Being Critical

When discussing the skills students pick up – and need to pick up – during their undergraduate courses in a subject like physics, I always highlight the fact that they learn how to be critical, notably about assumptions underpinning an analysis. What assumptions are the right ones and why? When might they not apply? And if the underlying suppositions break down, what else can be done to solve the problem? Keeping with this physics theme, this might be when the numbers aren’t large enough to assume a (simple) statistical approach is valid but that has far wider application. For instance, it is of great importance to psychology, as Dorothy Bishop often points out, but has been brought right home to me in the book by Michael Lewis I’m currently reading: The Undoing Project. (A book I am finding very enjoyable and thought-provoking.)  Or perhaps, to return to physics, when a surface should no longer be treated as smooth or flat or when a problem can’t be solved with easy symmetry. Students, one hopes, get to grips with these sorts of assumptions during their course. I know it was a skill I personally found particularly tricky when I started my undergraduate course: why was one assumption more plausible than another when deciding which terms could be neglected? This struck the inexperienced me as very hard to grasp initially, but slowly I seemed to absorb the appropriate logic and tools.

At graduate level this need to be critical becomes even more crucial. I remember the PhD student who came to me absolutely aghast that they thought they had found a mistake in a paper. They simply didn’t realise that just because something is in print it isn’t infallibly going to be true. To some, it is a shocking revelation when it becomes clear that some papers are just plain wrong. However, we must ensure our students absolutely have the confidence to identify the flaws in a piece of work, never mind who has written it or how long ago. It is too easy not to spot the error. Sometimes it is no more than trivial and can be ignored. In this trivial category I recall a group of electron micrographs I published in a paper, images of the same area but under different imaging conditions. One of the group of three was rotated by 180o relative to the other two. It was pretty obvious when it was pointed out to me, since the features were so obviously still present even if upside-down, but it was mortifying to realise that I hadn’t spotted it myself.

Others will be much more subtle. Errors such as the one I was challenged to identify in a draft manuscript by my new professor, Ed Kramer, when I first stumbled into the field of polymers (I found it, to my great pleasure).  In this case it was precisely the case of an assumption he had made which was, on reflection, false invalidating everything that came thereafter. These are the sorts of errors I would like to think we train our students to find, to look at an argument and try to poke holes in it. If they fail to create that hole then perhaps the theory is OK. But if they don’t look then they are not testing the ground before they build some massive edifice on top. Their employers, in academia or outside, will not be happy if this is how they set about the tasks provided. The oft-cited example of a bridge-building engineer who makes mistakes in their analysis is often given. An engineer who constructs something which falls down – or resonates horribly; think about the first version of the Millennial Bridge over the Thames where the construction was unable to prevent lateral sway exacerbated by pedestrians apparently unconsciously walking in step.

However, what has prompted my recent anxiety on the score of what we are teaching our students arises from the annual mountain of exam scripts I have just been marking. Our students are as bright and capable as ever. They learn the facts we present them with and can (mainly) regurgitate them in order. There will always be the odd – and worrying – student who manages to write pages and pages, often fairly illegibly but certainly totally irrelevantly, and gains not a single mark. These are the exceptions. Unlike the challenges Mary Beard (now Dame Mary of course) faces when she marks her essays as described in a recent blogpost of hers, by and large there are clear facts that need to be set down in physics plus diagrams to illustrate the behaviour of functions and parameters. Answers do tend to be right or wrong with not that much greyness in between. This makes marking physics papers an awful lot easier than many other subjects. We do double mark, but not as slavishly as seems to be required for subjects where subjectivity is more liable to creep in. More importantly, the role of the second marker is to check the addition of marks – you’d be surprised how often 2+2 can make an unexpected number by the end of a long stint of decoding handwriting. Second markers also need to check correct entry in the markbooks and to ensure that an isolated page has not been overlooked by the first marker (again, a common problem when students choose to add something late in the day in some random place in their set of answers). All these are crucial parts of our second marking system.

My concern relates to situations when we ask students to do something which requires different aspects of a course to be synthesised to give insight that a lecturer hasn’t explicitly mentioned or to extend their ideas to unfamiliar territory. These are the skills I’d like to think we’d taught them but which seem to vanish – at least under the stress of exam conditions. It is not enough that physics students can manipulate equations with confidence, important though that is, or crank through a solution to a complicated partial differential equation with equally complicated boundary conditions. We need them to be able to think about assumptions and extend their knowledge to less familiar territory. I am worried at the moment that isn’t always the case.

Perhaps it is for those reasons the CBI so often says graduates don’t leave universities with the skills employers want. We certainly don’t test oral communication skills by our written exams! Physicists get little opportunity for team working in our curriculum (unlike engineers) and we certainly don’t test that either. There are those who say exams are not a good way of identifying future leaders and stars in their future professions, whatever these may be. What they test is perhaps only part of what we need to test. I do my bit of marking; exams may always be with us. But I am anxious that the gap between what we teach, what we assess and what students and employers require may be widening. Absolutely this is not a criticism of students and perhaps it is physics-specific (though I doubt it).  I have no easy answers. But I do hope someone has.




Posted in Education, Research | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Only Woman in the Room

As the Master of a Cambridge College it probably isn’t surprising that I get asked to talk about Leadership, and often more specifically Women in Leadership/as Leaders, but there is nothing that brings out the inner impostor in me faster than such a request. I have, after all, never received any training and yet am expected to deliver wise words on the subject by way of training others. Recently I was asked to provide another such presentation to some international students, with the focus on the importance of diversity in leadership.

The evidence is steadily mounting about the value of not having a bunch of cloned individuals making important decision, and shortly before I gave the talk I had read this article in the MIT Sloan Review highlighting some of the evidence. But, as this review points out, the situation will never be solved by the presence of a single woman on some committee. It is clear that the arguments about the benefits of diverse committee membership apply to far more than company boards and are just as valid in decision-making panels in universities (and no doubt many other spheres too). But it remains the case that the evidence is building up most noticeably in the case of company board membership.

When I was the only (and first) female professor in any of the Physical Sciences in Cambridge I got stuck on far too many committees and soon realised that my lone voice was never going to get me very far. If I spoke up and stuck out I wasn’t going to win ‘friends’ who would support my point of view, and if I didn’t stick out I wasn’t going to win arguments either. I mentioned this to the administrator then in charge of equality issues (this was before the turn of the century) who seemed bemused by my statement that as a singleton I had no influence. Clearly at the time – and this was 20 odd years ago – such a realisation had not dawned on the one person in the University who might have had time to think about the issue. ‘Really?’ was her only comment, as if she didn’t quite believe me, or perhaps didn’t believe I’d been trying hard enough.

The MIT article however articulates the situation well, using a quote from the former Xerox Corp. CEO Anne Mulcahy:

“There are three layers of progress for women. There’s the breaking in part of getting onto boards. Then there is the critical mass part of getting more than one woman on each board. And then there is the influence part of getting women into leadership positions where the real power resides.”

The article goes on to stress that the roles of influence are those where a woman chairs the key committees – finance, audit or the Board itself, rather than HR or safety. But, guess what, where women are chairing committees in companies (or universities), all too often it will be this second layer of ‘softer’ committees. Committees where they won’t be able to effect real change in a culture.

These paragraphs should be read in tandem with the mind-bogglingly inappropriate comments released this week by the Government as part of the Philip Hampton – Helen Alexander Review into (the lack of) women leaders in companies. This current release of information listed the ten ‘worst’ reasons given by firms for not having more women at the top of their companies. You can choose your own favourite from the list. If you consider this particular one on the list:

“We have one woman already on the board, so we are done – it is someone else’s turn”

in conjunction with what I’ve just written about my experience of being the only woman in the room, you will see just how damaging such beliefs are.  (My first reaction was that my ‘favourite’ bad reason was ‘All the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up’, but I suspect the other example I give is far more pernicious.)

Appoint a single woman and the problem is solved, seems to be the mantra of far too many people. Unfortunately, I believe large numbers – be they in boardrooms or universities – still really believe that ticking a box to say you’ve filled a quota of one will satisfy everyone. Such people clearly have very little comprehension of social dynamics in the 21st century, of ‘privilege’ or how people cling on to power and control working with others like them. Their companies will, I am almost pleased to report, likely not thrive but that fact won’t stop them pocketing huge bonuses for their bad judgement, at least in companies if less so in universities.

And that is only considering gender. There are many other sorts of diversity that could usefully be introduced into the boardroom if good decisions are to be made, a topic which rarely even get a mention. David Lammy would no doubt have something to say about this if he would shift his viewpoint from lambasting Oxford on their BME admissions. (As an aside, these latest admissions’ figures may be shocking, but if he read the analysis done by David Morris for WonkHE in 2016 he might be surprised to learn UCAS data shows

“Oxford and Cambridge are two institutions that do not appear to show systematic or consistent bias against black or less privileged applicants.”

Other universities, with far higher numbers of applications from these communities, actually perform less well when it comes to bias in admissions given their much larger starting pool, although that certainly doesn’t mean Oxbridge shouldn’t work at doing better.)

With respect to women in senior leadership roles in universities, their numbers too remain stubbornly low and no doubt some, if not all, of the ten ‘worst’ reasons Hampton-Alexander identify will be heard muttered in some corridors of university power too.  But then, Philip Hampton’s own credentials aren’t perfect: he has previously said, of the BBC gender pay gap, that the problem is – at least in part – down to the women themselves.

“I suspect they let it happen because they weren’t doing much about it.”

he was quoted as saying, asserting that he had never had a woman come to him to ask for a pay rise. Perhaps those sorts of attitudes can be found too in universities but that says more about the system than the women, something probably true in the BBC too. In my own university the local evidence suggests women are indeed less likely to apply for a market supplement than men (and receive smaller uplifts when they do), a significant contributor to the gender pay gap – but the underlying reasons for this may be down to their circumstances making it harder to play the game of ‘give me an increase in my pay or I’ll leave to take up this offer from Fancy Ivy League University’ in order to receive a pay rise.

For those who really do wield the power and influence, they should look at the Government’s list of bad reasons for not seeking out women for high level committees and leadership roles and reflect. They should recognize that sticking a single woman on a committee will solve little – as I found to my own frustration 20 years ago. And further, that sticking several women on committees which do not actually have much influence is little better. It ‘uses the women up’; it may make those above them feel good and yet it achieves little. Leaders in our universities, male and female, have to think hard and focus on what works and what will lead to effective change.

Posted in Equality | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Writing, Creativity and Grief

What acts are best to provoke creativity? Some poets – from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Dylan Thomas – seem to have felt that drug- or alcohol- induced hazes may be effective, but I don’t think many scientists would recommend that route. Discussing unanticipated results with colleagues at the conference bar is probably as far as alcohol wisely enters into the scientist’s lexicon of inspiration. I think most people would agree such debates can be productive, at least as long as the booze-consumption is moderate. Alternatively one might choose to go for distant walks (along the lines of William Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’) or simply spend long hours in the lab battling with the data until it surrenders its secrets. Everyone has to find their own route and, as Thomas Edison memorably remarked: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” and I think that covers creativity as well.

The observant and regular reader of this blog may have noticed that the regularity of my posts has slipped in recent months. I think this reflects my lack of creativity and a feeling that, not only are my evenings frequently not my own – something that has been true since I became Master of Churchill College; evenings were previously my favoured time to write – but that I have, at least temporarily, lost my spark. I am not entirely sure why this might be, although I think there are various component factors as I’ll spell out.

In line with the vision of Wordsworth tramping the Lake District’s hills, for much of the spring the ‘mulling’ time I found so valuable on my not very adventurous jogs around the area has been lost due to tedious health issues, including an incredibly painful stiff neck, which have stopped me getting out to run. Some physio, coupled with warning words about how I sit and hold my iPad followed by exercises and careful thought about posture, does seem to have released the pain. Which is good news. I am back out on the occasional run, contributing to my inner peace as well as my health and creativity. Several years ago I wrote about how I felt getting away from the keyboard and out into the open air helped me organise my thoughts and inspire my creativity. I had forgotten that during the past months and just felt frustrated that the words did not flow, and it is only now I am back into my gentle pace of jogging that I remember. I feel a bit more optimistic I might be able to write more regularly.

However, there is another mental elephant in the proverbial blogging room that may continue to squash my blogposts: death and mortality. I don’t mean my own (although I have just passed a significant milestone of a birthday that has brought me up very short with a feeling that time is running out), but that of others. Three years ago in May my mentor and inspiration to many Sir Sam Edwards died. I wrote about his death at the time, both on my blog and in the Guardian. These were colloquial and personal accounts of the man I knew and admired so much; the man who made so much difference to my life and career both on the personal and professional front.

Now, my Bank Holiday weekend task has been to write a much drier account of his life for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. There is a set style to these brief write-ups. My briefing notes spell it out, and some of these seem decidedly antiquated, not least the ‘opening (or traditional) formula’ being illustrated by the article for that famous politician (the one not to be confused with Disraeli), Gladstone. Or, as my brief spells out the requisite style,

Gladstone, William Ewart (1809-98), statesman and author, was born on 29 Dec 1809 at 62 Rodney Street, Liverpool, the fourth son and fifth of six children of Sir John Gladston, first baronet (1764-1851), merchant and MP, and his second wife, Anne (1773-1835), daughter of Provost Andrew Robertson of Dingwall and his wife, Annie….

Then follows a list of issues I should cover. The one I found made particularly uncomfortable reading in the 21st century was as follows:

Subject’s spouse(s) or partner(s) other than spouse (common-law spouse, established lover or mistress): full names, for women maiden name and former name if previously married, titles, vital dates (years only), occupation(s), full date of marriage or start of the liaison, date (where applicable) of its dissolution.

It just all sounds so archaic and not in keeping with how we live our lives now. Undoubtedly people have ‘liaisons’ but referring to lovers and mistresses as opposed to partners and relationships just sounds archaic, however much such interactions and roles will not have disappeared. I think it is progress that marriage is now allowed to be introduced ‘at the appropriate chronological point’ and not relegated to ‘after the death of the subject’, implying a distinct lack of central importance in the relationship (no doubt historically it was the women who were so relegated) as apparently had been the previous norm. But I hope the keepers of the DNB house style may consider updating the style instructions to reflect more modern customs (I may mention this to them).

Nevertheless, I will attempt to do as required, and keep my style to something appropriate for a hefty (if virtual) tome, not pepper my writing with anecdotes of the man I knew and admired (who anyhow had a single, happy marriage of over 60 years). I hope what I end up with finds favour, but even just writing ‘Edwards’ instead of ‘Sam’ seems a travesty of the man. He always expected everyone to call him simply by that first name, and was not keen on the Sir Sam aspect, although there were those who found it hard to drop the formality.

The final strand impacting, I fear, on my writer’s block also relates to death. It is two years since my mother died, two years last week. Looking back at my blog I see I had another hiccough in my ability to write around the first anniversary too, which I had forgotten until I went back to look for the link to the first post just now. I never understood the phrase ‘not a day goes by when I don’t think of my son/mother/partner….’ until she died. Now I recognize the truth of the sentiment. I want to ring her to share the good times and bad; I want to hear her ironic or cynical comments on the things I get up to and the people I mingle with, often coupled with distinct put-downs regarding some of the things I took so seriously. Her time had come, she had a ‘good death’ if not a particularly happy life, but it is hard not to think of her and to dwell on her perfections and imperfections as the anniversary comes around again. And, as I found at the time, if there is one thing more than anything else that kills creativity for me, it is grief.

Posted in Communicating Science | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Strategic Developments at UKRI

The new super-research council (in UK terms) UKRI that acts as an umbrella organisation – sitting above the seven research councils plus Innovate UK and Research England – launched its Strategic Prospectus a few days ago. Not so much a strategy, more an attempt to set out the steps needed to be taken and the areas to be focussed on as the new organisation attempts to formulate its actual strategy for the years ahead. These are matters of great import to the research community. Much money is at stake, as well as reputations and political goodwill, as the new team get their feet under the table. Others have already written (see here, here and here for instance) about this nascent organisation which was created in the wake of the 2014 Nurse Review, in terms more or less favourable. Furthermore, science and innovation are getting much (more) attention from the Government as it seeks to create a post-Brexit world that is still economically healthy. Many big questions remain. Here I highlight some of the topics I believe are particularly critical.

Firstly there is the question of how UK science will align with our European partners once we don’t have automatic access to Horizon2020’s successor programme Horizon Europe. The Government has set out its objectives this week in an official position paper. In this document it is noted with apparent approval that ‘in the UK’s top universities, 37% of academic staff are non-UK’ (I’m not going to quibble about which universities it is including as ‘top’; it is obvious that our institutions are full of non-UK faculty who make crucial contributions to our success in research as well as in winning ERC grants) and that ‘arrangements on issues including….researcher mobility’ are needed. Quite. We all know that, but not how the circle will be squared.

Rather grudgingly the document also states that ‘Subject to the structure of the programme, the level of influence provided for in the terms and an assessment of value for money, we would be willing to offer a fair contribution to the programme costs’. I wonder how well that will be received in Brussels. The Prime Minister has also stated this week, in her big speech on science, that she hopes for ‘full association’ with the new EU programme. Associated country status comes in many forms and, as Switzerland found some years back, it isn’t always easy to negotiate an agreement that is satisfactory and certainly not at speed. We will have to see whether all these warm words mean anything to the rest of the EU and whether the glacial speed of negotiations we see elsewhere in the Brexit landscape move fast enough in this space for us to join Horizon Europe. I sincerely hope that where there is a will there is a way. I am quite sure from my own conversations in Brussels there are many who are as keen to find a way for us to access EU funding as we ourselves are.

Secondly I would highlight the relatively-newly-established industrial strategy (laid out in the autumn’s White Paper) as a key element that UKRI needs to get right as it develops its own strategy. Will the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund succeed when previous attempts to support increases in our innovation, productivity and economic output have not had the desired effect? So far my impression is that this fund is somewhat ad hoc and its alignment with the Industrial Strategy White Paper (which appeared after the initiation of the fund competition) less than perfect. I think the community at large applauds this re-introduction of an industrial strategy but the proof of the pudding may still be far off.

Added to this, of course, is the fund announced this week, the Strength in Places Fund, which is primarily directed at those parts of the country which have not been thriving in recent years. For many that will be perceived as ‘beyond the Golden Triangle’, but sitting in Cambridge as I do – itself a city thriving so extensively it is in danger of strangling itself by its success coupled with a lack of appropriate infrastructure of transport and housing – I cannot but be aware you don’t have to go far along the A11 or A10 northwards to find pockets of extreme deprivation; regions where agriculture dominates and education is less valued than here. Cambridge has a vast hinterland that is as economically challenged as the North East or North West, it is just too easy for some not to look beyond the alleged ivory towers and forget the Fens and the coastal towns beyond and their problems.  My own University is very conscious of this, but doesn’t always know how to interact more effectively with the rural surrounds.

These two Funds are crucial aspects of the new UKRI mission, all tied in with the Government’s stated desire to reach a national level of R+D of 2.4% of GDP (requiring, as has been pointed out, a massive injection of private funds as well as Government money), but there is another aspect of the Nurse Review and the creation of UKRI that I have a particular interest in. Interdisciplinarity. A theme that turns up on my blog not infrequently. What does UKRI’s new strategic prospectus have to say about this? There are warm words in there. It will apparently:

Drive an increase in high-quality multi- and interdisciplinary research and innovation by encouraging and funding work in areas which previously may have struggled to find a home. It will ensure that good ideas are supported that might once have been more challenged by organisational boundaries. It will give pioneering research the space to develop, laying the foundations for future capability.

It will also

Ensure the system is able to respond to strategic priorities and opportunities…… In addition, the Strategic Priorities Fund will ensure that strategically important research and innovation which is not aligned with other funding programmes can seek direct support. The Strategic Priorities Fund will provide a mechanism for increasing agility within the system, enabling funders to respond rapidly and ensure the UK remains at the cutting edge.

My understanding is that the pot of money which might ‘drive an increase in high-quality multi- and interdisciplinary research’ is likely to come from the Strategic Priorities Fund. But how will this be allocated? Will UKRI be able to crack that perennial problem of how to assess interdisciplinary research so that genuinely ground-breaking proposals are funded not nice, safe, conservative applications that sit cosily within some familiar ecological niche of research? The detail, as with so much of the Strategic Prospectus, is lacking to date. If cutting-edge and novel interdisciplinary research is to be funded, the stuff that currently falls down the cracks between individual research councils, it is imperative that this money is not simply tossed in the direction of one research council who is then told to collaborate with another one to disperse the cash.  I hear rumours that unfortunately that is just what is happening and it simply will not suffice. New structures  both for any calls that are issued and their subsequent assessment will be needed if this money is genuinely going to facilitate the most exciting areas to take off and flourish.

Of course almost all of the big societal challenges require interdisciplinarity. Such challenges will no doubt be covered by specific calls in Energy, Healthy Ageing, AI and Robotics etc. These topics are probably better understood and served already. It is the smaller scale, perhaps blue skies kind of areas, which do not necessarily thrive under big consortia or the societal challenges label. But that is not to say they will not provide the route into the solutions of tomorrow, even if they haven’t yet got a convenient and sexy tag. I, for one, will be watching the UKRI’s performance – and I hope helping them by way of discussion and input too – to see if they can manage to solve the conundrum of interdisciplinarity for the good of the whole UK.

Posted in Interdisciplinary Science, Science Funding | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Strategic Developments at UKRI

How might the Athena Swan Process Emerge?

When groups of (comparative) strangers sit around a table, it is impossible to predict what will emerge in the way of new ideas. Readers of this blog will not be surprised to know that I think diversity – of background, skin colour, discipline and gender – may all lead to better decisions than a monoculture is liable to produce, but that list should probably also be extended (in academic circles at least) to cover type of institution and geographical base. I have been involved in various committees over the last year that have been of this form, a group of folk unfamiliar with each others’ points of view coming together to draw up some suggested actions.

One example is the REF Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel that I am chairing (although it’s not the only one on my mind currently), but as its conclusions are not yet confirmed I cannot write specifically about this. What I can say is that, working with the group has been a pleasure. Given a task that I thought would be immensely challenging the group has, I believe, come up with some constructive ways to ensure interdisciplinary research gets a fair hearing in the REF assessment and, just as importantly, ways that individuals and institutions can have confidence in that this is so. If we get this right than I hope we will see a larger number of submissions covering the wonderful interdisciplinary research that the UK produces submitted to the exercise than happened last time around. The proof of the pudding is of course still to come. Panels – and institutions – may turn out to hate what we propose!

Nevertheless, I am happy to suggest that I believe a group of people, many of whom had never met each other before and who came from a wide range of disciplines, geographies and institution types, were able to dream up ideas far more constructively and creatively than each of us individually would have been able to achieve. That process is what I think ‘emergence’ in this context is all about.  Described like that it is really a physicist’s idea, as expressed in this (non-technical) piece from a few years ago written in the Conversation by a pair of Australian physicists Andy Martin and Kristian Helmerson and summed up as:

“Emergence” describes the ability of individual components of a large system to work together to give rise to dramatic and diverse behaviour.

AdvanceHE, which is the new organisation into which the Equality Challenge Unit has recently been incorporated, will need to be conscious of this as it puts together its announced panel to review the way the scheme operates. Last week saw another account by a woman who had fallen out of love with the Athena Swan process and who had publicly resigned from her local committee, explaining why she had done so. I wrote about my own growing concerns earlier this year, worrying that it had assumed a too-rigid structure that was no longer fit for purpose. It had started out as such a force for good: encouraging departments and whole universities to reflect upon their practices. However, what is perhaps becoming clearer as more and more institutions submit their lengthy, detailed documents, is that culture change to embrace inclusion and diversity whole-heartedly needs far more than pages of graphs of changing numbers. Perhaps the easy wins have been won.

Changing the timing of seminars is great in small ways, but it doesn’t eradicate unconscious (let alone conscious) bias at every stage on the career ladder. Ensuring that there is a proper induction process for new starters and that there is a social once a month to which everyone is invited is not the same as ensuring that those women or other minorities who wish to progress are not knocked back by unsupportive management, with comments along the lines of ‘you’re too emotional’ or ‘it’s not your turn’ and other incredibly soul-destroying remarks. All too often these spill forth to the dismay of the recipient, as I and many another could testify. Perhaps we are moving on though.

Take letters of reference and the way these can be subtly – or not-so-subtly – gendered. I have written about these several times. Firstly, back in 2012, I wrote an opinion piece for the THE; subsequently (February 2016) I wrote a blog for the Guardian,  where I was more explicit about the sorts of comments I had seen. Neither of these articles got a great deal of traction. However my most recent offering on the subject (December 2016) has been very different. First appearing on these pages it got reprinted on the THE website where it got strongly picked up – including references in the national press. The THE continues to promote this article over Twitter, most recently in the last couple of days, and Twitter continues to spread the word about it. Perhaps in this case, 5-6 years on from my first commentary on the issue, the idea has really begun to bite and people are far more conscious of the dangers in their own writing as well as in other people’s. This is definitely an intangible, and one that is hard to imagine could ever be visible in an Athena Swan submission, however much the process is revised, but it is the kind of thing that really is likely to make a difference: if people stop applying, however unconsciously, different adjectives to men and women, appointments and promotions panels will find it easier to treat all candidates equally.

So what’s to be done? How should Athena Swan adapt in the face of criticism and its own awareness of present shortcomings? David Ruebain has written that there is to be a review of the Athena Swan processes to see how they can be adapted to be fit for purpose at the present time. If we are to change the academic landscape to something that is truly inclusive there is much work to be done. But perhaps there is a tension (not unlike how people perceive the REF) between what is measurable – the raw numbers themselves, changing numbers over the years, explicit actions – and the environment which is, after all, what really matters. Good policies are not enough but how do you assess the intangible atmosphere and, equally important, how do you assess whether there are toxic pockets of resistance?

So, this review panel will have its work cut out to come up with a refreshed scheme that can address the concerns that are being increasingly expressed. Let us hope that the group of individuals overseeing this process (of which, I will admit, I am one although I have no knowledge as yet who else is involved) can demonstrate ‘emergent properties’, and approach the problem from multiple viewpoints to come up with constructive solutions. Athena Swan, as a scheme, evolved from a very informal beginning, initiated within the Athena Project; its early history can be found here . Self-assessment and not lots of forms was the name of the game back then. It is easy to see why such an informal process is no longer fit for purpose. But nor do I believe the doorstep amount of paperwork required, not always with full support from the leadership, is the right way to proceed.

Time will tell whether in this case a good and operative solution really does emerge from a panel of disparate ‘experts’ getting their heads together, but it is crucial that it does.


Posted in Equality, Women in Science | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments