Harassment Must be Challenged

In some senses I am pleased to see increasing attention being given to the topic of sexual harassment in our universities. It would be good if such attention was unnecessary, but regrettably there is no point pretending that that is the case. Two issues this past week have brought it back centre stage in HE circles. Firstly we have seen the publication of the UUK report ‘Changing the Culture: Report of the Universities UK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students ’. Secondly there is a new breaking story – in astronomy – of alleged incidents in Liverpool John Moore’s University. I have written about harassment against women before, most recently less than a year ago in the wake of a couple of US horror stories, also in the discipline of astronomy, but there is clearly still a huge amount of work to do.

The issues break down into various different categories, but let me crudely divide them into interactions  between student and student on the one hand, and staff and either student or another staff member on the other (the term staff intending to cover any employee of whatever grade). My own university has been looking hard at the former problem and its developing policies are highlighted in the UUK report (see Annex 4). That most certainly doesn’t mean the problems are solved, but it does demonstrate that the University is taking the issue extremely seriously. As the head of a Cambridge College I am very mindful of the challenges our community face in this arena. For many years the 1994 Zellick report has, to some extent tied everyone’s (including colleges’) hands and it is encouraging to see the sector being freed to move on from this. (I am not going to get all technical about how this ruling has affected things, but you can find out more here as well as in the UUK report.).

Churchill College Students’ Union has, with the College’s encouragement and support, been running consent workshops for several years for all freshers. I am always heartened when during that first important week after arrival (male) freshers tell me what a good idea they think this is, even when, as they sometimes do, they also tell me that it told them nothing they didn’t already know and believe. Additionally the College has a robust – and published – policy to highlight that we will not tolerate any of those things that might be implied by the phrase ‘laddish culture’. That does not mean that bad behaviour does not happen, that would be too much to  hope for, but miscreants who are caught can be in no doubt that the College will deal with their offences appropriately and resolutely, thereby complying (long before it was published) with the UUK report’s recommendation vii.

I am, however, just as concerned about the second problem in which staff are involved which, as commenters on the UUK report have pointed out, is not so well-covered by it. It is at least as tricky to deal with but that does not mean we should not tackle it. Far from it. Regarding the recent LJMU astronomy case I know no more than the Daily Mail (yes, afraid so) has chosen to report. It seems to boil down to the fact that a female professor of astrophysics, then at LJMU accused another colleague of writing a reference for a staff member which did not include any reference to accusations against him of harassment. This reference enabled the staff member to move to another university before the accusations could be fully investigated, at which point they were dropped and so could neither be substantiated nor dismissed. The female professor was accused of libel by the reference-writer, but the courts have just decided to throw out the case, on the grounds there was no likelihood of conviction. (Of course there may yet be an appeal.) This episode – if not the court case – resembles one of the earlier stories I wrote about, this time arising from the University of Arizona,  where an alleged harasser’s move to a new institution was facilitated without the accusations being passed on.

What constitutes harassment? Do people feel confident about reporting it? Do they know who to report it to? And will anything be done if they do so report? These are key questions and, too often, the answer to the last three questions is ‘no’. And if people aren’t sure that what they’ve been subjected to will even be considered as harassment, they are hardly likely to seek answers to the remaining questions. If the situation in which harassment occurs also involves a power imbalance, as unfortunately is often likely to be the case (as in supervisor-student interactions), then long-term damage to an individual’s sense of self-esteem as well as their career may well result. Harassment in such cases may be verbal or involve prolonged unwanted physical contact. It can be traumatic, particularly if it occurs over an extended period.

Reporting of harassment (sexual or any other kind) is tricky. It is embarrassing. One can end up, as in domestic abuse, with believing that perhaps you ‘deserved it’, a feeling I know is hard to overcome – I wrote about a specific example of this from my own experience previously. If alcohol is involved you may think it’s best just shrugged off because perhaps the perpetrator didn’t really mean it. And sometimes you won’t even know who to report it to if it happens at a conference. I’ll illustrate this again with a specific and very personal incident which feels surprisingly recent, occurring at a time when I might have expected to be well past such a verbal attack: I must have been around 50. Pinned in a corner by a drunk professor from another country, I was told – as if it was a compliment – that he thought I was much more f***able than another woman attendee. On and on he went expanding on this idea. I clearly am too much of a wimp, brought up to be a nice girl and not make a fuss, as I didn’t slap him, and he made it impossible for me easily to escape. So I just stood there trying to say not to be so silly and to stop saying such things, until someone else began to get suspicious about my body language and came and rescued me. I kept what he said to myself (this is the first time I have ever spelled out the specifics), and tried to laugh the situation off to questioners. I certainly didn’t report it, as perhaps I should have done, to the conference organisers so that he could be banned for the future.  I do know he was given a stern talking just because it was so apparent that his behaviour had been out of line, without the details being known. (I certainly could not have seen any ready way to report his behaviour to his employer.)

The trouble is, even if one does report someone’s unsavoury behaviour, it may come out at an unacceptable cost to the complainant for zero-to-little gain. Again, my own pale experience of this has been written up previously. Many people’s experiences on all these fronts will have been infinitely worse than anything I have suffered. Trying to work out how to handle these situations fairly to all concerned is a massive challenge. Allegations are exactly that without an investigation, but it may be impossible for an investigation to discover anything because perpetrators, though often nasty pieces of work, are not necessarily stupid enough to do things in public. If actions do take place in public then bystanders can do a great deal to help – as in my example above, where I was ‘rescued’ by someone I didn’t even know very well because my discomfort was so obvious.

Universities need to face up to this challenge. Most importantly they have to create a culture where people no longer expect simply to be able to get away with it. Where laddish culture amongst the student body is stamped on by their peers. Where the sense of entitlement by powerful men to take what they want without thought of the victim they are targeting – as highlighted by Donald Trump’s behaviour – simply withers away and dies. No doubt that will require bravery on the part of the victims to speak up as well as institutional hierarchies to hear their words. I fear we are a very long way from that Utopia yet, but that is no reason for not doing all we can to get closer to it.

Posted in Equality, Science Culture, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Inspiring the Future (or Not)

How can children find out about life beyond school/university now that careers’ advice has been so drastically cut back? I have been involved with the charity Inspiring the Future for a number of years since the launch of the sister campaign Inspiring Women in 2013. (I wrote about that launch here.) The aim of the charity is to get people from the workforce going in to talk to schools, both at primary and secondary level, to spell out what career opportunities there are and what the world of work looks and feels like. To teenagers, this adult world may feel very alien, distant and perhaps even not relevant. On that last point they would be wrong.

This week I participated in a large event (as opposed to an individual visit to a school), in Cambridge, involving a significant number of adults as well as over 100 children. There were different activities. The one I was involved with, termed a master class, required me to share my career trajectory and what I had thought I had learned during my career as a scientist with groups of around a dozen 14-16 year olds, after which they were open to bombard me with questions, all in a total of about 20 minutes per group. When I did such an event before I was indeed barraged with questions; this time the children, all girls, seemed more reluctant to quiz me.

There could have been various reasons for this lack of curiosity, a lack which I found rather disappointing. Maybe I am simply too old in their eyes to look as if I have anything in common with them, although I know at least one other person faced a similar challenge of silence. Maybe my introductory spiel had just put them off. After all perhaps they feel, as one of them said, ‘science is boring’ so why should they want to learn about how I go about my work? But perhaps they also simply had no idea how to engage with me. If the world of work seems remote, how do you begin to know what you need to know (a concept not unrelated to those famous unknown unknowns of Donald Rumsfeld  )

If that latter suggestion is right, it probably simply highlights that children at some schools face major issues because of social disadvantage rather than because they are stupid. If you come from a family where neither parent has had a job in your lifetime, how can you begin to conceive that you should be seeking out facts to help you do better? If the only working folk around you are cleaners, farm hands and shop assistants it probably seems totally unlikely that a scientist has anything to say to you. My attempts to get the girls to consider what skills might be helpful also did not prompt responses that seemed particularly helpful. The first time I asked this question I clearly did not phrase it right, being given the answer that one in particular wanted to go to sleep (at 2 in the afternoon!). Undoubtedly they realised confidence might be helpful – but did they realise that they were exhibiting a total lack of that same commodity? But perhaps the most telling answer was that it wasn’t skills or qualifications they needed, but to know the right people, to talk a lot and to come over well at interview. If they believe that nepotism and charm trump skills it is a sad reflection of the world they (and us) live in. My attempts to counter this attitude I suspect met with limited success.

Nevertheless, whether one meets a totally engaged and outgoing group or a more reticent and challenging one, I strongly believe the aims of the charity are excellent. Children are too often unable to learn about options that might be available to them and hence unable to identify the skills and/or qualifications required. This isn’t simply about saying ‘have you thought about university, or an apprenticeship?’, it is much more about suggesting how many different routes there are to getting a pay-packet, and the thousands of different roles society needs. The charity certainly doesn’t only send the high-powered professional into schools, but also the ones who left at 16 or those who dropped out until they were 25 and then finally found their feet. It is an activity about aspiration-raising, but also about providing some hard facts and sharing hard-won experience. I had hoped to be able to put across my message, often found on the pages of this blog, about the need to seize opportunities and not to feel defeated by a single failure, but I suspect a fair sprinkling of the children who attended this particular event did not believe in opportunities and had seen too many failures to believe that their own lives might be different, might even be interesting.

I need to reflect on my style of presentation to such groups. Clearly what I did failed to work this time around, whereas last time I was much more successful. It is always important to be able to think on ones’ feet, but I must have failed to be nimble enough this week to overcome the reluctance these groups had to engage. Nevertheless, let me use this post as an opportunity to encourage readers to sign up with the charity. All they ask is the commitment to a single hour a year in which to visit some local school along with the willingness to share whatever experiences seem most helpful to the community in question. My next visit to an outlying village is in the process of being finalised. I obviously have work to do to make this successful, but perhaps I can at least hope to provoke some new volunteers to join in. Go to the website, provide your details, and the charity will get to work to pair you up with some state school in need.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The ‘Mine’s Bigger’ School of Science

I didn’t watch the second Trump-Clinton debate, but it is clear from all I’ve read that one of the former’s tactics to attempt to disconcert Clinton was to try to intimidate her physically – by sheer bulk and position on the stage. It doesn’t seem to have been a very successful strategy in this case, but it seems all of a piece with the man. Intimidation is of course known in other non-political sectors, indeed just about everywhere. Science is not immune to it, although it isn’t likely to be anything quite as explicitly tangible as simply physical size.

I think of this as the ‘mine’s bigger’ school of science, and it could cover anything from grant income to h index. Unfortunately, these easy metrics are not just used by one individual against another – although such implicit one-upmanship may turn up in pub ‘banter’ as well as over the lab bench – but also in recruitment, promotion and grant panels. I’ve forcibly been reminded of this in two recent committee meetings, both concerning – unsurprisingly – the issues around gender in science. Ultimately both discussions revolved around how we measure success and excellence. One was in the UK (the BEIS Diversity Steering Group), the other covering European science (the ERC’s Gender Balance Working Group). Are we, as a sector, too hung up not only on metrics of dubious worth, but also on an out-of-date set of criteria overall?

After the BEIS meeting I went back and read what I wrote when my University released its Meaning of Success book in 2014. I believe that what I wrote then still holds true. That success should cover much more than mere figures and some of the interviewees included ‘building teams, seeing their students thrive and progress, working with people who sparked them off intellectually and seizing opportunities to try out new things and make new discoveries.’ How do you measure such things? And if they aren’t measurable in a quantitative manner, how can an appropriate narrative or qualitative presentation be evaluated?

Equally importantly, if one is using narrative as a determination, can this be made objective? The ERC (both the Gender Balance Working Group and the full Scientific Council) were shown a video about unconscious bias which very concretely demonstrates the dangers of using ‘gut feelings’ and subjective measures. Recognizing that there is a danger of falling between the Scylla of slavish metrics – where bigger means better but it is at least an objective measure – and the Charybdis of personal likes and dislikes – where there may be nothing objective concerned at all – what should panels do?

Firstly, it is clear that there are some absolute no-noes. A discussion of caring responsibilities, for instance, should not be admissible (see the video I give above for a concrete example of how such ‘information’ can sneak into discussions). It is true that there is no reason why men should not be asked how they are to manage with a newborn or elderly parent just as much as women, but the reality is even if they were I doubt their answers would be treated similarly. Secondly if the size of grant income cannot be used as a ‘pure’ number, the question is how can it be handled. In interviews it is probably possible to interrogate what it means, to discover whether a mega-grant income simply means a huge number of slaves in the lab in whom the PI takes no personal interest or alternatively a vibrant community who are individually supported. Reading a standard CV it is hard to see how an equivalent dissection of what underlies the metric of income could be carried out, but cover letters could be required specifically to include support and training of group members as a topic to be discussed.

The metric of h index or citation profile has been much more widely critiqued and is probably already being treated with caution by at least some panels. It is of course a number which is not totally irrelevant. Without believing that publication in a high impact journal like Nature necessarily means the peak of academe, I do believe if all publications are in the Journal of Neverbeenheardof one might question the quality of outputs. But to me that is the point. To decide, based on one or two papers in high impact factor journals that the output is first class begs two questions: firstly, whether a high impact factor journal necessarily always publishes truly excellent science; and secondly, that in some disciplines results may be much better written up in a series of papers in good journals rather than in one single stellar paper (for some fields they are not even well-covered by one of the nominally Superstar journals). The difference between disciplines, even sub-disciplines, in publishing and citation behaviour is also why the h index has to be used with an enormous pinch of salt as a comparator if it is to be used at all.

Now many people who have sat on panels of different sorts may be throwing their hands up and saying of course their panel doesn’t use slavish metrics in decision-making. At interview stage that may indeed be correct. But what about what happens before the panel meets the applicants, at the long- and short-listing stages? Faced with a large pile of papers to whittle down to some manageable number, it is all too easy to resort to the shorthand of metrics to choose the ‘top ten’ of CVs to consider in more detail. I was once told by a Faculty Dean how he had instructed all the departments in his remit, if uncertain whether to include a woman in a longlist or not, to keep them in for further consideration. After this edict he discovered how suddenly the number of women appointed across the Faculty shot up. Nothing about positive discrimination here, just thinking a little more carefully about CVs that might not have satisfied the ‘mine’s bigger’ school and been eliminated without proper consideration before the final stages. This anecdote demonstrates how small actions can have a big impact.

Trying to tease out the reality behind crude numbers is important. Expanding the range of what elements are considered at each stage of decision-making will ensure a more diverse range of candidates make it through. Identifying some more qualitative skills that are used as criteria and which are expected to be touched on in a CV or covering letter will facilitate the process; attitude towards training research students, general contribution to departmental citizenry, outreach in schools and more general science communication could all be explicitly asked for – add your own favourite additional skill to this list. At the very least asking for this information indicates that these are activities that are valued.

We need to do better to ensure we genuinely appoint, promote and retain the best, not just those who can jump through hoops and sell themselves hard. As in business, I believe diverse teams – at whatever level – are likely to be more successful. The issues raised in The Meaning of Success are as important today as two years ago. Unfortunately I suspect these ideas have made little inroad into thinking across the sector, despite our aspirations at the time of publication.

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

With Regret

It is always difficult to know when to say no, or enough is enough. Turning down or walking away from opportunities is a difficult thing to do, particularly when they are things you’d really like to do. But there comes a point when the scales tip too far one way, when health, family, the day job or general equilibrium are clearly suffering and it is time to act decisively. It isn’t always obvious till too late that that balance has gone badly awry, and there is always the feeling that by saying no you are letting someone down (including yourself). There is also the embarrassment of knowing how to frame the ‘no’, as I’ve written about before.

This summer brought me to a point where I have had to put these thoughts into action and, with great reluctance and sadness I have stood down as a Trustee of the Science Museum. I took up this role almost exactly five years ago, with great enthusiasm. It has been a pleasure to work with all the committed and enthusiastic teams and hear about their exciting plans for the future as they have been being developed. The museums in the Science Museum Group seem to be going from strength to strength, with recent exhibitions of an extraordinarily high calibre in Cosmonauts and Collider. At Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry Wonder Materials is equally a stellar production currently. More exhibitions of the same breadth of ambition are in the pipeline I promise you.

Imminently, there will be the opening of the new space for children (and their families) at the Science Museum, Wonderlab on October 12th. I’ve had a sneak preview – courtesy of being a member of the Science Museum Advisory Board, a role I’ve been persuaded not to relinquish along with my Trusteeship – and it looks fantastic. As a taster, here is the Trustee Chair Mary Archer smiling after trying out one of the slides designed to illustrate how different surfaces have different friction properties. The scale of the whole set-up is probably better illustrated by the (rather blurry, apologies for my poor photography) shot of Museum Director Ian Blatchford trying out the same exhibit.
Mary ArcherIan Blatchford

More mysteriously, I also leave you with an image of another exhibit: is this smoke, or a cloud, or dry ice or……? You’ll have to go and explore for yourself.


Formally I stepped down this week at our Strategy Away Day held in Durham, which followed a visit to Locomotion in Shildon – the one site of the Science Museum Group I had never previously visited (I wrote about my visit to the National Railway Museum in York previously). There we were treated to a brief ride pulled along by the 150 year old steam engine Furness 20 (the oldest working standard gauge steam locomotive in the UK) to get us from one side of the site to the other. I’m just about old enough to remember the smell of steam trains so there was an undoubted sense of childhood recovered as we were delivered to our Board meeting (though attending that, of course, would not have been something my childhood self would have dreamed of).

Furness 20
In Durham itself we were also treated to the sight of rare treasures in the Palace Green Library, incorporating some of their ancient manuscripts and more recent documents, including the 1895 Charter allowing women to proceed to Durham degrees – a good 50 years ahead of my own University. Principia, Micrographia and more were on show but, given my admitted interest in birds I will illustrate our visit with a page from Willoughby and Ray’s seminal book Ornithologia libri tres.

willoughby and ray

The Science Museum group collectively has influenced many a child’s decision to engage with science to A level and beyond. The numbers of school parties they host each year is impressive, with more than half a million children visiting one of their museums annually. Their website is the most ‘googled’ museum in the world.  I look forward to watching them proceed from strength to strength, even if now I will mainly simply be standing on the side-lines cheering them on.


Posted in Communicating Science, Science Culture | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on With Regret

Warts and All

Are role models useful? What should they look like (metaphorically rather than literally; I’m not channelling dizzy blond here)? And how should they describe themselves? A recent article entitled ‘Successful women do not always make the best role models’ in the Financial Times on this subject – written more about city women than scientists, but I believe the same points would apply – stated

‘The experience of much-written-about “superwomen”, such as fund managers Nicola Horlick and Helena Morrissey in the UK, or Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook in the US, can sometimes discourage as much as encourage those attempting to imitate their success.’

This makes a lot of sense to me. To be much help, a role model has to be someone you can identify with, a person who you could imagine aspiring to be, not someone who you envisage as having been born into some advantage you lack, or having had the good – but improbable – fortune of being sponsored by a CEO from an early stage in their career. Aiming high is one thing, but for most of us there is no point trying to get from the bottom to the top in one fell swoop. Furthermore, if you are a minority ethnic, these women named are unlikely to look plausible characters to model yourself upon for the very obvious reason of the colour of their skin and all the concomitant complications that intersectionality may bring.

I was embarrassed once to participate in a well-intentioned evening consisting of a panel of women from many spheres, all of whom would have been seen as successful, and then to be told by a young attendee it was just dispiriting because how could she hope to become like one of us? That had not at all been the aim of the evening but I couldn’t help wondering how many of those listening to the panel discussion would have been similarly discouraged. For them, we clearly weren’t role models. We were the sorts of people they couldn’t imagine turning into, and so we were simply a turn off of the kind the Financial Times article identifies.

The solution to this, according to Brenda Trenowden, chair of the 30% Club is that more senior women need to be encouraged “to talk authentically and frankly, warts and all” about their rise to top positions. But I’m not sure that’s enough. I can’t remember enough about the specific panel I mention above to be sure I talked about the challenges along the way to becoming a professor but, as on this blog, I usually do. I think it only does the audience a disservice if, as I have heard other women occasionally do, they imply they have never had any setbacks. No one gets to the top (unless, perhaps, by literal family nepotism) without struggling at some time or the other. No one achieves success without occasionally falling flat on their face, feeling out of their depth, or royally screwing up. I just don’t believe the world works like that.

Metaphorical warts matter because the young will be only too familiar with their own flaws and, if someone is to be a role model, then they must look sufficiently similar. This might be in the colour of their skin, their gender or their background, but it must also include some sort of human frailty. If I tried to pretend – as I definitely don’t – that I had always known exactly what I wanted to do and how I was going to get there, how would that help a fresh graduate who knew perfectly well they didn’t have a clue? Here on my blog, and in my talks to early career researchers – and indeed to school children too – I freely admit to many glitches, hiccoughs not to mention failures along my path.

To some extent it is easier for me to do this now I am senior; I have less to lose. For a mid-career scientist (probably also for a mid-career worker in any sector) that may be a much harder thing to do. Both because they are still struggling with their own confidence and aspirations, but also because they may fear that someone listening might subsequently stick the knife in during a promotion decision. However, in general I believe that role models to be useful should actually be not that far ahead of the person listening/watching.

I believe we are muddling up two different concepts in the term ‘role model’. There is the person providing the existence proof that someone like them can progress up the ladder and that someone needs to be only a few rungs higher up and so still an ‘imaginable’ self. And then there is a second category of person, the Sheryl Sandberg’s of this world, who can be ‘inspirational’ without being seen as necessarily similar. They indicate that for some people there is a way to the top. It doesn’t mean that it has to be someone like them, but those dizzy heights are attainable in the abstract. For me, role model should be applied to the former group, since they are the people occupying a role the listener can relate to, someone who could indeed act as a model for the future. The latter group are more about dreams, perhaps, than reality. I still find it startling that people place me in the latter category, and I say this in all humility. But that makes it all the more important for me to speak up about my own flaws so that I can still seem human rather than some fantasy superwoman. Since I lack the power to fly or to climb buildings with my bare hands and feet, I am better off being honest.

We certainly need more women prepared to speak up, not just about the moral imperative of equality, not just about their science, but about what advice helped them on their way, even if it is just about getting through their PhD or first postdoc. Everyone can profit from the clear-sightedness of someone just that bit ahead of them in the game. Everyone should be able to believe that the obstacles they currently face, be it settling down to writing that PhD or dealing with an aggressive fellow worker, do actually have a solution and that other people’s experience can (but may not) be helpful.

Role models do not have to be superwomen; they merely have to be people who’ve cracked your current stumbling block and found a way forward. Additionally, people need to recognize that all the successful people have similarly stumbled, perhaps even staggered backwards; that they will have embarrassing red-face moments to recount over a glass of wine and plenty of rejections to list on their CVs if they choose to do so. Warts can take many forms from impostor syndrome to the knowledge that their PhD thesis was riddled with errors.

In my College speeches I frequently quote our Founder Sir Winston Churchill, who tends to have an apt bon mot for every occasion. This one seems apposite here: ‘even [man’s] greatest neglects or failures may bring him good’. Role models, fantasy super(wo)men and those starting out should all bear that in mind.


Posted in Science Culture, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 5 Comments