What Works: A Review

My review of What Works Gender Equality by Design by Iris Bohnet can be found at Nature. This is a book that  is intended to be a guide to institutional action. I was somewhat underwhelmed, as my review makes plain. If you want a more positive take, you may also be interested in fellow Cantabrigian Victoria Bateman’s review in the Times Higher Education.

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Manifesto for Change

‘Science needs women’ proclaims the L’Oreal/UNESCO For Women in Science awards tagline. For the last 18 years the pairing has been awarding five laureates to women from different geographical regions around the world each year to celebrate (and publicise) their success. With L’Oreal’s effective PR machine, they are able to reach mainstream media in a way that most ‘women in science’ organisations fail to do. I know this from first-hand experience having been one of the 2009 Laureates who speedily found herself propelled into newspaper and radio interviews. This year’s ceremony was on Thursday evening and, alongside the awards a so-called Manifesto For Women in Science has also been launched. They are seeking a broad response supporting their six bullet points, although so far the number of signatories is disappointingly small.

As a matter of process I suspect this time their publicity may have been less than perfect. Although I was called to do several interviews on the back of it (e.g. here on the BBC World Service where you can hear a couple of minutes of a rather longer interview done, inconveniently, at 11pm last week), as no doubt others were around the world, the Manifesto itself seemed to get lost. It is easy enough to talk about the issues facing women in science, but at the level of the World Service interview it struck me how generic the problems were. We can talk about the challenges ad nauseam, but structurally society does not seem to want to do anything to remove the basic obstacles.

I heard Charlotte Proudman talk recently about the challenges for women in law. The specifics may be different from science but the basic problems are the same. You can read parallel description of the issues for women in the media, finance, medicine or, I suspect, any profession. The problems are obvious but collectively society (and not just the men) don’t seem to be able to move beyond them. Here are just a few of them, all things I have read about in the mainstream press pretty recently:

I could go on and produce a much longer list, but there is little point. We  know –  men and women –  that there are problems. Yet the will (or ability)  to change our society collectively seems weak. Science is just one specific place where the problems are obvious. Different science disciplines have slightly different flavours of issues, and at a specific level these may also differ from law or journalism. There are undoubtedly many things to be done. I sometimes think the sciences are ahead of the curve because – certainly in a subject like mine – the disparity in numbers is so grotesque from undergraduate level on that there is no hiding the fact. In Law or Medicine where numbers start out equal or even with a preponderance of women it is probably easier to pretend the problem is simply choicism, that women opt out rather than that systematically structures make it harder for them.

Now the latest social sciences study I’ve come across tells me that things are even worse than I feared: that women (or other minorities) are actually penalised for promoting equality, whereas (white and only white) men are not. So, if this is correct, the ‘rational’ thing for women to do is to be as nasty as possible to their minority friends. I sincerely hope women will go on being irrational on this front! I am well aware that, speaking personally, I have long since passed that point in my career where this is an issue – indeed that people make a virtue out of my championing of women in science – but, that earlier in a career those around you may mark you down for speaking up is horrendous. However, as with unconscious bias more generally, that can only be the case if we don’t appreciate that is what we’re doing.

When asked, as I often am, how things have changed during my life, it is very obvious that we have moved a long way. There are no longer formal barriers (I can recall quotas of women for medical schools for instance when my peers at school were applying), but informal ones are even harder to address. We can’t tear down invisible walls so easily, merely constantly bump into them. Sexism it seems to me is even more rampant, perhaps because the old-fashioned and patronising idea of ‘respect for the ladies’ has long since gone out of the window. Whereas I may be glad to see the retreat of condescension, the dominance of explicit sexism is hardly progress. We have a veneer of equality that for far too many women simply doesn’t translate into the lived reality. And this veneer means it is all too easy for the male who wants to bury his head in the sand or, worse, feels threatened by genuine equality and inclusivity, to continue to deny opportunity and due progression to 50% of our population.

There is no point getting angry, since this too often is simply misplaced energy and a waste. But there is every point in highlighting transgressions – small and large – whenever possible to emphasise the structural inequities that exist. The sad fact is, however, that too often circumstances mean that speaking out can backfire. Every genuine supporter of equality has to walk that tightrope. In the meantime, signing the L’Oreal Manifesto is one small action to spell out that enough is enough. We need to shout about the deep-seated societal problems and we need to do it loudly and persistently.


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Who Do You Care For?

The challenges associated with parental responsibilities are obvious and much-discussed. For many scientists they can seem overwhelming, limiting and sometimes ultimately career-destroying. The recent booklet published by the Royal Society (Parent Carer Scientist) that I wrote about before, attempts to bust some of the myths and show the many different ways individuals and families have found to cope. However, carer can convey a different set of responsibilities: caring for an older family member such as a parent, or even a sibling. The challenge of coping with these is every bit as taxing as caring for young children, albeit the manifestation can be rather different.

For my generation, caring for elderly relatives is likely to be the dominant responsibility but it can start much younger. I have had students who have suddenly found themselves thrust into situations where parental health becomes a big issue, disrupting their PhD studies, requiring frequent absences from the lab bench and draining their energies with anxieties for the future. Ill health, even death of a close relative, can hit anyone at any point and scientists are as susceptible as anyone to being thrown off balance by this.

Caring must be seen to encompass this much broader and, in general, less happy set of demands. If one is a parent of small children as well it is obviously going to be particularly distressing as limited energy and resources get pulled in too many directions simultaneously. For others it seems one has hardly seen the children leave their schooldays behind when a parent suddenly regresses from adulthood to childhood or at least dependency. Where is that happy moment when one is free of responsibilities, in this case?

What makes the situation liable to be particularly fraught is the lack of predictability. The father who is happily living independently but suddenly has a fall and needs nursing back to full mobility; the mother who may already be living with you as dementia takes hold but then starts wandering off and getting lost requiring multiple police interventions. An infection (and its treatment) that might be mild in a healthy adult can interfere with regular medication in the elderly and lead to all kinds of unanticipated consequences ranging from chronic anaemia to miserable confusion. There is no planning for these eventualities which always seem to blow up so as to coincide with a long-planned trip to the Far East , exam-marking or some other already pressured and difficult moment. In my case it was sitting on jury service as my mother underwent a knee replacement operation.  The care may need to be offered hundreds of miles away. How should a scientist (or any other professional) cope? How flexible can and should institutions be? My department was wonderfully accommodating when, more than a decade ago I went to spend a week in a hospice supporting a relative – but then I had no teaching duties at that precise point: it occurred outside term so that was easy. But no one questioned me about the time away nor tried to deduct pay. I was (and am) very grateful for their support.

We don’t talk about these issues. We should. These are not simply issues for women since they are just as likely to impact on adult sons as daughters. Our modern society does not provide a ready network of neighbours who can step in to plug a gap in caring or a handful of spinster relatives who can be summoned at will. Why not daycare for the elderly, I heard one fraught woman ask as she had to rush back home, again, to try to find her wandering and confused father whom she thought she had left safely in her home?

I have no solutions to offer. But we need to recognize that life will throw up obstacles of unexpected kinds and find ways to cope flexibly. Instead these topics seem somehow to be off limits. It was Sylvia Ann Hewlett who introduced me to the phrase ‘elder care’ in her book Off Ramps and On Ramps. She explores what holds professional women back, and what might be done so as not to lose so many talented women to the workforce, but elder care is actually a unisex issue. Just as with the Royal Society’s book of life stories, we should be willing to explore how to cope with the unexpected at whatever stage of your career life throws this curved ball at you.

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How Not to Chair a Committee

Whether as a student or a professor (or indeed at any level in between) I would suspect there isn’t a reader of this blog who hasn’t had to sit through a meeting of some type or other where the Chair has intensely irritated them somehow. There are of course a huge variety of ways to fail to chair a committee well. What follows are some descriptions of those failings I react worst to; in other words the six sins I see as most egregious. You may want to share some other experiences of your own in the comments. (I appreciate I am laying myself open to those who have suffered at my own hands to describe my foibles and worse, but so be it.)

1 Inadequate Preparation

Any committee member can turn up to a meeting not having found the time – minutes or often hours – necessary to read through the paperwork in advance. As a mere member it is easy enough to keep your head down, to rely on prior knowledge or native wit to get you through. Not so the Chair. If the Chair doesn’t know what’s on the agenda/in the paperwork or is fully aware of what else is going on relevant to the topics under discussion, it is improbable that things will go well. How often have you seen the Chair turn to the secretariat for help or simply pass the discussion across trying to disguise their own ignorance? If it is a clearly agreed tactic, discussed with the committee’s secretary in advance, of course that’s fine. If it arises from a position of weakness it means that the Chair is unlikely to have a firm grasp of the key issues that should be discussed and therefore may be at the mercy of the more Machiavellian committee members to steer debate and decisions in the directions they please.

2 Lack of control, including of committee members’ behaviour

I’ve written often enough on this blog about bad behaviour: people who are rude, overbearing, talk over others or make overtly inappropriate remarks (sexist or racist for instance). A good Chair will stamp on this at the outside. Not allow individuals to grandstand, to hog the limelight or to be derogatory about others. Point scoring in committees is all too common but should be eliminated: it really isn’t the way to reach good decisions. But even perfectly well-intentioned people may need judicious oversight. Perhaps they are too inclined to rabbit on inconclusively and need a reminder of the time, or maybe they are inaudible to half the room. A Chair who hasn’t fallen asleep can make a difference in quite a light touch way and make the session much more pleasant for all. Too often they fail to do so.

3 Being incapable of personally shutting up

This failing is a real bugbear of mine, because it is very hard to do anything about it. I have seen some extremely senior people fall into this trap. They probably were prone to do it everywhere but (perhaps mercifully) I didn’t have to endure it on multiple committees. Once was quite enough. Sometimes it is absolutely crucial for a Chair to set out a scenario very carefully, to explain the pros and cons of contrasting options or to talk the committee through some complicated legal niceties. The Chair needs to hold the floor then. But at other times the committee is there for a purpose: to discuss the matters under consideration and that requires them to have sufficient time to speak and to set out their own views. However it is a brave committee member who challenges the Chair to shut up in a situation like this! No doubt some Chairs talk incessantly deliberately, but others I suspect are completely oblivious of the fact that their waffle prevents genuine debate from ever getting going. In my experience Chairs who dominate the time in this way tend simply to cause their committee members to opt out and give up. Not the way to do constructive business.

4 Failure to keep to time or get through the agenda

When I’m going to Chair a meeting, particularly a new one or one with a complex agenda, I like to get a briefing from the Secretariat along with suggested timings. Or if it’s a grant-giving (or equivalent) to work out how far down the list of proposals I want to get by some obvious break or hour. It isn’t always possible to keep precisely to time, but at least with such a plan I have some idea of how far I’m deviating from it. It has to be said not all Chairs appear to follow such simple guidelines. Having observed a fresh Chair recently seem completely oblivious of the time brought this home to me. He seemed unfazed as one committee member left (at the time the meeting was scheduled to finish), another challenged him as to how long the meeting was going on for, and yet other members ostentatiously put their iPads away and took their reading glasses off. It was not an instructive scene. Personally, one of my major challenges is with those evening College meetings that are immediately succeeded by dinner. I haven’t yet had to keep the Fellows from their food, but it once came to a close-run thing. I don’t believe this was down to bad chairing (well, I wouldn’t, would I!) it was down to a particularly difficult decision we had to make, but I did try to make sure the debate kept moving on. We left the room with five minutes before the gong, literally, rang.

5 Inability to find a consensus or at least agree on next steps

When first taking on chairing responsibilities one key piece of advice I was given by a more experienced colleague was to make sure to allow enough time for discussion but be conscious of when the moment came to draw the debate to a close because a consensus (or near enough) had been reached. This can be a real challenge sometimes, but the Chair who doesn’t manage to do this is going to fail to come out of the meeting with anything very valuable. If general agreement is not forthcoming it is sometimes worth spelling out the sticking points and the consequences of different decisions – or indeed not making one at all. Making concrete what members may be only half aware are the logical outcomes of their positions can be helpful. But some Chairs allow discussions to go round, and round and round ad nauseam with no progress forthcoming, simply the same old chestnuts being worked over. Sometimes sleeping on a debate, accepting that folk need to go away and ponder more or do more digging around to get additional facts, is wise. Allowing old sores to be aired indefinitely is just aggravating for all concerned.

6 Regarding the committee as a personal rubber stamp

The last failing is when the Chair doesn’t actually want debate: they’ve decided what they want and they’re determined to drive it through regardless. In their view the committee is simply there as a governance fig leaf, although sometimes they go through the motions of allowing other views to be expressed (though not attended to). If the committee do have other views and are determined to press them, things can be uncomfortable. However in many cases the committee just throw up their collective hands and let the Chair get their way. This is not usually a good way to make decisions, unless the Chair is remarkably prescient.

Most people end up chairing committees without any formal instruction other than watching their predecessors. Too often such learning on the job actually only propagates bad practice. New Chairs (or even old hands) might wish to take advice from their most trusted colleagues as to whether they can improve and if so how. It is always useful to get an objective outsiders’ view. It may, however, be painful! Nevertheless, for the sake of your co-workers it may be pain worth enduring…..



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Dare to Dream: Parent Carer Scientist

This post first appeared here on the Huffington Post on 9th March 2016.

‘Science Needs Women’ says L’Oreal’s tagline succinctly for its For Women in Science Campaign. Science needs women to ensure the best science is done by the most talented individuals, whatever their gender. It needs women to be creative and to think laterally because currently far too many drop science prematurely at school. Even for those who stick with it post-18 the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ is still leaking despite many years of hard work by a wide range of organisations including WISE and the Institute of Physics. The challenge is particularly acute in the physical sciences, with only around 20% of A level entrants for physics being women. Without physics A level many university courses and careers are closed off, most notably the different strands of engineering.

The problems at school are largely cultural, being affected by societal and parental expectations as well as those of peers and teachers. Stereotypes abound. If girls are expected simply to wear pink and model themselves on Disney princesses they may be reluctant to admit to a burning love for mathematics or chemistry. Subsequently the societal problems are rather different. Far too often young women hear the message that a career in science and motherhood don’t mix, can’t mix. That it is ‘too difficult’ to combine the two, despite the evidence of many women to the contrary. Students believe this message. Despite being a professor and a mother of two, female students have said to my face ‘it can’t be done’.

In an attempt to demonstrate that what might be called ‘real life’ and a career in science can be combined, for women and men, the Royal Society has launched a new book in this week of International Women’s Day, highlighting the very different paths and solutions scientists at different stages in their careers have worked out. Single mothers, gay couples, those with disabilities and those in a more standard family setting are highlighted in the new publication. Parent Carer Scientist is the title of the book, a title which says it all. You can be all these things successfully and there is no ‘right’ way of doing it.

I think too often young women receive messages that say there is only one way to live your life, a nice linear progression from school to university, then into a career and a relationship. And if the relationship leads to children the presumption frequently seems to be that children are a ‘women’s problem’. There are so many things wrong with those two sentences! First of all, few people’s lives, however successful they may be, follow the ‘ideal’ model. Most people have setbacks be they personal or professional. You may get derailed for days, weeks months or even years if you are unlucky. You may be in the wrong place at the right time or the right place at the wrong time. Or, everything may go swimmingly until you break your leg (or worse), your parent dies or becomes dependent or your partner needs to move to the other end of the country. Life is never straightforward.

Furthermore, children do not turn up to order – there may be years of heartache first or they may turn up unplanned. They will almost invariably absorb more time and energy than is imaginable beforehand, as well as give more rewards. However, in the twenty first century children are not the mother’s problem. For couples they are the responsibility of both parents and the advent of shared parental leave in the UK makes this easier financially and practically.

The stories in the Royal Society book illustrate all these points, with vivid examples of scientists who have found their way through the maze of caring responsibilities and careers. No one is saying it is a trivial problem to crack. Every family is different. But it is time to move on from seeing success – in science or indeed in any other of the professions – as something that can only be achieved by giving up the rest of one’s life. As long as people continue to propagate that message we will, as a society, be effectively deterring many young women from flourishing. The business community will go on crying out for scientists and engineers. Young women will feel they cannot follow their dreams because these are incompatible with motherhood. Surely it is time we moved on. Read this book and be inspired. Share this book with your friends, your family and children to spread the word.

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