On the Email Mountain

August is a quiet month on the email front. Few committee meetings are occurring to clog up the inbox with their multiple attachments of papers. Plus many people are away from their own computers during the school holidays and they probably don’t want to be caught sneaking peeks at their smart phones or tossing off a quick response when they’re meant to be relaxing. So, for those of us not on our holidays during the month, incoming traffic slows down.

You might have thought that that would mean it was easier to keep on top of the few messages that do arrive but I’ve realised I’m actually doing worse on this front. Emails that deserve an answer are languishing without a response and my turn-around is slower than usual, not quicker. (Apologies if yours is one of the ones sitting there unanswered). Why? I think I’ve rationalised this: I actually have time to do some uninterrupted thinking, read some papers and scribble wild thoughts on paper the way I used to do when other responsibilities didn’t intervene. My office is even more untidy than usual. It’s strewn with print-outs – I’m old-fashioned enough still to prefer to read hard copy at times like this, so I can easily flick between different papers as I pull my thoughts together – and recycled paper on which I’ve jotted down ill-thought through ideas as I attempt to join some conceptual dots. I worry my quiet season will finish far too soon for anything concrete to emerge in a useful way, but it does make a pleasant change from the usual rushing from the pillar that is one committee meeting to the post that is another. However, the brief gaps between these pillars and posts are clearly exactly when I toss off quick replies to the email mountain.

However, there’s something slightly strange about those emails I have been sending. Several of them have been quite cross and I’ve had to think hard about my words. I don’t want to write to a professorial colleague, you’re being hopelessly naïve. I don’t think that that word would have the desired effect at all and, after a lot of mental tossing around of alternatives I came up with ‘optimistic’ as the least offensive way of expressing the naivety I saw. I might as well not have bothered: the chap’s on holiday for weeks.

It is never nice to tick people off. As a supervisor one of the hardest things is to say to a student pull your socks up or, even worse, you’re not cut out for research and you should be looking outside academia for your next move. It’s a conversation I hate to have but sometimes it’s necessary. It is certainly not a dialogue that can be had by email. It has to be face to face. But sometimes a less serious but critical exchange can and has to be had by email and I’ve had a couple of those too in the past week.

If I’m going to be cross in a controlled way by email I try to remember never to send it as soon as I’ve written it. That control of language tends to work better if you read the message through several times to check how it comes across. Saying you are horrified/fed up/angry with someone’s behaviour is probably best watered down a bit to something less hostile. I chose ‘dismayed’ as a suitably measured alternative this week. I felt it expressed annoyance without going over the top. Whether it was received that way – who knows (although an apologetic email was the instant response)?

Emails do seem particularly prone to being open to misinterpretation. I guess it is such an instant medium that too often we shoot off a response without reading it through. However, probably one of the ostensibly rudest ones I ever received was clearly unintentional. I can’t reproduce it here because, probably fortunately, I have forgotten the exact turn of words. Whatever it was, it came from a German colleague who was completely unaware of the idiomatic nuances. However apparently proficient in spoken English he was, the phrase he wrote in a language not his own conveyed an anger and tone of complaint that was not matched by the surrounding text. They were words that would have been utterly offensive if written by a native-speaker. I did point this out to him so that he might not fall into the same trap again. No doubt, however often he might have read through what he wrote he wouldn’t have picked up the offence implied, but I hope it sank in for future reference.   This isn’t the case for many of us much of the time. It really does behove us to check our tone and look out for unintended insults! I have before now acted as a sanity-checker of emails from other non-native speakers who know only too well that what looks innocent to them can cause affront to another. Sometimes we might all benefit from such cross-checking.

So, I need to work at the language of my replies; and I need to work at actually replying at all, raising my head from the rare treat of having hours when I can get stuck into some real brain work.


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Transparency versus Diversity

Within the EU, Commissioner Neelie Kroes is leading the push to have a Commission with a female contingent that is at least beginning to be representative of the population. Her call for #TenOrMore women commissioners doesn’t sound unreasonable: it would still only amount to around 30% of them and is roughly the composition of José Manuel Barosso’s current Commission. In seeking a new group of commissioners, each country makes its own suggestions and therefore does so independently. The last time I saw the current list it was, as someone put it on Twitter, worse than the make-up of the Saudi Arabian Parliament: 4 female names and 19 men’s. Kroes’ call is unlikely to be met unless Jean-Claude Juncker does something forceful about the nominations.

This is very much the same as happens with slates of speakers for conferences. Each person charged with coming up with a name or two for the invited and plenary speakers is likely to think of some obvious ones. This list is put together for the final slate. In all likelihood there is hardly a female’s name (or a minority ethnic but, for simplicity, I will simply discuss the case of women in this post) amongst them. The wise conference organiser will then start again to get a more representative slate – or risk opprobrium or a boycott. On the other hand, if a committee collectively puts forward a dozen names in mutual discussion, a decent proportion of women’s names is much more likely to be forthcoming. Men and women alike are likely to think of male names first and only when challenged – or when primed by prior experience – produce the name of a woman or two. But most people now are sufficiently aware of the issue that if the list is arrived at collectively and seen as a whole then it is more likely to be balanced. Why we all tend to think of men first is not something I intend to consider here, only the net effect.

What about committees? If trying to construct a committee from scratch (or refresh an existing one) there is clearly an opportunity to strive for a balanced committee membership representing diversity, be it by discipline, gender, ethnicity or geography. But there’s a problem. If people are simply tapped on the shoulder – as by implication is the case with the invited speakers or the EU’s commissioners – it hardly looks like a transparent process. Indeed, it isn’t a transparent process. It smacks of the old boy’s club and you might fear that you will end up with exactly what you don’t want: an unbalanced committee.

Logically, the way to get round this is to seek nominations. Ask the head of department or the vice chancellor or whoever is relevant to nominate individuals: then you risk being back in the situation of the EU Commission when each person you ask may be more likely to nominate a white male than anyone else and you certainly won’t achieve balance on these fronts, even if you have steered the requests for nominations to secure geographical or disciplinary balance. Surely self-nomination is the way to go then?

Unfortunately that doesn’t work either, as a recent exercise run by one of the Research Councils has, I am led to believe, demonstrated only too clearly. Women are just much less likely to put themselves forward (see my thoughts on this issue here) so the nominations that came in seem to have been not even in proportion to the women in the cohort. Having spotted that this has happened the Council nevertheless feels obliged – and one can see why – to stick with the process as advertised, despite the dismal outcome for diversity.

So there is a challenge. The powers-that-be can opt not for transparency but for ensuring a good mix on the committee by manipulation of those invited to join and be accused of cronyism, tokenism or some other unflattering -ism; or they can optimistically rely on minorities to put their names forward which the evidence suggests they are unwilling to do. Maybe you naively think that women should simply pin their colours to the mast and self-nominate, but unfortunately experience may have demonstrated to them that it is a risky strategy. Be it asking for a pay rise or negotiating a package, women too often get penalised simply for asking. (As an extreme case, see the sad story https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/03/13/lost-faculty-job-offer-raises-questions-about-negotiation-strategy of W who negotiated over her faculty package, although of course one can’t prove that what happened to her only happened because she was a woman.)

I don’t know where the balance between diversity and transparency should lie. It is a condemnation of how the academic world operates (and, I would guess, much further afield than that) that it isn’t possible to achieve both simultaneously. We urgently need to make progress on this front.



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

Mulling it Over

Writing. Putting finger to keyboard. Churning out the thesis (or paper or grant proposal). This week’s cartoon in the THE reflected on this challenge of thesis-writing, ending with the punchline ‘Writing: the most impossible short distance in the history of humanity’ despite everything being in the poor student’s head. It is all too easy to look at the blank page and freeze into hopelessness. But perhaps that isn’t the right way to tackle things. I find that my writing works best if I’ve turned things over in my head well away from any keyboard or paper.

Now of course I’m not in the business of writing a thesis these days, and the strategies that work for one type of prose and a particular individual, may not apply to other people in other situations. Nevertheless, I think sitting down and trying to write a thesis from beginning to end is likely to end in trouble. It is too huge, too shapeless to work like that. For my own students I always insist on a thesis plan, ideally sketched out a year or so in advance to identify what has been completed and what is outstanding. Perhaps even more importantly this can serve to identify those dreadful known unknowns: the holes that are left in the overarching narrative when trying to pull together disparate experimental results for instance. If you know what’s logically missing before the final frantic weeks you have some hope of plugging the gaps satisfactorily.

That skeleton structure for the thesis, I believe, also helps to break down the monolithic task into something more manageable, less terrifying (see some previous thoughts on thesis-writing here). Where one goes next I think is very personal. Some students start at the beginning and write in a linear way from chapter 1 to chapter 9 (or whatever). Others prefer to get the results down first and come back to the introductory chapters and literature review later, although this can cause confusion over cross- references. Some like to get the figures organised first, to be sure that they are clear on the way the evidence is building up; they can then write the text around the figures. Whatever works for the individual has to be the right way forward in my view.

But there is still the question of how to get the words down on that paper, even when the structure is clear. And, for other situations – writing posts for this blog for instance; for a student newspaper contribution; for a science-writing competition; or, for me in particular in the months ahead, those speeches I am sure I am going to have to give pretty regularly – the structure (or even content) may be far less obvious anyhow. How best to tackle that prose? I find as I try to organise my thoughts it is best just to let the ideas swirl around for a while. Ideally such swirling should not be done as one tries to go to sleep, or sleep is likely to elude one. If I do make the mistake of letting it happen in bed I can find myself getting angry as it is perfectly possible to lie there mentally perfecting the text with no way of capturing the words on paper: I do not keep a Dictaphone or even notepad by my bed as I’m quite sure my husband would object.

Good moments I find to try to organise my thoughts are when I’m cycling, running or walking: in other words, when I am away from my computer and away from other people. This can apply equally well to the mental processes I need to go through ahead of some difficult meeting or a talk for which I’m trying to find a structure or a hook to get it off the ground. At times like that my mind is free to wander; wander it often does in ways that can be surprisingly creative and constructive. It is as if the not-constrained mode of thinking, the darting to and fro between different trains of thought, allow new connections to be made which enable me to see things with fresh eyes even if the content (for instance of the science) is unchanged.

Of course, as with lying in bed without a Dictaphone, I have no way of capturing the elegance of the sentences that I internally construct. I cannot necessarily mentally retain the absolutely awesome alliterations that I would like to pepper my text with nor retain the order that seems so logical in my brain when away from the computer but which may escape me once I sit down again. Nevertheless, as a way of being creative I would recommend it to those of you struggling with thesis, proposal or manuscript writing. If you’ve got writer’s block get up, walk away and do something physical but not too exhausting. Let your mind go where it will and see what it throws up, at least for a little. It breaks the monotony of staring at a screen with a flickering cursor but nothing else to focus on and it might, just might, get the creative juices flowing again.

Right now of course what I am really mulling over (though I’m procrastinating actually doing anything about it) is moving house. After more than 30 years in the same place it doesn’t need much imagination to visualise the piles of stuff that we have accumulated, much of which we really don’t need to heft over to Churchill Master’s Lodge. But what to leave and what to take (particularly a question when it comes to books) certainly needs a lot of thought before we start filling the tea chests. Whether the blogposts will continue to flow during this period remains to be seen.


Posted in Communicating Science, Science Culture | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

It’s the Individual Who Makes a Difference

Mentors are often highlighted as being crucial to success. People who look out for you, advise you when you’re feeling confused or lost, who point you towards opportunities you might otherwise have missed and who are there to offer encouragement whenever the going gets tough. Mentoring is typically a long-term relationship, often going on throughout one’s career even if the nature of the interaction changes as the apparent distance in seniority diminishes with time. I know who my two key mentors in my life are, but other individuals have played their part at different stages. And these parts, even if transient, can – as they were in my case – be highly significant for long term survival.

These people may be ones you only encounter once or twice. Perhaps at a conference where they may stimulate some new train of thought out of which fertile research develops, or introduce you to some job opportunity or another colleague who becomes a valued collaborator. In my case, I once met a complete stranger travelling to New York on a Greyhound bus who turned out to be an academic from another institution full of wise words to help me get through a tricky situation I found myself in. They may be colleagues who you rarely interact with but who contact you with information that is just what you need or, again, tell you about job opportunities that they happen to know about and you don’t. The importance of interactions with these people may not have the depth and duration of a mentoring relationship, but matter they do. A single action can change the course of one’s life and you should not forget what you owe them.

Here I’d like to pay tribute to Jack (Lord) Lewis, the founding Warden of my current college, Robinson, as one of the people who played a significant role at a crucial stage in my life. Jack died a couple of weeks ago, aged 86. He was an eminent inorganic chemist, but it is not his chemistry I want to discuss. When Robinson College was first founded he took the helm, ensuring its successful completion and steering it through the early years when statutes and traditions had to be set up. By the time I joined the college in 1981 it seemed stable and settled, even if the fellowship was still small. Notable was the fact that in these early years there were several female STEM fellows; indeed it is my belief that Robinson cornered just about all the female STEM lecturers in the university in the early 1980’s, although I can’t explicitly prove that statement. (That probably meant 3-4 of us, to put things in context. It is perhaps hard to appreciate that, however unsatisfactory the current situation may be, go back 30 years and it was unimaginably different and worse.) I was sure at the time that Jack quite deliberately tried to attract the female lecturers to the college and, because the college was itself young and very aware of its position as the only undergraduate college to be founded as a mixed college, it definitely was an attractive and unstuffy place to join.

So what was it that, for me personally, Jack did that played such an important part in my life? To explain that I should point out that a common requirement colleges ask of their fellows is that they teach (typically) six hours a week of small group supervisions. Of course six hours contact time means a lot more than that by the time you’ve added in the amount of preparation and marking time required, which is particularly heavy in the first year a new year is taught. I was happy to do this teaching when I joined the college: teaching is such a good way to get to grips with a subject, to interact strongly with the students. I believe this small group teaching is a real highlight of collegiate Cambridge.

However, once pregnant I realised I had to rethink things. Life was going to be hard enough without those extra 6 hours on top of my departmental duties (of lecturing, running labs and of course running a research group)– and it’s the department that pays the basic salary not the college.  (This college teaching can be an issue for many young parents.)  So I went to see Jack and offered my resignation from the fellowship so that I could be relieved of this teaching. He was having none of it and told me I could be released from my teaching until such time as all the children I went on to have were at school. It was an amazing and thoughtful response. It gave me something I hadn’t even thought to ask for. It was also of course, thinking about the long term. He wanted to keep me attached to the college in the hope that ultimately I would be of use to them again in some form or other.

And that’s the point. That off-the-cuff decision on Jack’s part kept me alive as a college fellow. Now for other individuals in other circumstances what matters at any given time may be very different. But that support, that ability to think beyond the today to the long game means that someone who might otherwise be lost – to science completely or to a particular institution or role – can live to fight another day.

So, remember it isn’t just mentors – or mentoring – that matters. Being thoughtful can obviously come in many guises but we should all be looking out for ways of helping those we are in a position to support. Even as a PhD student or postdoc, investing some time in the work experience kid from the local comprehensive may (and you may not ever know this of course) transform that person’s life by encouraging them to stick with science. Or sharing your excitement about research with the undergraduate doing a short project alongside you in the lab may give that person a grasp of what research is all about that they would fail to grasp from their own limited opportunities. It isn’t just the major deeds that matter or those done by influential people at the top of the pile; everyone may find an opportunity in their daily interactions to be of benefit to others. And we should all keep an eye out for when that moment arises.

So, thank you Jack. RIP.



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Parental Leave and Sexism

Parental Leave and Sexism

There’s been a bit of a twitterstorm about the story of a ‘techie mom’ who overheard a conversation between two presumed IBM executives on the subject of hiring women. Their view was, don’t do it: they have the temerity to take time off to have children. Written up in a more detail as a blog, the comments at the end are, in some cases, as shocking as the reported conversation. (I will, unlike some of the commenters, assume it is accurate reporting. However, even if it weren’t the case, the remarks are sufficiently unsurprising to form a good basis for discussion).

I am always surprised by the fact people hold up the US as being ahead of the UK when it comes to female employment. The absence of statutory maternity leave means that child-bearing is bound to remain a contentious issue. Having to use up holiday time simply to allow one’s body to recover after birth, seems to me all wrong. Being forced to make complex and difficult choices, whilst still adjusting to a totally new way of life and an imbalance of hormones, is equally unreasonable. The existence of statutory maternity leave (with pay) removes many of these sorts of pressures the new mother may otherwise feel. The UK system may be far from perfect but it is an awful lot better than the default US position. Of course some employers have good (if voluntary) policies, but it is not the norm and it is not simply a right. How can the States progress to thinking about parental rights when they are still so hung up about maternity leave?

The agenda has moved on in the UK, at least a little. The battle over maternity leave is won in principle, although the generosity of what is granted and paid for varies hugely between employees. There is now a shift to considering paternity leave, with new statutory rights around this which have yet really to be taken up in any significant way but which provide some flexibility in who takes time off when. Nevertheless, taking such leave may still lead to significant financial consequences that cannot always be borne by a family.

But perhaps we need to stop thinking in these terms and simply talk about parental leave. There are all kinds of reasons which mean that typically it will be the woman who wants to take the leave, particularly in the weeks after the birth, but why not give complete flexibility over the entire period so that each couple can make the choice that works for them (and ideally extend entitlement to some more limited leave for later on in the child’s life)? One of the reasons I think this switch could be so significant is that, if it becomes normal for men to take extended periods off then employers won’t be able to make crude judgements about ‘let’s not hire her, she might have a baby‘ because they will have to factor in ‘let’s not hire him, his partner might have a baby‘. They couldn’t even think in terms of ‘child-bearing age’ since men can in principle father children at any age.

Now I know, as at least one of the commenters on the blog I cited says, one has to be pragmatic about the difficulties any kind of statutory leave could cause a company with a small workforce. Small companies could (as some currenty do) undoubtedly face difficulties if a significant proportion of their staff all happened to have children and take leave simultaneously, but the conversation being reported was allegedly about IBM. Such caveats can hardly apply to that giant of a company. Furthermore, those sectors where the workforce has particular skills which are likely to be in short supply and hard to replace on maternity/parental leave cover, are also the ones where one might expect them to wish to invest for the long term. This is certainly the case for faculty in universities. People once on or beyond tenure-track would not be switching institution every year and hopping around for the sake of it. There is an investment on both sides. Individuals are also more likely to stick around for a decent length of time, rendering their absence on parental leave but a small proportion of the time they are actively serving the company, if they are treated with respect. Those companies that put the squeeze on qualified staff are likely to be the ones that see the best depart to their more friendly competitors.

The story which prompted this post is specifically about a computing company. I have read about too many horror stories in the techie field (see here for my thoughts on an earlier shocker) to find this episode hard to imagine. I don’t know why it is that coders are more prone to misogyny than other fields of work. Possibly if the percentage of women ever rose in the field then the atmosphere would improve, but that sounds like a bit of a catch-22 situation. What is going to happen to all those children who are now – in the UK – to be brought up to speed from the start of primary school with coding? Will this early exposure to the tools of the trade mean the proportions of girls taking computing at a university reach the high level that was the norm when the field was young? One can only hope so. But if sexist comments continue to be tossed around then it may remain the case the numbers of women employed in the industry itself will not grow swiftly.

One can argue, as again one of the commenters on the original blog did, that eavesdropping is a bad habit and that private conversations should be treated as just that, private. Nevertheless, executives who think and say, however privately, ‘let’s not hire women’ are hardly likely to be pushing to increase the proportion of women in their company. They may keep their lips sealed during recruitment, for fear of justifiable recriminations, but I would not reckon they’d be the ones recommending minorities for employment. So, whereas it may be right and proper that no action be taken against individuals talking ‘off the record’, it is equally right for attention to be drawn to the issues that such comments highlight. Only by making such behaviour completely beyond the pale will we, as a society, make real progress, and we’re a long way off from that happy state as yet.



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