Five Minutes Peace (and Preferably a Lot More)

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Science Culture | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Are You Authentic?

‘Be true to yourself’ is a well-worn phrase, almost a mantra. I  know I pepper talks (and writing) with the phrase. I think I know exactly what I mean and had assumed others did too. I do not mean that you should give up all social graces and be blunt in every situation, telling people to get lost (or a more offensive equivalent) because that’s what you really feel about them. I think there is a difference between honouring your inner beliefs and acting accordingly and simply being downright rude and unpleasant. So I was surprised to read an article in the Guardian  recently that seemed to think the phrase meant exactly that latter interpretation and therefore it was lousy advice to give.

Likewise there seems some doubt about the wisdom of using the word ‘authentic’ (again I’m guilty of this, though less often I think than of talking about being true to oneself). The same article took exception to the phrase, as did Lucy Kellaway in a totally different context. She noted that while being exhorted to be ‘authentic’ on a big screen in front of them, the women at a corporate finance event looked as if they were being anything but in their dress. As she put it

‘700 immaculate, high-heeled women swallowing unquestioningly a series of platitudes about the importance of being themselves. The only diversity in evidence was that while some were wearing Miu Miu, others were in Diane Von Furstenberg and Burberry.’

Nevertheless I believe both phrases have their uses in researchers’ lives. In particular, and where it is clear Kellaway’s women fell down badly, I do not think being true to oneself, or being authentic, requires any sort of uniform (Designer or otherwise), let alone that they allow some norm to define us. In fields dominated by men such as physics and engineering, I also refute the idea that it means turning into an honorary man (which might be thought of as a different kind of uniform), assuming male-by-default is the only way to get on. A decade ago I rejected the advice to have voice-coaching to lower my voice that a well-meaning supporter offered me; I am who I am and I believe passionately what matters is what I have to say not the pitch in which I say it. In conversation with Alice Roberts last week (recording to be up on the Churchill College website soon) she told us how she failed to be promoted and the only thing they seemed able to hold against her was her ‘lack of gravitas’. Gravitas does seem only to be associated with men, but Bristol University lost her – and all her talents – by being so short-sighted.

My advice remains to those trying to find their feet: be true to yourself or, if you prefer, be authentic. What I usually mean by the phrase is not to allow yourself to be pushed into things that you don’t believe are right for you. It is all too easy to think there is a ‘right’ way to do things, right choices to be made, right boxes to tick, which is all very well if they appeal but futile otherwise – not least because in all probability you won’t excel at them if your heart isn’t in the task at hand. We’ve all known students who’ve followed their parents’ wishes in choice of subject at university only to regret it bitterly and possibly even drop out as a result. We only have one life, and it is important that it is one’s own life that is led and not someone else’s dreams that are followed.

So, if you decide half way through your PhD that it was a mistake, there should be no shame in deciding to leave and follow some other dream. On the other hand, if you haven’t yet worked out what that new dream is, it might be worth finishing off the PhD before trying your hand at something else. Only you can judge which feels ‘right’, but giving up – as opposed to positively moving on – is prone to leave an unpleasant taste.

None of this is to ignore the fact that part of everyone’s life involves donning some sort of facade to permit greasing of the social and professional wheels. One may have to work with colleagues one would rather not or turn up to work on days it would be nice to go out and smell the roses. But doing things like that, I don’t believe is ‘inauthentic’, so much as a tedious necessity. When talking about being authentic I am talking about the big picture, not the mundane day-to-day dross. Which is why I think the Guardian article is wrong. One should distinguish between what needs to be one’s primary focus day after day from the temporary social graces that may serve to cover other feelings.

I believe things get corrosive if every day your job feels at odds with your aspirations and if the only way you can get through that job is by cultivating a persona that leaves you feeling diminished and uncomfortable; things are likely to go personally downhill if you feel the rewards for behaving like this do not match the cost. In the long term, if what you are doing just isn’t ‘right’ for you, or if you’ve accepted some responsibility which sits uncomfortably with either your values or what you perceive as your career/life trajectory you need to focus on who you really are and decide if the game is worth the candle.

Posted in Science Culture | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Building a Humane Workplace

This is the unabridged/unedited version of an article that first appeared a couple of weeks ago in Optics and Photonics.

Increasingly industry has woken up to the fact that diverse teams make better decisions and, by implication, make more money. Although the driver of higher profits does not immediately translate to academia, making better decisions – not least because a team is approaching a problem from many angles – certainly does.  One only has to think about what a lack of gender awareness meant for many years regarding car safety to realise a single viewpoint can lead to trouble: the analysis was built on using a ‘standard’ US man as the dummy whose ‘injuries’ were considered, thereby ignoring totally how a small adult (typically but not necessarily a woman) let alone a child might fare in a crash (If you want to know more, look at the Gendered Innovation website which covers many examples.)

Diverse teams, diverse in whatever way, can lead to challenges. By definition it means not everyone sees the world in the same way. Inevitably that may mean people rubbing each other up the wrong way, even if completely unintentionally. Leading such a team in the lab means awareness and sensitivity are required. Unfortunately training in these skills is not usually to be found in either the undergraduate or graduate curriculum! Many group leaders/principal investigators (PIs) can flounder when facing tensions between students, postdocs or visitors. Industry, on the other hand, seems to take appropriate leadership training much more seriously from the outset.

Issues do not necessarily reside in explicit sexism or racism, although they might. One student who is over-possessive of a key piece of equipment and loud-mouthed in their defence of such behaviour can wreak havoc in group dynamics. Other group members may take sides and a less vocal student can easily feel harried and bullied as a result. Such behaviour may all take place beneath the PI’s radar: bullies can be skilled at covering their tracks. To some extent everyone would benefit from bystander training to enable them to challenge bad behaviour whenever they see it, but the responsibility has to rest with the team leader.

Above all the PI has to believe wholeheartedly that bullying, even of this comparatively mild form, has to be tackled.  Without this, instances of even worse behaviour may flourish and multiply. The leader has to be willing to confront bad behaviour and make sure that everyone understands policies applicable within the group: setting out well understood and transparent rules for access to equipment, for instance, means no one can pretend they didn’t know they were acting out of line by hogging some vital item.

Group dynamics will be affected also by how even-handed the team leader is themselves. Favouritism can lead to all kinds of problems, be it in who gets to give the conference talk or who is expected to wash up the glassware time and time again. Both examples may have significant impacts on subsequent career progression of the student/postdocs involved, albeit in opposite directions. These things matter. They aren’t talked about enough as inexperienced but creative researchers suddenly find themselves responsible for more junior staff. PIs need to appreciate these are not trivial issues. Professionalism means that favouritism should have no place in the lab. Of course it is the case someone may be producing all the ground-breaking results, and a just reward is a trip to the latest, hottest conference on the other side of the world to present this work. But too often the same person is sent, time after time, to present the work of a whole team, a very different affair.

Finally, the environment can be made toxic for the whole team when explicitly (or even implicitly) sexist or racist remarks are tolerated. An atmosphere in which it is OK to comment on someone’s cleavage or imply that they are incompetent simply because of their gender or race (or indeed where they come from, even if only a hundred miles down the road) is unlikely to be a happy one. Some people may thrive in such a culture, but certainly not everyone. Gender equality initiatives, such as the Athena Swan Charter within the UK, may make excellent progress in populating committees with a good proportion of women, or in ensuring that advertisements look as if the institution welcomes families, but if at the local level unpleasant comments are tolerated then equality will be barely even skin deep. Department heads can set an appropriate tone, but local pockets of bad practice are hard to root out.

However I would go even further. PIs who promote an environment in which there isn’t simply an absence of harm, but a positive culture in which support if offered to group members who are suffering a temporary loss of health, well-being or even confidence, will benefit all (except perhaps the equipment-hogging individual). We can all suffer dips in performance if family or personal health takes a nose-dive; we may be less productive if worries mount about a friend, finances, crumbling relationships or any of a thousand different reasons. Awareness and mutual support can help anyone to get through tough times and providing enough social space and time for such support to be expressed within a research group  – as well as enabling more professional networking and encouragement – can only benefit the overall productivity of the team as a whole.

If the best are to succeed, if real talent is to thrive while boorish and selfish behaviour is not rewarded, we need to make sure PIs have the skills to deal with group dynamics and given encouragement when they successfully do so.



Posted in Equality | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Let’s Celebrate with UNESCO

Today, February 11th 2017, is the first UNESCO’s International Day of Women & Girls in Science. This is a day to remind ourselves not that ‘you’ve come a long way baby’ in the words of a now infamous advertisement campaign for cigarettes, but a day to celebrate those who have lived their dream and made a career for themselves in science; and a day to encourage those younger women and girls who still are dreaming of what they might do and become. Change is coming desperately slowly; in some parts of the world faster than others, but it is coming. We have to believe it will continue and that a day will dawn when every girl who wants to pursue a career in science is as able to do so as the boy next door; when girls who start off on that path are not deterred by comments, either malicious or throw-away in origin, which sap their confidence and their aspirations. We have to believe that having graduated and made that commitment there will come a time when there are no senior men waiting to prey on the young and vulnerable or others who will trash their ideas and creations simply because they come from a woman. We have to believe that in this bright new future each woman will find a cohort of supporters – men and women – who will guide and encourage them through the maze that a career represents, enabling all to fulfil their potential.

Dream on, you may say, but times do change. I can only talk about my own country – and UNESCO represents the full spectrum around the world, with different challenges in each – and here there is no doubt that change is occurring, however frustrated I may be by its glacial pace. Gender issues are now explicitly on many a department’s and university’s senior management team’s agenda. Harassment is discussed at least sometimes, even if rarely addressed as thoroughly as we might like. Conferences are more sensitive to the gender make-up of their slate of invited speakers, however frequently they slip up when push comes to shove. So, with change in the air, let us dream and let the young dream that for their generation the path will be smoother yet.

As the L’Oreal/UNESCO tag says ‘The world needs science and science needs women’ in its annual celebration of the women laureates (see here for the 2017 Laureates). These women are those who have survived the slings and arrows of being called feisty or aggressive or worse, put down or perhaps even actively discouraged, yet gone on to prove to their detractors just what they are made of. In 2009, when I was one of the Laureates, from the blur that was the Awards Ceremony (a splendid occasion in Paris) I remember most clearly fellow Laureate Eugenia Kumacheva who, in her speech, passionately declared there was no women’s science, just science done by women. That is such a neat way of describing one of the irritations we face and is a phrase I have subsequently made good use of myself. Privately, I am sure each of us could have described some extremely negative experiences. But you just have to try to get on with it regardless.

Self-confidence is a hugely important factor in how we present ourselves and go about our everyday lives.  How others interact with us, how negative they may be, will directly feed into this, even if we seem born with vastly different amounts of it too.  People are likely to react much more strongly to negative comments when they fuel the individual’s own self-doubts. If you internally wonder if your manual dexterity is up to the level of the person next to you, a passer-by who casually makes a joke of seeing a soldering iron in your female hand may stop you in your tracks. If you are uncertain about your ability to stand up in front of an audience to deliver a conference paper, the flippant fellow student who laughs at seeing you in a skirt for the first time will not calm your nerves.

For those in a minority, confidence may be shaky because you literally know you aren’t like the others around you. It is all too easy to extrapolate from this difference to ‘worse’; self-confidence may be only skin deep even if outwardly all seems well. Trivial remarks add up, contributing to the death of a dream by a thousand cuts. It is hard to keep going in the face of a lack of encouragement, let alone active discouragement. Senior women, at least those not cast in the Maggie Thatcher mode of leadership, need to do all they can to boost the confidence of young women taking their first faltering steps in their scientific career. (It goes without saying that senior men should be doing this too.)

I say to all such women take heart. Once, when asked why I felt I had succeeded despite being in such a minority, I found myself saying, almost without thinking, ‘by being bloody-minded’. More tactfully I should have said by determination, or even obstinacy. But being bloody-minded when people try to put you down is not such a bad thing to be. Women are brought up all too often – by well-meaning parents and teachers – to be ‘nice’, to ‘do the right thing’, to conform and sit quietly in a corner. If only feisty wasn’t always used in a derogatory ‘not nice’ way, I would be pleased to be thought of like that. But the reality is feisty is rarely meant as compliment. We need to be dogged, we need to show grit, even to be that grit in the oyster that creates the pearl.

Young women, please fight on. The world needs science and science needs women. You are needed with your creativity, your imagination and your talents. Uniformity of thought, homogeneity of approach, will not lead to the discoveries or disruptive technologies of tomorrow. Bring your difference and bring your brains to the party. And remember, those who attack you are probably secretly frightened that perhaps you are actually better than them; at the very least you are that fearful thing: the other. If you can’t find a way through the wall blocking your path, think and move laterally – find the gate to left or right that enables you to get to the other side. I am not saying it is easy, that bruising may not happen. But I hope you will find that inner strength, that self-belief to journey on. And yes, I really do know it is not easy and that for some people the challenge becomes impossibly difficult, too hard to bear. But for others, and let us hope for increasing numbers of these, determination may enable the golden reaches of their dreams to be reached – to the benefit of all.

Here’s to the day we don’t need a UNESCO Day for women and girls in science, because there will no longer be a story attached, but for today let us remember to keep on keeping on.

For a fantastic gallery of leading female scientists from around the world created for today, look at the Royal Society’s Twitter montage. In this list every young girl should be able to find a role model, an inspiration or simply a proof that it isn’t impossible to succeed in their own chosen endeavour.


Posted in Science Culture, Women in Science | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Let’s Celebrate with UNESCO

Conspiracy or Cock-up?

Inclusivity seems something of a current buzzword. When Theresa May came to office she stated clearly in her first speech that ‘we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few’. One of her immediate actions was to call for an audit to tackle public sector racial disparities. One would hope this means diversity and inclusivity matters to her across the board (even if her attitude towards migrants and international students means this attitude does not extend to those born beyond these shores). In order to fulfil such a goal, it is vital that for all public sector appointments there is a strong, diverse pool of applicants and that they are subsequently scrutinised fairly. One key set of appointments about to be made within the Higher Education and accompanying research and innovation sector is the Board of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)  to work with the CEO, newly named this week as Sir Mark Walport, currently the Government Chief Scientific Advisor. The advertisement calling for Board members came out a few weeks ago, with a stated closing date of February 17th.

I feel strongly that diversity in all senses matters if the Panel overall is to perform and deliver effectively. This means diversity in gender and ethnicity, amongst the other protected characteristics, as well as diversity in employment sector, in geographical location and of course discipline. All need to be taken into account. It will be a challenge to make sure an appropriate Board composition is achieved, factoring in this broad range of attributes when decisions are taken.

That said, I know I was far from alone in reading with dismay the advertisement  which appeared in January on the Government web pages in which any reference to the first set of ‘diversity’ factors was singularly absent. Allthough diversity of sector was referred to there was nothing referring to the protected characteristics at all. In general one may get bored by reading the boiler plate phrases about a particular employer welcoming applications from minorities of different sorts, but the absence of such remarks makes it look as if they couldn’t care less. A very bad message to give.

Where is the watchdog to ensure this is got right, or at least to keep an eye on things? For the Department of Business, Education and Skills (BEIS), who has oversight of UKRI, the onus to ensure this happens falls on the Diversity Steering Committee. This was a group set up by (Lord) David Willetts  during his time as Minister of State for Science and Universities and which was enthusiastically continued by Jo Johnson, his successor. There appears to be no reference to this group on Government websites that I can find, but I know it exists because I am a member of it. Initially set up explicitly to consider ensuring diversity in public sector appointments within the BEIS remit, its brief has broadened under Jo Johnson to consider wider potential actions.

At our most recent meeting 10 days ago the issue of the UKRI Board advertisement was raised. The absence of any reference to diversity in the advertisement was highlighted, as was the somewhat ‘macho’ language used in the person specification. Some folk may actively drive, speak authoritatively and head off in pursuit of their mission – as apparently explicitly required by the person specification which appeared – but it isn’t necessarily a vocabulary everyone is likely to use. Indeed many people, men and women, may not be comfortable with thinking of themselves in those robust phrases. I know of some very senior women from the top echelons of Russell group universities who told me they looked at the advertisement and decided it ‘wasn’t for them’ because of the language in which the advertisement was couched and its whole tenor. That, to my mind, meant it had failed on a crucial front.

But if you feel something is unreasonable then you have a responsibility to do something about it. Consequently, some of us followed up with BEIS, including with current UKRI Chair Sir John Kingman and Director General Gareth Davies.

The message we gave was heard loud and clear; action has been taken. I am delighted that BEIS collectively responded so immediately and positively to turn around what was clearly an inadvertent subliminal message. The new advertisement is out, replacing the old but on the same url so comparisons can no longer be made. The tone is somewhat different. Some of the phrases in the detailed specifications that I felt were particularly unwelcoming have vanished. Now, it is up to the wider community to get their applications in before the revised closing date of 31st March. Note this means a 6 week extension from the original closing date. This extended window should facilitate a diverse pool applying since ‘not the usual suspects’ have longer to prepare their cases. I believe it is also significant since it conveys that the decisions are not in essence pre-made – which might suggest an inner circle was being implicitly tapped on the shoulder – or being rushed through.

All credit to BEIS for not dragging their feet, not trying to say it was all too difficult to change. I think the community should be reassured that, a snafu having happened no time was wasted in rectifying the situation. I would like to think this bodes well for the future of UKRI, something so crucial to the future of research and innovation within the UK.

Posted in Equality, Science Funding | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment