Where Can You Speak Out Safely?

The media is full of stories around men behaving inappropriately – or worse – currently. These range from #shirtstorm in the wake of Matt Taylor’s press conference regarding the successful landing of Philae (a sad distraction from the amazingly successful landing on the comet) to the video of a woman walking through New York subjected to incessant catcalling and the like. Academia is not exempt from bad behaviour and has its own horror stories and distressing tales. For instance, philosophy seems to have been having some particular problems (see e.g here  although this particular story contains so many twists it is hard to know what really went on, and here).

Even minor occurrences of sexism can prey on the mind of a victim long after the episode is closed. Did I invite this unwanted attention? What did I do that made this guy think it was OK to humiliate me publicly? How could I have handled that aggressive putdown better? Frequently there is no one that a victim feels comfortable talking to and they may have no desire to escalate matters into a formal complaint. Too often the victim of even the most egregious behaviour can be as much the loser in a tribunal hearing as the perpetrator. Petty behaviour can be very destructive if it persists. I have written before about the challenges that Philosophy in particular face, but when I asked readers of my blog back in 2012 to highlight (anonymously if they wanted) their own bad experiences in the sciences I got not a single reply. Does this mean all our colleagues are paragons of virtue? I don’t believe that, but it may indeed indicate that there is less need of a safety valve for our community than for philosophers who use the Feminist Philosophers website to share horror stories. I think this may be because issues of and for women in science are much discussed and have been for a number of years. Philosophy seems to have woken up to the problems rather recently. It would appear to be about on a par with the tech and gaming industry which seems, all too often, to possess a most unpleasant atmosphere for female coders.

Recently I have been introduced to a site for academics of any discipline to record thoughts and experiences about sexism in the workplace. This site, known as SASSY (Sharing Academic Sexism Stories with You) is based in Europe and comes with translations in Dutch, French, German and English. Its introduction states:

As fellow academics fed up with the everyday sexism that we have seen, heard and experienced, we have decided to create a safe platform to share stories of academic sexism.

In so doing, we hope to:

  1. create a space for those who have been harmed to express themselves,
  2. empower others to share their stories and challenge the structures that perpetuate this sexism, and
  3. better understand the problem in order to begin to act collectively to prevent it.

The originators of the site clearly feel that the more readers and the more stories they have, the greater use it will be. You may wish to look at it, possibly even comment. That’s what they are hoping for.

SASSY explicitly considers sexism rather than the more serious harassment cases. But sexist incidents are, if not endemic, all too common and depressing as well as deplorable. Just last week an overseas student was telling me how she had recently been accused of being ‘too pretty to be a neuroscientist‘. She wanted to know what sort of riposte she could have made. It’s an interesting question and the best answer I could come up with on the spot was to suggest she enquired what level of prettiness was appropriate for a scientist in her field. If she had had time, energy and inclination she could have debated the fundamental question of what skills a good neuroscientist actually needs, hoping in the process that the obnoxious individual involved would slowly realise what an irrelevance his remark was since looks wouldn’t feature in his list (but maybe I’m being too optimistic here).

Being talked over or ignored is all too common an experience for women, what in shorthand I’ve started to call the Miss Triggs problem after the old Punch cartoon. However, I recently came across an interesting variation of the punchline ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it’ which shows that such chauvinism is not always about sexism. The latest version I had referred to nationality in an EU context. Sitting on a committee in Europe the woman who told me the story said she had been told, after making some remark, ‘perhaps one of the other nationalities would like to make it‘. The story of the UK in Europe is a different kind of power balance from those associated with gender. Nevertheless the story reflects the fact that issues arise in the workplace for many reasons other than sexism.

We need to keep talking about the issues, calling out bad behaviour wherever it occurs (and whatever particular form of -ism is involved). We need safe spaces for individuals to talk about their experiences, to lessen the pain when these have been bad and to help them find and debate coping strategies. Above all we need to make sure that no majority continues to exclude, from any field of endeavour, those who aren’t just like them.




Posted in Equality, Science Culture | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

What Makes a Breakthrough?

Until a few days ago, I’d never really thought very much about the Breakthrough Prize, a huge collection of prizes created by Mark Zuckerberg and friends. Or, more precisely a smallish collection of huge prizes, the big ones each being worth $3M. However, there is nothing like a phone call from the BBC to concentrate the mind and to encourage a little research. You might think why would I bother to engage on this but, as it happened, when I was approached on Friday night I had just turned down a separate invitation from the Beeb. They had wanted me to nip up to Salford for a 7am Monday sofa chat to discuss YourLife (a Government initiative to encourage girls to stick with maths and physics) and I was feeling guilty that, as a female scientist, I perhaps wasn’t doing my bit to be a visible spokesperson. The reason I declined the Salford interview, actually on a topic much closer to my heart, was simple: geography. I hope Manchester scientists are doing their bit to engage with the BBC now that the studios are on their doorstep but it’s a nightmare of a journey from Cambridge at any time of day and a Breakfast show definitely means an overnight stay. On the other hand, I was in London on Monday anyhow and to fit in a quick visit (under half an hour in total) to Broadcasting House was easy.

So, what do I think about the Breakthrough Prize? You won’t know the answer since I doubt many of readers of my blog watch BBC World at half past two on a weekday afternoon. A few quotes were extracted from me by phone in advance having pulled me out of my morning meeting, not ideal circumstances to come up with a prescient and publishable soundbite. I am far from convinced that this Prize is the best way to go to ‘inspire the next generation’ which I believe is one of the instigators’ aims. I am all in favour of trying to do so but is ‘scientist as celebrity’ really an optimum strategy? What message does this give our young, other than that scientists look rather like the rest of the human race and are not permanently dressed in white lab coats. No, apparently they can don evening wear and smile at cameras if the price is right. (My OT coblogger Bob O’Hara has also commented negatively on this topic.)

I was very impressed by my interviewer Lucy Hockings. She (or at least her researcher) remembered that she had interviewed me a year ago in the wake of the Women’s Hour 100 women list which sadly lacked scientists amongst their number (I wrote about it here and you can see more about it here). She recalled the discussions we had had and why I felt there remain issues about attracting girls into subjects like physics, so I was able to give this topic airtime (and sneak in a bit about YourLife too) on the back of the Breakthrough Prize. It meant I actually said less about the Prize and more about education than perhaps I had expected.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t grudge these people their prizes. If, as winner Saul Perlmutter  said, they share the $3M out amongst the team that’s even better. But I would like to see the evidence that this is a good use of the money, not least because of the Hollywood glitz of the ceremony itself. The prize money may be eye-watering but we are not told what the rest of the bill for the evening added up to. With Hollywood stars such as Cameron Diaz and UK’s very own Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch handing out the prizes, even without the champagne things cannot have come cheap. How many disadvantaged kids could have attended summer courses at MIT for the price of all this? Even if just one of the celebs were invited along to such an MIT course to add that star-spangled glitz that the organisers assume is what is required to fire up the young, it would have been a bargain. Science on its own isn’t enough, it needs (apparently) glamour. No, I’m not convinced this is the best way forward.

On the other hand, we could look at how the Longitude Prize is setting about its outreach. This week sees the launch of its Schools Challenger competition, a chance for school children (age 11-16) to get stuck in. To my mind this is a much better way to reach out and inspire the next generation rather than aiming to convince them that scientists equate with celebrities. By and large scientists don’t and furthermore I don’t think we collectively would want to. Benedict Cumberbatch may have done the voiceover on Stephen Hawking’s Discovery Channel programme and be playing the part of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game but I don’t really see him as a fruitful role model for aspiring scientists. If we want to excite the young about science let’s make sure we have good science teachers, sensible curricula, plenty of extracurricular activities, adequate careers advice and visible – but genuine – role models. Glitz may inspire individuals for 24 hours but I don’t think it is likely to be a long-term wise investment, alhough it may reduce Zuckerberg’s taxes.


Posted in Communicating Science, Science Funding | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

When the Magic Falters

This autumn in Cambridge the weather has been rather kind. The trees around the College have been spectacular, reminding me of fall in New England, and until recently cycling has been possible without any sort of jacket as opposed to the layers of waterproofs normally requisite for this time of year. All this makes me recall my very first year in Cambridge, possibly these thoughts additionally prompted not just by the time of year but by the newness of my home, my surroundings, colleagues and tasks.

Arriving at university is momentous, an abrupt shift with the past particularly if one is leaving home for the first time. Finding one’s feet should be invigorating and inspiring. My memories are of looking around and wondering which of the freshers I saw on the street would be up for thoughtful chats about life, the universe and everything (although that particular phrase had not yet been coined, that was very much the sentiment). Who would I sit up with late at night dissecting the state of society and the rights and wrongs of a collegiate university? Or, more mundanely, was there anyone who understood the lectures and could help me grapple with the Cavendish Problems set that week for my supervision work? (If you’re unfamiliar with this it’s a slim tome full of mind-bendingly challenging if deceptively short little problems for physicists, created by Brian Pippard and colleagues.) Standing on the threshold as it were, life feels full of possibilities and opportunities; as long as this mood lasts, the sunshine is glorious and one is free and independent.

The trouble is that golden moment cannot last forever. The wind changes (my memory of cycling in and out from Girton was that it was always in my face, although this may be meteorologically improbable), the rain falls and the clouds descend upon the soul as well as the fens. At that point, one is liable to feel, not that the world is full of possibility but that it is full of impossible challenges. Suddenly, it isn’t that one hopes to find the soulmate with whom to solve the Cavendish problems, one simply hopes not to make a complete idiot of oneself for failing to do the work. Or worse, failing even to create the time to attempt the work because one has been seduced by too many new if irrelevant activities, such as joining the university’s Tiddlywink Club; yes there really is one and no I never joined. One no longer wants to sit up all night having sparkling conversations, one merely desperately wants sleep.

Sixth week blues (as it is known at least in this university) is common. I won’t say it is ubiquitous but it is a sign of coming down from a high to the realisation one still has responsibilities of a mundane kind, that eating fast food on the fly and consuming too much alcohol tends to reduce immunity to infection and that you are at university for a reason which does not include excessive use of Facebook to organise one’s social life (or playing endless games of tiddlywinks). Then the gloom can take over, maybe accompanied by a dash of impostor syndrome – what am I doing here? – or simply terror.

For a PhD student I think typically the blues set in a bit later, early in the second term. I know that’s what happened to me, a shocking thump of reality which sent me reeling. By then, you know what you’re meant to be doing (I would hope), but you probably don’t know how to do it. However smart you are, experimentally you are probably still a novice, possibly even a klutz. Things simply don’t work at the first, or even the ninth time of asking. There is no doubt that, although you may think you are absolutely following instructions, things are not always going to go to plan. It’s distressing. I’d assume there are theoretical/computational analogues to the experimental klutz situation, which I will leave the reader to fill in.

Blues can seem just as overwhelming as that first feeling of exhilaration upon arrival. They can be paralysing in their effect, which only serves to reinforce negative feelings. But they are also so common as to be almost normal. It is important for freshers to know their feelings of inadequacy and incompetence stem not necessarily from inadequacy and incompetence but from the cyclical way we tackle challenges. Knowing these feelings are common makes it easier to overcome. For some, the problems may indeed be more deep-rooted and if the feelings persist some external help should be sought. But, when sitting cowering under a duvet unwilling to face the winds of scary personal responsibility and actions as well as those billowing in from the East, it is important to distinguish reaction to a fresh start (accompanied by reaction to early excitements) from genuine depression and distress.

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Improvising As You Go

Just occasionally one sits down with a new book, starts to read and a great sense of calm, of recognition and of identification with the words in front of you descends. It’s all too rare but is wonderful when it happens. So it was with me when I read the opening pages of Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson, who incidentally (as far as this post goes, probably not in terms of the book) is Margaret Mead’s daughter. I have only read about three chapters so far, so possibly the later sections will disappoint me, but it is about her wise and enlightening words in the first chapter that I want to write which resonate strongly with things I often write about on this blog.

As the title suggests, her aim is to look at how lives develop despite setbacks, personal and professional, and how some people seem able to thrive whatever their circumstances. But people’s lives rarely progress in a straight line. Consider the following sentence:

‘We see achievement as purposeful and monolithic, like sculpting of a massive tree trunk that has first to be brought from the forest and then shaped by long labor to assert the artist’s vision, rather than something crafted from odds and ends, like a patchwork quilt, and lovingly used to warm different nights and bodies.’

Her sympathies are all with the crafting of a life from bits and pieces rather than those (few?) who simply move from A to B, knowing that B was always where they wanted to be, probably even having set a timescale to achieve this pinnacle of their aspirations. Some people may start off like that. Few I would wager actually manage such a straightforward passage, far fewer than the young setting out are likely to believe. For most of us, however successful we may look to others, there has been a substantial amount of crafting, reshaping, thinking again once one’s heart desire is snatched away and picking oneself off the floor amongst the detritus. I tend to write about this in the context of a scientific career. Bateson is obviously equally as interested in the way personal issues intervene: marriage and divorce, death or other personal calamities. But whatever the source of the obstacles that fate may toss in your direction, putting one’s life back together, even if in a very different shape from one’s initial dreams, is crucial to a satisfied and happy life. Improvisation, as Bateson puts it, is what it’s all about, constantly adjusting to new circumstances.

So, be you a young researcher single parent or a professor with a sudden burden of elder care to factor into the daily grind, it is constantly necessary to re-evaluate goals and the construction of one’s day-to-day life. Things never stay the same and, to my mind, it would be very boring if they did. Of course, when mired in the complexities of each day’s problems, it is hard to remember all this. But I like the image of a patchwork quilt to describe the reality of our existence, it seems far more plausible than the well-flighted arrow of popular self-help books. Of course Bateson’s thesis is (already by chapter 3) more subtle – and more explicitly gendered than I’ve just expressed it. Writing in the 1980’s she was particularly interested in how women’s roles and expectations were shifting from her mother’s generation’s views, but the idea of reinventing oneself to fit a changing landscape is clearly central.

All this seemed particularly pertinent given that at the weekend I was involved in a ‘speed mentoring’ event as part of Cambridge’s first WOW (Women of the World) Festival, serving as an offshoot of the successful WOW Festival initiated at London’s South Bank by its Director Jude Kelly. Speed mentoring is meant to give an opportunity for ‘mentees’ to raise issues and challenges with their ‘mentors’. 15 minutes of concentrated discussion on priorities, goals, hurdles and challenges – and then the mentees move on for another conversation with another mentor. My conversations, with people of all ages (in my case ranging from about 16-40 I would guess) had strong connections with the theme of the book. Individuals who felt they wanted to make changes in their life but needed to give themselves permission and be less hard on themselves if they were to make this change. People who also – too often – seemed to believe there was a single right answer to their dilemma and that someone with a magic wand could show them the way. It’s a feeling I recognize only too well, that strong desire for someone else to tell you the answer when actually it has to come from within. But, to use the language of the book, the mentees I spoke to also needed to recognize that life is not monolithic, that there may be opportunities that were unanticipated and that can open new vistas; also that there will be long-cherished goals that will not be met.

I found myself saying, that mantra I so often use in my talks to the (relatively) young ‘seize opportunities when they come your way’ but also tried to point out that just because they see my job title as intimidating and representing ‘success’, they should realise I got here by some odd diversions and certainly not in a straight line. That what I expected 10 years hence at 20, at 30 or even at 40 or 50, did not bear much relationship to what actually transpired. Improvisation, making-do. possibly even making-up can turn what might look like a dead end into something quite different. That dead end might be a dreadful boss, the ticking of an internal biological clock, the realisation that what had once satisfied no longer did or the demise of a relationship. But it doesn’t mean there is nowhere else to go to gain satisfaction or no possible course of action which might highlight a way out. But if you assume life is uniquely determined from start to finish you are less likely to be prepared to improvise with the materials to hand.

I hope the women I spoke to gained something. We weren’t meant to be advising so much as helping the mentee organise and clarify their thoughts. As I’ve said before, about a not-totally-dissimilar event, one never knows whether words will fall on fertile ground or softly and suddenly vanish away like a boojum. I know I felt I was connecting with their issues when they stopped and said, as several did, ‘that’s a good question’ because it means they were starting to look at their lives not as the same old treadmill but with different perspectives. Perhaps what one should really hope for is that one’s words at least do not deter or discourage. But a patchwork quilt of a life improvised on the hoof, a life full of interest but probably also pain, is not such a bad aspiration for a scientist or anyone else.


Posted in Careers | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Cambridge Admissions – Dispelling the Myths

Myths abound about admission to Cambridge, despite all attempts to put out some real hard facts (and similarly by Oxford). The interview process itself, which both universities use, seems to be shrouded in particular mystique. Cambridge has recently posted a new video to try to flesh out the reality of what it really is like; Oxford has put out some typical questions for a similar purpose. Fundamentally, interviews are not designed to trip candidates up but to draw them out. But anyhow the interview is not the be-all and end-all of the process and solid numbers and facts – rather than the perhaps slightly subjective feel of the interview or even the text of the personal statement – is at the bottom of decision-making (see a description of the Cambridge process from 2012 here). Objective measures such as AS level marks (particularly important for Cambridge) and comments from the school about the standing of the individual relative to the cohort count for a lot. This is the reason why Cambridge is so concerned about recent government decisions that will mean in the future marks from AS levels will no longer be available to college decision-makers. The background of the school and the average A level scores it gains are also important and admissions tutors will have extensive experience on this front.

People, particularly the media, love to hate Cambridge it seems to me. Whilst simultaneously berating the institutions for not doing enough to broaden access and widen participation, anyone who attends the universities is instantly branded as ‘elite’ or ‘a toff’. If someone from a tough comprehensive is admitted, as soon as they leave and enter the workforce their original pedigree is instantly eradicated, over-written as ‘merely’ Cambridge and therefore in some way suspected of being privileged. Churchill College, my new home, indeed has a proud record of admitting students from the state sector, with amongst the highest proportion of such students in the Cambridge colleges. But that isn’t to say it has admissions completely sorted; consequently I have been keen to look into our admissions in some detail.

We, as a college, may do well on the state sector front (admitting ca 70% of our students from such schools) but we have a problem around gender which needs further investigation. To some extent the problem is obvious: by statute we admit 70% of students in the science and engineering disciplines and, as I have frequently written about before, girls are woefully under-represented in subjects like Physics at A level. Churchill cannot admit girls to read engineering, for instance, if they haven’t taken that subject at A level. Superficially, the low numbers of girls we admit (ca 35%) can be explained away like this.

But that is an inadequate explanation overall for the low number of girls, as it turns out our applications are not always in line with the university average. Cambridge overall actually does well in comparison with the average applying through UCAS when it comes to girls reading engineering (nearly twice as well in fact, with 23.2 compared with 12.7%), but Churchill not only doesn’t match this figure it doesn’t see a conversion from applications into girls who go on to meet their offer. So, we have a dispiritingly low number of women studying engineering. We have disappointingly low numbers in maths too, but here Cambridge overall is way below the typical numbers in other universities. This last point is something that the university collectively has to look into, but the former is a problem for my college and we are actively seeking ways to improve the situation, for instance through the information we put out on the web and making sure our open days prove as attractive to girls as to boys.

But there are some other anomalies across the university which many admissions tutors are wrestling with. I have written previously about the challenge in subjects like Veterinary Science. Nationally this is strongly female-dominated with a UCAS percentage of applications of around 75% quoted. At Cambridge this figure is slightly lower, though not significantly so, and in Churchill it is lower still. Does this mean we are doing a good job of encouraging the minority, in this case boys, or does it mean that the college is actually unintentionally disfavouring girls? Questions such as these become very tricky to answer but need to be kept constantly in mind and apply to several different subjects.

Of course gender is not the only facet of diversity and one should be looking at all the other aspects too: amongst others, ethnic origin and socioeconomic background. The latter is hard to get at (socio-economic classifications are often based on out-of-date information and involve value-judgements) and information on it is not included on UCAS forms, but it is clearly central to widening participation (WP) in general. Suffice it to say that all Cambridge colleges put a lot of effort into WP, sending people into traditionally low-attainment schools in order to try to raise aspirations and convince them that, if they’re outstanding students they would enjoy and benefit from what we have to offer. At what age you need to start doing this is a difficult question, but almost certainly aspiration-raising should begin by the start of secondary school. If teachers and parents don’t encourage children to aim high, or worse actively discourage those who do aspire, it is very hard for any university to overturn such attitudes. Organisations such as IntoUniversity do try, as do the college admissions tutors, but it is a big ask.

Overall there is no evidence that BME (black and minority ethnic) applicants are disadvantaged by the university, but that high level figure may mask large differences between those applying from different backgrounds. (In UCAS ethnicity is self-defined and disclosure is naturally voluntary. This is another area of background information that is not available to universities at point of selection.) As the recent Royal Society diversity report on the scientific workforce indicated, the situation is extremely complicated when it comes to different ethnicities and, for a single college it is all but impossible to disentangle any significant effects because the numbers are so small. This isn’t an excuse not to try, and most certainly everyone is aware of the issues, but it is a challenge to make much sense of the numbers.

As the incoming Master of Churchill, with my prior track record around gender issues, I am very conscious the fellowship is looking to me to help to improve the numbers of girls applying to the college. Currently the figure on applications stands at around 25% girls, so our actual intake shows our focus on ability means we are certainly not disadvantaging them. Nevertheless, we need to increase the applications from girls in the first place. There seems to be a tremendous will to work on all aspects of admissions to translate this goal into effective strategies. The first task was inevitably to gather the evidence; this has already been done. Now we just have to implement actions that translate the will into improvements year by year. This will take longer! But whatever we do, once a candidate applies the college will always stick with the emphasis of looking objectively at the numbers (AS grades, school averages, GCSE scores etc) and not rely significantly on subjective measures as to whether an individual looks ‘right’ for Cambridge. That latter sort of action may be part of the mythology but it is not the reality of Cambridge admissions.


Posted in Education, Equality | Tagged , , | 20 Comments