menopausal or hot totty or a bit of all right. Their conversations demonstrate their acute sensitivity to unconscious bias and I’m sure they would be the first to highlight a letter of reference as being inappropriate when describing a woman as feisty or that they’d only got as far as they had because there were so few women in the field. But it is impossible not to know that there are plenty of men in labs and offices around the university who simply don’t realise that they are being inappropriate, insensitive or worse.

So, although we all know new year’s resolutions are made only to be broken, perhaps this year I really will be motivated to stick with mine: not to let such behaviour pass by without some comment, be it at the time or privately later. If more of us (senior) folk not only felt empowered to act this out but actually did so, perhaps academics and taxi-drivers alike might shower fewer unwanted pats, darlings and worse on women. One can only hope.

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