Moving on from Tokenism

Last week much was made of the fact that, finally, all the UK’s FTSE100 companies have at least one female Board member with Glencore, the last to make the grade, appointing the Canadian Patrice Merrin as a non-executive director. Vince Cable, who has been pushing for this for some years, declared this a ‘historic day for the FTSE’. But does one woman on a board, or indeed on any committee, make any difference? What burden of expectations are put on such an individual if somehow they are supposed to represent half the population and/or turn around a company’s attitude and fortunes by doing things the ‘female’ way?

The trouble is, thinking in terms like this rather miss the point. Of course it’s important that Boards have female members, and not just one of them per board. But it is dangerous to think that each board has to have a woman because she’ll bring a woman’s perspective. And if she does also that the board will instantly listen to what she says and act upon it. Neither of those statements can be taken as likely to be true. Having a female board member is maybe a step forward but it is only the beginning of the story not the end.

I have come across a fair number of women who absolutely aren’t interested in ‘women’s’ issues. At worst, this may be because they feel they never got any help themselves so why should they help others (or even that they don’t want other women around them to dilute their own visibility and impact); more common these days is that they don’t think there should be any special pleading for women. But there is much more to having women on boards/committees than simply that they are women and might occasionally be expected to ask ‘hey, have you thought about how this policy affects other women?’. Thinking about gender has to permeate all that an organisation does. Women should sit on boards and committees because there are some very smart women out there who have much to offer (or would have if they hadn’t been squelched comprehensively on the way up by one means or another) but they shouldn’t be expected to carry the burden of ‘women’s issues’. These must be everyone’s concern.

If we move away from the FTSE world and into universities, the EU has made this point very clearly in its rules for Horizon2020, something Curt Rice has recently written about. Every application (and this also applies to the ERC, where the Gender Action Plan discusses issues more specifically) has to discuss how it deals with three aspects of gender:

• Gender balance in research teams;
• Gender balance in decision-making;
• Integrating gender/sex analysis in research and innovation content.

The first two perhaps relate are somewhat comparable to the question of women on boards and are appropriate aspirations. In a field like physics, it is often hard to see how the last is relevant: cold atoms don’t have a gender, nor does a differential equation. But, as you move towards biology the gender of the animal from which cells or tissues are taken, for instance, does turn out to matter in some classes of experiments; and, if you are considering human health it is increasingly clear that clinical trials carried out on male patients may be most misleading regarding how females respond. If you aren’t sure about this, look at the Gendered Innovations website where specific examples are given. The reality is that scientists (typically male) have spent many years not realising that such matters ought to be worried about, probably thereby putting some women’s lives at risk since they can react differently to medication. It needn’t have been a woman who pointed this out, but it most certainly did need someone to do it. Repeatedly. And now it is enshrined in the principles of project funding. Journals are following suit. It’s high time because without this information much biomedical research is liable to be less than helpful if not actually seriously flawed. That is possibly something that FTSE companies working in the pharmaceutical sector should also be focussing on, whether or not they have women on their boards. These and other topics will be discussed at this week’s EU Gender Summit, both science and policy aspects. I am sorry not to be there.

I think for all of us there are many things that seem ‘normal’ – until someone highlights them – but which are actually deeply biased. Having women around who may have relevant (and possibly negative) experiences may help to bring things out in the open. And such things still persist. To take a specific example of how maternity leave is handled. The ERC explicitly extends periods of eligibility for its different grants by 18 months per child; RCUK has recently published a useful overview of how they collectively handle maternity, paternity and parental leave. But some other funders, smaller medical charities for instance, are still only just getting to grips with this issue. A Cambridge colleague who came to me for advice regarding her own post-maternity-leave funding was able to send the RCUK statement to her funder who has agreed to an effective extension of her window of eligibility. Possibly this is being done as a one-off; I hope the charity will move to make it ongoing policy.

We ought to be moving rapidly to a place where everyone, male and female, is alert to all such issues and it isn’t simply the few women who sit at the top table who could or should speak out. So, let’s stop focussing on the tokenism implied by celebrating the fact that every FTSE100 Board has a woman on it and start actually ensuring that every woman has an equal chance, with her male colleagues, to end up sitting on that board.


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

Well-rounded Students – What does it Take?

WS Gilbert thought it was ‘comical…that every boy and every gal… is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative’ in the words expressed by that bored sentry PC Willis. The politics would be different now, but we in England and Wales still seem to live in a system where every boy or girl, at least those who aspire to A levels and beyond, are forced either into either the square box that is Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences (AHSS) or the circular peg-hole that is STEM at 16, if not before. Why? No other developed country does this. There is some movement towards at least offering new courses in mathematics of some kind for non-STEM students to take beyond 16, although we have yet to see how this works in practice. This would at least raise the take-up beyond the miserly 13% of the cohort the country currently sees take mathematics post-GCSE.

The Royal Society launches its new report ‘Vision for Science and Mathematics Education‘ today, describing how it would like to see STEM education develop over the next 20 years. I have been on the committee preparing this report over the last 2-3 years and it has been an interesting process. It’s not so easy to think 20 years ahead and to begin with the committee collectively was timid and incremental in its deliberations. I hope in the end we have produced something ‘visionary’, in so far as it describes a very different place from where we are now, even if much of it may superficially look like the blindingly obvious: a trusted teaching profession, assessment of the individual student separate from assessment of the school, good careers advice starting at primary school, access to specialist maths and science teachers in every school (primary and secondary school) as well as well-supported and trained technicians. And, in the context of my opening paragraph, the report advocates a post-16 environment in which every child, whether on a vocational or academic pathway, studies subjects from both the AHSS and STEM sides up till 18.

This is not the first time the Royal Society has advocated this. In 2011 I was involved in the launch of an earlier report which also pushed for a Baccalaureate approach post-16. It got limited airtime and made no significant impact on any policy-making emanating from the Department for Education (DfE). But the Royal Society is not alone in making this call: from the other side of the ‘divide’, humanities and social scientists also see the attraction and importance of this. Coincidentally, this was very clear this week when I participated in a meeting at the British Academy on ‘Broadening the debate: how the humanities and social sciences can help us address global challenges’. A joint meeting with the American Academy for Arts and Sciences, I was the lone scientist invited to speak (although there were quite a number in the audience, I was pleased to see). The panel I participated in was entitled ‘Why a coordinated approach to humanities, social sciences and natural sciences matters’ a topic I felt it was easy to embrace and which directly ties in with the Vision Report, for which I also managed to sneak in a plug.

But perhaps even more relevantly was the other panel of the day on the subject of ‘Promoting Opportunity through Education’. In this session Baroness Tessa Blackstone spoke forcefully about the dangers of early specialisation. Not the ‘gold standard’ that A levels are usually described, she saw them rather as a ’5th rate tin standard’ due to their narrowness. She was the Higher Education Minister in the Blair administration at the time that Curriculum 2000 was introduced, which recommended that school children should do a broad mix of 5 AS levels followed by 4 A levels. What happened to this? According to Blackstone, what happened was that HEIs did nothing to change their offers to children. Why should schools go for this breadth, she asked, if it was only going to make harder the chances of their students gaining the requisite grades in the 3 A levels that HEIs continued to set as offers? However, the confusion that arose by rushing the introduction of the revised structures and qualifications in no doubt also played their part in preventing schools and students taking advantage of the changes to increase their breadth of study.

So, what would HEIs do now if the exams at 18 were reformed to something like a Baccalaureate system? Discussions with some HEI stakeholders have suggested they would welcome such a broadening, but perhaps that’s what they said last time. I wasn’t close enough to those conversations around 2000 to know what was or wasn’t said or by whom. I do know that any change in 6th forms would necessarily directly impact on what universities could or couldn’t assume incoming students knew. Changes would have to have full buy-in and, as far as I can currently judge from within Cambridge, admission via the IB (International Baccalaureate) which is the nearest approximation to what is being suggested, currently has a very high bar. This is likely to act as a significant barrier at the moment. Changes would need to be explicitly embraced by HEIs across the board, not only in terms of offers but also in terms of first year courses, if the Royal Society’s vision on this front is to be successfully adopted.

Nevertheless, I still believe wholeheartedly a broadening is the way to go because we should not expect students to make an essentially irrevocable choice between arts and sciences at a ridiculously early age. It seems to me – and this will certainly be being followed up – the Royal Society and the British Academy share a common perspective on this issue. Let us hope that those who really can effect policy change read the Vision report, in its entirety, and buy into the ideas presented about how the UK’s children should be educated. Let’s worry more about the education and less about the politics and ideology.

Note: Although I have been a member of  the Vision committee this post reflects my personal thoughts setting the work in context. A more specific post on the report itself by me can be found here.


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Leadership by Gravitas or Passion?

A couple of years ago I blogged about my feelings about leadership and role models. The difference is clear and whereas then I felt OK about being considered one of the latter I had issues with regarding myself as a genuine leader. I was brought to reconsider the topic by a request to talk about leadership in academic science by the London Business School. They brought up an international party of executives to Cambridge for the day, and I kicked things off for them during their visit. They were from business, the law and the like. Neither academics nor scientists, a morning in the Cavendish must have been quite strange for them, as they wandered amongst the exhibits in the museum we house and had a quick look at some laboratory space with a student of mine.

My job was to try and explain my leadership style in bringing out the best in students within a system that is much less structured than their various worlds appear to be. I can’t tell my students what the rules are, because the rules of research mean don’t follow rules (although do follow protocols, prior art etc): the aim has to be to look at things from different angles. I can’t give precise suggestions for how to be innovative, because bright ideas don’t come from doing what other people have done before. But academic science has always thrived on the unconventional, the maverick and the wacky – a message that may not sit comfortably with all professional spheres.

I find it easier to answer questions about my personal style of working with PhD students than the more abstract idea of ‘leadership’ per se. But my thoughts on leadership were helped on their way by the gift of a book written by one of the London Business School experts. This was The I of Leadership: Strategies for Seeing, Being and Doing by Nigel Nicholson. Unable to compare this with any other book on leadership, because I’ve never read one (or on management come to that) I found it an interesting read not least because its basic message seemed to be it’s horses for courses. In other words, there is no single recipe for success in leadership. To take an example currently close to my heart, Winston Churchill was an excellent war-time leader but languished at other times and basically failed to deliver in his more peaceful briefs.

So from the book I got the messages that the goal must be to work out what needs doing and what your way of doing it is, find some trusted allies with whom you can discuss the challenges and your provisional solutions and get on with the job. Doing nothing may be the right thing at times; at other times it may be hopelessly wrong. It all sounds so simple! But simple or not, at least it feels more plausible as a way of tackling things than having to follow set patterns of behaviour regardless both of one’s own character and the particulars of the situation and the organisation in which one works.

In order to achieve one’s aims, naturally one has to carry other people along with you. Thinking about this takes me back to the issue of how, leader or not, one can be most effective on committees and I think the answer is the same: you have to work out your own way of doing this and it may depend on committee dynamics as well as your personality. What works in one place may not work in another. I am reminded of one committee of senior professors from around the country I attended when still quite junior. One member in particular stands out in my mind because his demeanour was so unlike mine was or ever could be. Completely confident in his own position, he talked very slowly, precisely and at great length, turning his whole body as he looked all round the table at each of us in turn as he spoke. I’m sure he felt this was an effective strategy that would make his words carry great weight. For me, all it did was irritate me intensely whilst simultaneously making me feel my own style must be woefully inadequate and unpersuasive.

With the passage of years I have come to realise how wrong I probably was in believing other people liked such a tendentious style. Furthermore, whilst eye contact is probably good, his style seemed so artificially contrived as to counteract anything positive that spontaneity might have achieved. Once again, it’s probably horses for courses. Some people may believe speaking ponderously implies gravitas, as the very words may suggest, but others may be less fooled by stylistic performance than by content. I still believe that rubbish is rubbish however delivered. My own style is always liable to be labelled with that inconvenient word ‘passionate’ (see here and the ensuing comments for a debate about this word as applied to female scientists), possibly even more dangerously ‘emotional’, often ‘self-deprecating’ and ‘good-humoured’ (as the thank you card from a recently relinquished committee repeatedly described me in the kind words of expressed). I think there are worse things to be.

Whatever, I am who I am and my style has to be what works for me and I guess the same is true for everyone. Worry about the content first and foremost; make sure you’re articulate, coherent and audible as well as factually well-prepared and aware of other people’s sticking points. Beyond that, leadership by charisma or gravitas may be effective, but sometimes it may also be dangerous by being persuasive without content.

Posted in Leadership, Science Culture | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

An Education in Education (and Policy)

For the last three and a half years I have been chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee. Under Secretary of State Michael Gove, education in England has been going through a tumultuous time (other parts of the UK have been going through their own periods of turmoil). Consultation after consultation has poured out from the Department for Education (DfE) offices to which we have tried to respond. Changes to the curriculum and to assessment have been rushed through and the consequences of all this will take years to ascertain. However, I think it would be true to say that the education community collectively is far from happy that their views have been adequately listened to or that any of the responses to the myriad consultations have made significant impact on the policy as finally implemented.

The Royal Society is one member of the group collectively known as SCORE, the Science Community Representing Education. If you look at the SCORE web pages you will be able to find the responses that have been jointly submitted to DfE on everything from practical work to the curriculum content. Most of them express grave reservations about some part of the new proposals or another. Relevant to a recent post of mine on experimental work, one of the more recent concerns was tied to the removal of practical assessment in science A levels’ overall grade. SCORE believes this risks schools spending less time than is needed on teaching practical skills, something crucial both to excite the students and to enable them to acquire the techniques and know-how necessary if they intend to pursue science further.

One may hope that teachers and schools will be heading for a period of relative tranquillity as all the changes Gove has rushed through bed down, but first they have to acclimatise themselves to the new landscape of curricula and assessment taking place simultaneously right through the school system. One of the things that seems to be universally deplored (at least outside DfE) is the conflation of assessing the child with assessing the school. As long as league tables are essentially based on exam results there will be the tendency, one might almost say the necessity for a school’s survival, to work at getting those children near any particular critical assessment boundary ‘up’ at the expense of the weaker and stronger who sit outside this critical zone. As long as it is only absolute grades (whether denoted by letters or numbers) that count, rather than a value-added contribution or seeing well-educated well-rounded students, we will see teachers having little choice but to teach to the test.

The Royal Society will be launching its major new report ‘Vision for Science and Mathematics Education‘ on June 26th, representing several years of intense work, evidence-gathering and consultations. I have been heavily involved in the committee which has been preparing the report – under the chairmanship of Martin Taylor – and it has been a fascinating experience. I sincerely hope it will lead to a more interesting dialogue with policy-makers about what this country needs if it is to produce both well-educated and scientifically-confident citizens as well as the scientists of tomorrow. But I will leave detailed discussion of the report until after its launch.

Both through the preparation of this report and more generally as Education Committee Chair I have had opportunities for interactions with policy-makers that had not come my way before. I wish they had. It has certainly been enlightening, though the experiences have not always been comfortable and occasionally positively surreal. What motivates ministers and civil servants can be very different from what a scientist would see as the ‘obvious’ driver and there is little point in pretending it is or could be otherwise. But unless you see this in action it is hard to appreciate how or why that should be.

To give one specific example of this let me cite the recently launched DfE initiative led, with all the best of intentions by the education minister Elizabeth Truss. This is the initiative which goes by the name of YourLife launched last month in an attempt to get more girls to stick with maths and physics at A levels and to consider careers in non-traditional fields notably engineering. How could that not be close to my heart? Its target age group is 14-16 year olds. When challenged as to why this age group was selected when career choices are often made, consciously or not, at the younger age of 11-12 (something research for the Vision Report threw up and so was fresh in my mind), a group of us were told that this was because they could then derive some easy metrics as to whether the Campaign was having any effect. So, for the policy-maker, quantifiable metrics and targets trump optimum outcomes in a very explicit way.

At one level, the purist scientist level, this is ridiculous but it makes perfect sense for the politician. That is why I believe we should be exposing many more of our talented young researchers to the world of policy through internships (such as at POST and GO-Science) and other more fleeting opportunities. It is why dialogues such as those that took place at the recent Circling the Square conference are important and why I’m excited to be involved with Cambridge University’s student-run Science Policy Exchange. It is too easy for scientists only to look at the ‘facts’ as they see it and not at the broader implications for those who have to implement them and sell them to their political masters or constituents.

I am quite sure my three and a half years leading on the Royal Society’s Education brief has improved my own education in ways I absolutely did not anticipate when initially invited to take on the role. I have, of course, learned much about schools, assessments, curricula and inspections. Those are the hard core facts I needed to be familiar with. But I have also learned, at least I hope I have, how to be more persuasive with those whose motivations are different, how to interpret nuanced civil-servant-speak and when to be blunt and insistent. I am quite sure on many occasions I have failed to hide impatience at what may seem unnecessary circumlocutions or evasiveness, but in other ways I have learned that going in feet first is often a stupid tactic however attractive it may seem at first sight. I have a long way to go in being a political master and, up to a point, I don’t want to be one, but the role has been challenging in a new way and immensely interesting.

You haven’t heard much about it on this blog because, as long as I could be thought to be the voice of the Royal Society on this front it would have been inappropriate to disclose much. You may hear more about it in the future now that I have stepped down. But what I can say is that it has absolutely reinforced my belief that, seizing opportunities is rarely a foolish thing to do even if what is being offered may feel not an immediately natural fit for what one has done before. I came to this role, not as an education expert but (I believe) regarded as a safe pair of hands to take the lead and as someone who wouldn’t, as it was put to me, ‘go native’: someone who could safely look after a major committee. I hope I have delivered against that. I am intensely grateful to those who had confidence in me and gave me, accidentally as it were, a new set of skills to take on to my next role.

Posted in Education, Science Policy | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Embedding the Gender Agenda

I feel as if I have been involved with gender issues forever, but this is just the bad habit one has of reimagining personal history. Probably acting wisely, in fact for most of my professional career I just got on with my physics trying not to focus on the fact that, as a woman, I was invariably in a small minority in any given room. Not infrequently that minority consisted solely of me, particularly relatively early on. It was in fact only in 2007 I engaged in my first explicitly gender-related role when I became Director of WiSETI, Cambridge University’s Women in Engineering, Science and Technology Initiative. To some extent I took this on in a fit of pique, prompted by circumstances that I needn’t bore you with but which were undoubtedly, at least in part, down to my gender being the ‘wrong’ one.

This autumn I will be stepping down as the University’s Gender Equality Champion, a role which seemed naturally to grow out of my involvement with WiSETI and the opportunities that provided for me to speak out about local issues, imbalances and inequities. Relinquishing this role, which I have formally been doing for 4 years, is part of my deliberate rebalancing of my ‘portfolio’ as I take up the reins at Churchill College. However, 4 years is probably a sensible stint: long enough to familiarise myself with the problems and the structures in which they are embedded; time to persuade others what might make a difference and to identify mechanisms which might make these changes possible. However I hope not so long that I have become jaded and ineffective. Nevertheless it will be good to have new people coming in with fresh perspectives.

One natural consequence of moving on is to reflect on what has and hasn’t been achieved that might have been on my initial ‘to do’ list had I had anything as concrete as that in mind when I started. And a recent meeting of the Council of the School of Physical Sciences (to which I am co-opted as a member of University Council, another role I will be relinquishing this autumn) encapsulated for me both where significant pleasing progress has been made and where we are still stuck. I can’t help feeling this little vignette must be playing out in similar ways in many situations around the HE sector, although exactly where each organisation is along the implicit timeline will no doubt vary.

At some point before I was a regular attendee at these meetings, I was invited along to discuss gender issues. That dates it to after 2007 when I became Director of WiSETi and before autumn 2009 when I joined University Council, so let’s say 2008: 6 years ago. At that time it was clear that in Physical Sciences (which in this context includes Maths both pure and applied, Geography, Materials Science and Earth Sciences as well as Physics and Chemistry) we had problems. Low numbers at every level, a leaky pipeline to make things worse and, from my own experience, some fairly ill-thought through practices at appointments and committees in general. I presented some facts, statistics and observations to what was (I’m 99% sure) an all-male group and was listened to politely. Yes, they agreed, it wasn’t really good enough was it. And then they moved on to the next item on the agenda. (Again, I may be rewriting things a bit here because I have no documentary evidence, but this is my strong impression). Gender issues were something separate, special, needed to be given air time but not actually of sufficient importance to register highly with anyone or to need to be a recurrent topic of discussion.

Contrast this with my experience last week. By this point the School has an Equality and Diversity (E+D) Forum which meets termly to discuss these and other diversity issues. A paper was presented by the current Chair, Anne Davies (Professor of Mathematical Physics) recommending that all individuals (academics and academic-related) involved in appointments should be required to take – and pass – the University’s online E+D training module. Discussion around the table showed that everyone was absolutely behind this and indeed pushed to see this strengthened and applied to all appointment levels, not just for staff appointments. This, to their minds, was a no-brainer. Progress indeed from the passive response I had received all those years ago. There is no longer the need to explain gender issues as something special; everyone round that table ‘gets’ it and knows we need to work even harder to make sure everyone else takes it on board too. The actual actions may seem small, but their significance is much greater and demonstrate that thinking about gender has become embedded in the collective psyche.

But, where things are less rosy is that that damn pipeline has not had long enough to stop leaking. The women round the table were me (co-opted), Anne presenting the paper, the Director of Education (Rachael Padman, who also happens to be a University Council member) and the School Finance Officer Susan Wright; the core of the Council of the School is heads of institution who are a nice homogenous bunch of white men, with the only non-white attendee being the School’s Deputy Secretary Kusam Leal, who happened to be absent that day. There has been a female head in the School, Susan Owens who last year completed her term as Head of Geography, but I think she has been the only one. Which comes back, not only to the crucial need for appointments committees to be aware of gender issues and unconscious bias when individuals are first appointed, but for departments collectively to be aware of these factors when our wonderfully obscure and democratic Cambridge mechanisms for nominating new heads are whirring away. All the unconscious bias studies about the way women’s competence is judged are likely to be at play (see here for a recent summary of the head hunters view of the gender angle in senior appointments), making it that much harder for any woman to assume such a senior role.

Cambridge more widely has certainly had some very notable female heads of department, including Ann Dowling (Engineering, who is now taking up the role of President of the Royal Academy of Engineering). But we have a long way to go and not just in the sciences. As recognition of this fact, my gender equality role will be strengthened as I step down, by splitting it. I have found it well nigh impossible to be familiar with the practices and culture in all the different parts of the university. To make this task more feasible two Champions will be appointed, one on the STEM side, one on the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences side. These individuals will be supported by School Champions, two from each of the six Schools: a male and a female. In this way a much more extensive network will be able to continue to press both centrally and on the local issues they see as most important.

I genuinely believe we are constructing a structure where equality issues will be properly addressed and mainstreamed. The momentum is, and should be, unstoppable. The commitment from the top is very real and the support the gender work has had from both the Vice Chancellor and Jeremy Sanders, the relevant PVC, has been wonderful. Fixing the problems will not come easily or fast, but there is a recognition across the University that the problems are real and mustn’t be ignored. Once upon a time these issues would have been seen as simply down to a bunch of whingeing women who needed to be placated but otherwise ignored. As an example of this somewhat naïve view I will, perhaps unfairly, single out a comment made to me by the then VC, Alec (now Lord) Broers after an early WiSETI dinner which he was hosting (thereby clearly demonstrating his commitment to what we were espousing) in the early 2000′s. I had been having a bit of a moan about local issues and was confronted with ‘But Athene, I thought we’d sorted Physics out when we made you Professor‘. We have moved on. I am quite sure neither he, nor anyone else, would think creating a single female professor was a solution to any particular part of the problem these days.

As I get ready to step down I do feel some optimism about the direction of travel.


Posted in Equality, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 2 Comments