What makes for a Toxic Environment?

Toxic atmospheres have been in the news recently in the wake of an NHS report on a low-performing cardiac unit in London. All the articles I’ve read on this are short on detail of what actually happened. ‘Dark forces’ are mentioned, reminiscent of a Tolkien nove,l but they don’t actually give much insight into what – beyond rivalry between two teams – was actually going on. Toxic atmospheres are, however, not simply restricted to polluted cities (literally) or the NHS. They turn up in many workplaces, whether academic or not. The only way round them is good and strong leadership which is willing to bite the bullet, either by reassigning roles or banging heads together.  In universities actually sacking anyone is remarkably difficult, short of criminal behaviour or (I assume this still counts) what used to be referred to as ‘gross moral turpitude’.

Toxic atmospheres can arise in many different ways, unfortunately, and human nature being what it is competition often is at the root of it, as it seems to be in this recent NHS case. But such rivalry, probably arising near the top, will affect everyone and quite possibly the most lowly (or, in the NHS case, the patients) suffer the worst. In other words, PhD students or technicians may be the ones who get sucked into other people’s damaging feuds, not to mention the administrators who are often left to pick up the pieces.

What follows are examples I have seen in departments across my own university and others, with all identifying indicators I hope removed! This is not meant to be a name-and-shame post, so much as one for reflection.

One classic example arose in a fairly small department which had, if you like, two philosophies about how their discipline should be handled. Should it be all about the underlying science or the applications thereof? Because it was a small department it was possible for it to be essentially riven in two and, as the head of department of the time shifted from one side of that divide to the other, the balance of power also shifted. It was not healthy because, inevitably in such an unwholesome situation, the folk lower down the food chain were jostling for position. My guess is that students and postdocs were only too aware of what was happening and felt anxious about proving their ‘loyalty’ to their own side.  That is not going to create an atmosphere where the best research will get done, if you are always looking over your shoulder or nervous that the space for your equipment might be removed and given to ‘the other side’.

Laboratory space is, unfortunately, only too often a symbol of who has the power or the ear of the powers that be. Back in 1998, when female faculty at MIT first raised the issue of whether there was parity of treatment with their male colleagues and an investigation was initiated, the report made clear that on average women were indeed allocated less space as well as were paid lower salaries.  This was a key moment in the discussion about gender equality in academic science, when hard evidence demonstrated that there was a systematic bias against women. (It was also when I first realised perhaps some of my own struggles derived not from my incompetence but from my gender.)

But allocating less space to those least likely to shout loudly persists to this day, whether on the basis of gender or any other indicator of apparent lower status. You might argue that less grant income requires less space, so those who are awarded fewer grants deserve less, but there is always the danger that this becomes a vicious circle. Those with less space, if assuming appropriate responsibility, may feel that they should not take on too many students and are hence less able to get new results to feed into the next grant application. It is a classic case of the Matthew effect and most certainly is not always justified. In my own experience, it is unfortunately those who shout loudest who win out – on space or other resources – not those who are most deserving by a range of figures of merit, often including those concerning service to a department.

I once watched a head of department concede a lectureship slot to a powerful professor (who left the relevant department shortly afterwards because he still didn’t feel he was appreciated enough), when the scientific and strategic case for the position to go in that direction was, shall we say, extremely weak. Another area – allegedly a growth area in the department – was overlooked because the head of the group was clearly not seen as obnoxious enough to be a threat. What sort of message does that give to the department as a whole? A weak head of department who can be bullied by he (and it was a he) who shouts loudest is immensely damaging to the overall atmosphere.

Indeed, any sense of there being an ‘in-crowd’ who can put pressure on a leader, or who has some hold over them (if you don’t give me what I want I’ll leave before the next REF would be an obvious example) is likely to lead to all kinds of underlying grievances. A head who does not handle wrong-doing of whatever sort in an effective way will lose respect and facilitate dissension lower down; once again this is liable to promote a toxic work atmosphere for the many. I would suggest that complaints of bullying or harassment (for instance sexual or racial in origin) that are not dealt with swiftly would come into this category, as well as favouritism over who gets space or posts and, unfortunately, also who gets promoted.

It is interesting to note that historically in Cambridge, in a bid to overcome personal prejudice in a head of department – which was known to be occurring – the process around promotion was changed so that applications came from the individual and not from the head. Some time later it was spotted this meant that those who were putting themselves forward were not always the most deserving candidates and many departments internally changed things again so that the head of department talked to all potential candidates to give them what one hopes was a fair assessment of their chances. An individual could still act unilaterally; in some cases I know some did go against the advice of their head – and still found themselves promoted, to their joy. I merely use this anecdote to demonstrate that what looks like a fix may in itself create other problems which require different fixes.

The bottom line is it is my belief that any head of department who sits back and presides over an atmosphere where junior, and indeed not-so-junior staff, feel they have little desire to come into work every day should be feeling very worried. Toxic atmospheres invariably have a root cause and looking the other way is unlikely to be a long term solution. The REF will come and bite you, or the financial system of a university which examines how much grant income is being won or how many PhD students wish to come and work there. There are many figures of merit (whatever I may feel about metrics overall) which should be seen as worrying indicators a department has sunk below an acceptable level of ease in which to work. Heads of department take note.

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Diversity in the HE Sector

When I was a harried mother, trying to maintain some sort of work-life balance while running a research group and keeping family fed and watered alongside my husband, I had no energy left for reading. Aga sagas, chick-lit and general lightweight airport reading was all I could summon the energy to tuck into.  Now my children have long since left home and ‘all’ I have to do is my day-job, my reading has got a bit more serious. This is not necessarily a good thing; it frequently leaves me depressed, or simply aware of the great gaps in my knowledge.

One of those gaps is definitely economics, and I’ve been trying to apply myself to the subject more recently, with books ranging from Inequality by the Churchill alum and Honorary Fellow  the late Tony Atkinson, via Capitalism without Capital (Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake) to GDP: A brief but affectionate history by my colleague at Churchill and new Bennett Professor of Public Policy Diane Coyle. I hope I have absorbed a tiny fraction of these books (although I must confess I have not yet finished the first, although it was also the first I started). Our times definitely call for all of us to have some inkling of what the government thinks it’s doing with our futures – economic and otherwise – where the productivity paradox is heading (and why we have it worse than other nations) and, more local to the HE Sector, what pensions valuations are all about as we head for another apparent show-down in the autumn about USS.

Coupled with this diet of economics I also read David Willett’s book A University Education. Parts of this are excellent, but I found the middle session on his ideological drive towards student loans did not chime with my views and that his attitude towards why tertiary education was more important than first years smacked of cherry-picking evidence. He seemed to amalgamate all degrees as equivalent – a dangerous position for the sector, the individual and the economy – and imply that everyone can benefit if we just open up the sector enough. The trouble with this approach is that a kid who starts primary school at a disadvantage because of family circumstances, or who consistently resists authority – and therefore learning – in the classroom perhaps because they have suffered a lifetime of abuse, is not going to be in a position to benefit from tertiary education of any sort. Potentially they might have been able to if their reading level had ever got beyond that of a 10 year old, but without that security in early years’ learning it is futile to think going to university is suddenly going to change their own life chances; or indeed to analyse what they might be able to offer the economy.

I am quite sure there are still 18 year olds in this country who could benefit from tertiary education, but it does not make sense to expect them all to want to go to the same kind of university. The sector is not homogeneous, nor should we want it to be. And for some kids, aspiring to any sort of university is meaningless without a sure foundation started in early years’ schooling (and quite possibly earlier than that).

However, where I think Willetts is compelling is in asking us – as many have before, including Cardinal Newman and, much more recently, Stefan Collini with many in between – what do we want of our universities: who should they be educating in what under which financial model? Which takes me back to economics. If more tertiary education is what will solve the productivity paradox, then we should be saying bring it on. The evidence of the difference it makes to growing and developing economies and nations is convincing, as Willetts indicates. But in an economy with already nearly half its 18 year olds going to university it isn’t so clear what the added value is. Maybe it is more kids staying on post-16 and gaining strong but basic numeracy and IT skills and applying them with confidence. Maybe FE is as important for a productive economy as HE and investment there may be more beneficial pound for pound currently than directed towards some of the newer universities currently struggling financially.

And ‘value for money’ is a phrase popular with the (relatively) new HE minister Sam Gyimah. It is a phrase that makes me wince. How does one put a (financial) value on education? Having read around a bit more about economics, I am now more familiar with Baumol’s cost disease on productivity. This was originally posed in the context of a string quartet. Such musicians cannot get more productive by playing twice as many Mozart quartets by playing them twice as fast, so that their ‘service’ outputs will not be able to increase in the way that Asda or Amazon might expect its own operatives to manage.  So, for a university lecturer, what would amount to increased productivity? I’m afraid the simple answer is ‘bums on seats’ that well-worn phrase for piling students into the lecture theatre. But, if the students don’t manage to learn anything, or never appreciate how to structure an argument because little of their written work gets marked, is that ‘value for money’? I think not.

Judging whether students learn by what they earn six months after graduation is a meaningless measure as are –as is widely accepted now – student satisfaction surveys. But graduate income seems alarmingly close to being accepted as a good proxy for value and is part of the deplorable direction of travel about marketization of the sector. To be fair to Gyimah’s predecessor but one in the ministerial role, he does not suggest this solution in his book, but I am one of the hordes of academics worried that universities are going to be judged by daft criteria. In Cambridge I am told by the Careers Service that (at least for women) the most popular sector to seek a first job in is the charity sector, not renowned for being able to pay massive salaries. It does not mean their education did not provide value for money because that is their predilection for a career.

All of us in the sector need to be engaging with this debate about what we are ‘for’, who we should be educating and for what purpose. But does it make sense to measure every university in the same way when our goals may be very different? This is not simply a Cambridge academic trying to do a bit of special pleading for our own distinctive system, it is a reflection of the fact that some universities have very different goals in what they are trying to achieve and we should celebrate that.

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Are universities finally moving towards their #MeToo moment?

I have been away from my computer for over a week, but while I was away a piece I wrote previously for the Guardian HE Network has appeared regarding sexism in academic science. So, for my latest thoughts on this and what we should all be trying to do, follow this link.

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Judging on Potential (or Not)

I was trying to lay my hands on a quote I heard recently on the radio about creativity by Wolfgang von Goethe to kickstart this blogpost, and instead (amongst 100’s of others of his quotes) I came upon this:

‘Girls we love for what they are; young men for what they promise to be.’

Written around two centuries ago, this habit of acknowledging the potential of men to become something other (and implicitly greater) than they appear to be today whereas women can be no more than they currently are, is clearly of long-standing. In an academic framework this is tantamount to saying that women must already have accomplished the great things in life before they can be appointed/promoted/respected but men, hey, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. That view seems to go back rather further than I might have believed possible. Yes I know the context in which Goethe intended his remark to be considered is bound to be very different from modern academia. Nevertheless I suspect this idea of loving young men for what they might be going to be probably goes back (again in a rather different context) to the Greeks’ attitude towards catamites, whether considered within a Platonic ideal or not.

Women can only be what they are: they are apparently debarred from having potential. Young men, on the other hand, can be imagined to be anything you want, including the next high-flyer for rapid promotion. Evidence, in an extreme version of this position, may simply not be required. They went to the right school/studied at the feet of the right man and therefore they are ‘one of us’ (well obviously not ‘us’, because I am not one of them on this front) and All Right, whatever their demonstrated competence may be. I am putting this in an extreme way to demonstrate, by reductio ad absurdum, just what a nonsensical way of proceeding this is.

Further searching of the web for my elusive Goethe quote then threw up

“When we treat man as he is, we make him worse than he is; when we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be.”

Again, think just how much this resonates with how we treat the genders differently at the present time. In the first sentence replace man with woman – who we are going to treat as they are because, as Goethe has indicated, we don’t think they have potential and then, by his own logic we make them ‘worse than (s)he is’. Isn’t that too often the outcome? That women are going to be marked down, but yet again we give the man the benefit of the doubt.

Read these quotes and paragraphs in the context of the gender differences in the success rates of women and men in the UK (CRUK or RCUK) or Canada . A quick search shows, as at the ERC, the gender differences are beginning to disappear as people are becoming more aware of their own biases and those of referees, but nevertheless it is hard to imagine we have yet eradicated this idea of a man with potential and a woman who is only as good as what she has already done. Time and again these hidden variables lurk in judgements that are apparently only about ‘merit’ and ‘excellence’.

I have used the pair of referee quotes below before in talks. They stick with me because of their stark difference in attitude to a particular man and a particular woman. They are taken verbatim from referees’ comments to a promotion panel, to indicate the extraordinary lengths some writers go to present the hard evidence and then nuance their conclusions the way they want to go almost regardless of what they have just written.

Woman A: ‘ a consistent output of more than a dozen papers per year, despite a period of maternity leave and currently working less than full time; more than £2M of current research funding held as PI….however she is still at a relatively early stage of her career and this makes me uncomfortable about recommending her….

Man B: ‘I should comment on the fact that all but 3 of B’s recent publications do not include Y [his mentor, still in the same department] as a co-author. However for about half of these B appears to be the senior author, and presumably the intellectual driving force behind the work….my overall view is that…he is highly deserving…’

Panels, individuals (as referees) and each and every one of us when we look at a PhD student or researcher we are in a position to ‘judge’, informally or formally, should be very aware of the mental traps we could be falling into. Judging women on performance and men on potential is simply one such trap. The Royal Society has just produced a neat guide to help us on our way when forming composite opinions in groups made up, inevitably, of individuals. Relevant to any decision-making process (about other people or about science itself) is the statement to be found in this guide: high confidence does not always imply greater knowledge. I am sure at a certain level we all know this but it is so easy to be fooled by the over-confident person who may in fact turn out to be pig-ignorant. Who, at a meeting has not watched some poised and assertive character talk down the genuine expert (mansplaining is of course just one manifestation of this unpleasant trait).

Finally I found the quote I had been trying to track down in the first place by calling up iPlayer and trying to work out where, in a three hour programme, I had heard the phrases I sought:

The very hardest thinking will not bring thoughts. They must come like good children of god and cry here we are. Only once you’ve given up thinking do ideas come soldiering in with their hands in their pockets.

I can’t actually find the quote on the web myself, so I’ve transcribed it from Sarah Walker’s words, but if Radio 3 says it’s true I assume it is (accuracy of translation permitting). I will need to return to this quote at a later date, to write the blog I thought I was sitting down to write this time….


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A Lifetime of Music

It is inevitable that as one gets older the deaths of people who have meant a great deal to you happen more and more often. I have written in the past years about the death of two key mentors of mine as well as my own mother. This week I heard of another death of someone who had a profound impact on me half a century ago, my music master from my secondary school. Obviously he was a lot further removed from my daily life, but nevertheless his death stirs up all kinds of memories of those formative years. And he himself played such a large part in my adolescence.

Peter Morgan came to my girls grammar school (Camden School for Girls, still going strong as a comprehensive and now with a mixed sixth form) I would guess in 1966. I am afraid to say my first comment on him in my childish script in my diary (which is still in my possession) says of the first class with him ‘he is very peculiar’. I did not elaborate further, but perhaps what I really meant was that he was a man, the only male teacher in the entire school. It must have been a shock to our young female minds – and quite possibly the school was a shock to his mind too. He gets no further explicit mention all the rest of the term, but he was certainly shaking things up. With my interest in women in STEM and the challenges they face from being a minority, I now wish I had asked him what it felt like to be that lone man amongst 700 teenage girls and the accompanying cohort of teachers. If it fazed him it never showed, although later on he did introduce a sprinkling of other male musicians to coach different aspects of the school music, including a very young and dashing Nicholas Kraemer to play the harpsichord in some of the early music that Peter loved.

I have no idea what induced him to join the school but it turned out that there were some amazing musicians – a number of whom went on to highly successful professional careers including the composer Sally Beamish – so that he had good material to work with. It wasn’t particularly obvious beforehand since most of them had been deliberately hiding their lights under a bushel to avoid having to deal with the previous and uninspiring music teacher. By the time he arrived, I had been learning the viola for one year and was certainly no great shakes as a musician myself. But, I was a viola player, essentially the only one kicking around in the school at that time. There is nothing like being a rare breed to get opportunities and as, many years later I discussed with Michael Berkeley on Radio 3’s Private Passions, I believe there are strange parallels between being a female physicist – sometimes in demand because ‘we’ve got to have a woman’ (be it on committee or the invited speaker list) – and being a viola player when there are many violins and cellos but few violists. Certainly I got some amazing opportunities, under Peter’s brave leadership, to take part in stunning pieces of music and to play with all the gifted people around me who had to put up with my poor efforts.

That first term he was in the school he immediately started to shake things up. I can still remember our stunned reaction the first time he played the majestic introduction to Jerusalem, drawing sounds from the piano that I doubt had ever been heard in the school hall before.  He not only revived the orchestra, a motley collection of ill-assorted instrumentalists but which was led to stunning effect by the late Mica Comberti, already by then (I think) a member of the National Youth Orchestra, but he also created a chamber orchestra. That very first term they – well we, because I was incorporated into this gifted bunch even if I often literally didn’t know where I was on the page – played Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto with Mica and an exceptional flautist called Janet Sparrow. In the actual concert I was simply blown away by the harpsichord solo in the first movement (not heard during rehearsals as it is didn’t require the rest of us), played by a piano teacher and not a pupil. I had never heard such rapidity and elegance. But, enough was enough and I said at that point that I was going to leave the chamber orchestra until I got to at least Grade 5 (I had by then just scraped through Grade 3). I felt too embarrassed to stay.

Meanwhile the choir was also being stretched, with Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and, a year later we participated in a massed school choir’s performance of the Mozart Requiem with the late, great David Willcocks as conductor at Central Hall. We were so well drilled I could probably still sing large chunks of this without music (had I still got any singing voice left). It was an amazing experience to participate in; I was, astonishingly, only 13 when I had this fantastic opportunity and all down to Peter.

Meanwhile his ambitions for the school instrumentalists did not diminish; nor the opportunities for a jobbing viola player. There was professional coaching from Hugh Maguire’s (leader of the LSO) big, bearded, double-bass playing brother Francis as a group of us played Schubert’s String Quintet (I was by then in the sixth form, aka Y12), another stunning piece of music that knocked me for six. Two years after the Mozart Requiem the massed choirs sang Handel’s Samson. This for me was bittersweet. There was also a combined school’s orchestra and I lost my fight to be allowed to sing: no, Peter was determined I was needed as a viola player. It became a battle between us throughout the sixth form, sometimes going one way (I was allowed to sing the Mozart C Minor Mass) and sometimes, as with Samson, the other.

All the musical opportunities given to me meant my viola playing came on by leaps and bounds; there was just so much to do and so much to learn. By the end of 1968 a whole bunch of us auditioned for the London Schools Symphony Orchestra with his encouragement and, much to my surprise, I was accepted. Looking back I realise perhaps this was the first time I learnt the lesson of not allowing fear to lead to paralysis or a refusal to take a risk. My first reaction when Peter went round asking instrumentalists if they wanted to audition was to say no, absolutely not. I had been learning only just over 3 years by then and was surrounded by the Mica’s of this world (who of course did not audition, but stayed near the top of the NYO) so I knew my limitations.

Nevertheless, with encouragement I went ahead and, as a consequence, had an absolute ball in the LSSO. Back-achingly hard work (a viola is a heavy instrument) of days of rehearsals of full-on music: the first concert after a holiday course of a few days included Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses and Kodaly’s Peacock Variations, pieces of music requiring a large orchestra which we certainly were. I’m not sure if the concert at the end of that course was in the Royal Festival Hall, but we certainly played there a few times during my couple of years in the orchestra.  We also went on tour to Germany and played in the Berlin Philarmonie Hall. I felt, still feel, so privileged to have been given all this. I wish current school children had as many opportunities (it is perhaps worth pointing out much of my musical tuition – in viola, piano and theory – was paid for by the local authority back then, once I’d reached a certain standard). Having that resource as my relaxation was brilliant at the time; the love it gave me for classical music has lasted the rest of my life.

However, it wasn’t just the actual music-making that I feel this inspirational teacher gave me. He gave me something at least as important in that I finally found a community under his leadership. When choices about O Levels were made, it never even crossed my mind to do music; there were those who already showed their talents and I had not yet got sucked in. At 13 or 14 I was an oddball who loved physics (probably the only girl in my year who could have said that, although we had an excellent teacher) and was treated accordingly as an oddity to be left well alone. I was also a year younger than the rest of my year at a time in adolescence when that age gap was massively important and, by implication, damaging to my social being.

By the time I was a leading light in the choir and orchestra in the sixth form I had a new community of friends, for whom age was irrelevant. We were going to make the best music we could. It consumed me and I spent far more time on music than on any one of my A level subjects. Furthermore, it gave me confidence – particularly socially – which I otherwise sadly lacked. I learnt that I could put my bow on the strings and make a decent noise (to begin with in concerts it seemed safer not to make such contact in case anyone heard me). And, perhaps as important as anything, Peter treated all of us as adults who were in this with him. He was the magician who coaxed the music out of us, but he never patronised us, he simply held us together. I am sure we were all a little in love with this man who could dream up such amazing things for us to do.

When I did Private Passions, or indeed when earlier I had recorded Desert Island Discs, the music I chose came largely from this period. When asked for my playlist for the latter the Mozart Requiem was the first piece that I settled on and when the programme was recorded I talked a lot about those teenage years and just what a difference the arrival of Peter in the school meant. At that point we re-established contact for a few years, exchanging Christmas letters. I never went to see him. Now I never will.

RIP Peter Morgan – whose dates I cannot list because, as with children and teachers, I have absolutely no idea how old he was when he joined the school. He had grey hair, a giant mop of it. To a teenager he must have been old already!


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