Professional Bodies in the Diversity Frame

All male invited speakers at conferences or a senior leadership team that contains not a single woman are common across the employment landscape. In the physical sciences and engineering the problem is particularly acute because the numbers of women who start off in the sector are unacceptably low. On the back of this the Institution of Engineering and Technology has been running a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #9%isnotenough, corresponding to the fact that in the engineering workforce that is the approximate percentage of female engineers (for a general overview see here). When talking about diversity we need, of course, to think much more broadly than just about women: ethnicity and disability should equally form a focus, and which direction you should be putting most effort into does depend on the details of your organisation.

Recognizing this, the Science Council has just launched a new initiative directed at Diversity and Inclusion amongst its member bodies. The Science Council, working in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Engineering , has drawn up and launched this week what they call a Diversity and Inclusion Progression Framework aimed at focussing the minds of the 63 engineering and science professional bodies who make up the membership of the Science Council.

Universities and individual university departments as well as Research Institutes have been able to use the Athena Swan process to monitor (and get recognition for) their work around gender diversity and progression for a number of years. But for many other organisations no comparable framework exists. The Science Council hopes that if the parent professional bodies scrutinise their own behaviour it will help to spread the word to those who work in the sector wherever they may be. It is an interesting initiative as a way to effect culture change.

The framework considers eight areas on which the organisations will be expected to reflect:

  • Governance and Leadership;
  • Membership and professional registration;
  • Meetings, conferences and events;
  • Education and training, accreditation and exams;
  • Prizes, awards and grants;
  • Communications, marketing, outreach and engagement;
  • Employment;
  • Monitoring and measuring.

Under each of these topics there is a four-level ‘maturity model’, identifying how far on an organisation is in its progression, and indications are given as to what might be expected for each of ‘Initiating, Developing, Engaging and Evolving’ stages.

Reading through their leaflet describing the process, it is clear how organisations tackling the different headings may be able to disseminate best practice to their own members. Consider the example I mentioned at the start of this post: all male platforms. Since so many conferences are organised directly by or under the auspices of a professional body, it is immediately obvious how greater internal consideration of gender and ethnic mix on the platform – not to mention accessibility issues for speakers as well as the audience – may lead to an improvement in experience for all. It will take time to work its way through the organisations and into the wider culture but every step counts.

Some of the member organisations will be further on in their internal reflections than others. The Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry I know have both been active for many years in the broader diversity arena, with the IOP having worked very closely with schools and teachers in particular, as well as developing Project Juno. Other member organisations with which I am less familiar have probably been busy too. Nevertheless, no doubt every organisation can do more within at least some of the eight headings to ensure their entire profession is mobilised to improving the climate around diversity and inclusion.

For engineering in particular, it is clear how much the problems start early in attracting – or putting off – girls into the profession. Clearly this framework can’t turn that around overnight. Whether you blame it on parents, teachers, peers or society, the problems run deep. However, reaching out to more tiers of the profession through their professional bodies has to be a sensible strategy as part of the much wider cultural alignment we seem so slow to be achieving in the UK. I wish the Science Council’s initiative every success; it will be interesting to see how it pans out as the framework gets embedded in organisations and the Science Council carries out benchmarking during 2017.

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

Beyond the Silo Mentality

I have been fretting about the challenges of appropriately evaluating interdisciplinary work for many years. My specific beef has been about grant assessment in the Research Councils at the interface between physics and biology, because that is where my research expertise sits, and I have seen – and heard about – too many instances of what would appear to be a very non-level playing field. I wrote about this here and here; it is an issue I feel passionate about because it is clear that things can go badly awry. Judging interdisciplinary work is not easy because you cannot simply rely on experts on the individual component parts to come up with an overall judgement simply by summing (or averaging) their scores. Not-cutting-edge science in either/any of the contributing disciplines can nevertheless lead to startling new results by combining different approaches to create something novel. That isn’t the only way novelty can be achieved, but it is one that is often killed at birth by ‘experts’ saying the physics, the biology or whatever isn’t original.

Of course one can find interdisciplinary science at the interface between practically any pair of disciplines. Indeed I was once formally told by senior folk at one Research Council that this was the reason why they weren’t prepared to consider the physics-biology interface further, which didn’t convince me then – or now – as a good response. Disciplines are convenient fictions, but they really aren’t silos with large gaps in between where nothing sits (‘forbidden states’ as we would say in condensed matter physics). However, although they aren’t that, people often operate as if they are, in other words with a ‘silo mentality’. To use another physics analogy, too often research committees undergo ‘regression towards the mean’. Outliers in research area – and this needn’t even mean interdisciplinarity, just something that is either not flavour of the month or perceived as not being core to the subject – are seen as just that, outliers, and therefore not worthy of support. In contrast, something that sits squarely in an area that is in favour and has several people round the table who actually vaguely understand what is written is likely to get the nod because people feel comfortable with it. I may exaggerate, but not as much as you might wish to believe. I’ve seen it happen too often over many years in different sorts of committees.

Before I get to the actual point of this post (which is certainly not meant this time as an attack on funders), let me illustrate the ‘not flavour of the month’ aspect by personal experience. When I was a young researcher I took over a grant won by my mentor Sir Sam Edwards to work on Food Physics. Over time, once I’d got my head around what this might encompass since it certainly wasn’t an area in which I had any prior direct experience, it became a very satisfying experience. As I’ve written before I had particular satisfaction – and I would like to think, success – studying starch. But my colleagues weren’t all amused, and for my students attending conferences often turned into rather dispiriting affairs. Other physicists, even other polymer physicists, just didn’t see that this was interesting stuff for a physicist to look at, but it would never cut ice as pure biology. The group at the Cavendish persisted, also working closely with industry, and for a decade or more we had a thriving group internally which perhaps wasn’t always appreciated by the wider academic community. So, it amuses me (in a rather melancholic way) to see the Institute of Physics now pushing ‘Food Physics’ and ‘Food Manufacturing’ as if it is an exciting new area. The November issue of their magazine featured the former, a special report in October the latter. I wonder what their very own editor Matin Durrani makes of this transformation, since he was one of the students who at the time probably felt his work (on polysaccharide-protein gels, the type of mixtured that underlie low fat spreads) was not seen as sexy.

Anyhow, to return to the theme of interdisciplinarity. Why is this currently on my mind? It’s because, just this last week, HEFCE have announced the creation of an Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel for REF21; I have been appointed as chair. It is a big ask for all the same reasons research councils find it hard to crack the funding problem. The REF panels assessing our universities will work via discipline (I assume). Unlike in the US, joint appointments between departments are not particularly common. Research Councils urge us to work in a multidisciplinary way, but structures simply don’t make this easy. A recent report from Durham University (co-authored by another polymer physicist and former Cambridge colleague Tom McLeish) has considered the way interdisciplinary research should be evaluated, mainly in the context of funders (as opposed to the REF), and sets out some very clear proposals about what constitutes truly collaborative work. No doubt we collectively will be studying this and other similar documents to help inform our ultimate recommendations. I am under no illusions that meeting for a couple of hours and all will be solved. It just isn’t that kind of problem. I believe I have just (possibly foolishly) taken on a very large challenge.

No doubt in time as our work gets underway I won’t be able to write anything about our work, but since we haven’t started yet I feel bound by no confidentiality. After all, there is nothing to be confidential about so far, not even the membership of the panel, and the information that the panel exists was merely announced at a meeting on interdisciplinarity and through Twitter. I will make three confident predictions about our findings:

1 Some people will not like them. Whatever our recommendations are, someone will complain that they are personally disadvantaged (or that someone else is unfairly advantaged).

2 The amount of time I find I need to invest as Chair will be significantly more than the invitation letter implies. Informal contact with James Wilsdon who chaired the HEFCE Metrics panel tends to confirm this suspicion.

3 Institutions will find ways to play the system, whatever criteria may be adopted.

Despite this, I am quite sure that having a group of broad-minded individuals working across the full spectrum of disciplines is crucial in trying to move the debate forward. So, I’ll give it my best shot – along with my as yet unknown colleagues – to try ensure that finally those working in new ways, in new combinations and with new insight and innovative approaches will be assessed fairly and equitably with those who sit neatly within the traditional silos.


Posted in Interdisciplinary Science, Research | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Evasive Tactics?

If my last post discussed an important point that doesn’t typically receive much notice – although I’m glad to say the post, and its accompanying repost on the THE website both did – this current one is meant simply as a piece of fun. I write from Brussels where I have been attending one of the ERC’s Scientific Council plenaries. I am amused by the notice in the lift, shown below, listing the different meeting rooms my hotel has for hire. The names surprise me….

Brussels hotel

Evasion???    Innovation, creation and even harmony I can understand. But what is one meant to take away from a meeting room entitled Evasion? Role plays about how to be a politician and never answer a question perhaps? Media training has taught me a bit about that:

That’s a very interesting question. Now let me tell you about….

and a segue into something totally different that is the point you want to get across and not the awkward question that the interrogator really wants the answer to.

Or perhaps you don’t know the answer to how many million unemployed there are, or what the percentage of GDP that is spent on research is, in which case evasion is a useful technique to cover up ignorance:

I’m glad you asked me that question. I’ll leave it to my Honorable friend on my right to give you the precise figures.

Then there is the case of evasion to avoid self-incrimination. In the UK we don’t have the opportunity to ‘plead the 5th’, so one has to rely on some other form of extrication. The simplest trick is simply to reply ‘no comment’, but that is a give-away of guilt as often as not so more subtle responses are preferable. I suspect these will usually implicate others in any wrong-doing. So, for instance, the answer to

‘Did you know your grant money was being improperly spent?’

is probably

‘I leave such details to the administrators’;

or to

‘Were you aware there was serious bullying going on in your group?’,

an evasive answer might be

‘I consider that a matter for HR.’

Those answers probably won’t get anyone off the hook, but they might buy some time.

Evasion is not a tactic that smacks of high probity or integrity. So why name a meeting room after the ploy? Is there some meaning of Evasion in Walloon that means something more honourable, or was the room named by an irritated visitor to the city frustrated with the behaviour of Eurocrats? In an idle moment I’ve come up with a list of alternative words ending in –ion that I feel would have been preferable, plus a second list that I think are on a par for unsuitability. Please amuse yourselves by adding to both these lists!

Good or Not-so-bad Words Pretty Dire Choices
Stimulation Exhaustion
Reflection Perspiration
Rejuvenation Desperation
Characterisation Trepidation
Persuasion Inundation
Correlation and its close friend Causation Procreation
Generation Damnation
Improvisation Inebriation
Estimation Stupefaction
Jollification Tension
Maturation Procrastination
Education Defenestration




Posted in Science Culture | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Do You Want to be Described as Hard Working?

I visited Oxford this week to talk to the Women in Physics group, mainly made up of students and postdocs (not all of whom were women). Tea and excellent scones were provided to stimulate good discussion. I was duly grilled as the voice of experience and asked to provide advice about career progression and setbacks. I want to highlight one particular question that was raised by a student looking to apply for fellowships and needing letters of reference to be written on their behalf. Should she, she asked, point out to her supervisor that a letter that said she was a good team player might be of limited use.

What she was getting at was the fact that people can, often without deliberate intent, write such letters in a very gendered way. A few years ago this seemed little appreciated. People ‘knew’ what the sterling values for a woman should be – being conscientious, kind, helpful, a good team player or hard-working might all have been regarded as praise. But it was praise of a kind that does not necessarily imply high performance in a laboratory let alone in a new research fellow. The words that are required to land such a position are more likely to involve qualities such as drive, potential, creativity, imagination, excellence and to be regarded as outstanding, stellar or ‘top of the class’.

So, if letter writers just sit down and write the first adjectives that come into their head to describe men and women, the words may be poles apart even if the subjects of the letters are indistinguishable in ability. Clearly, this can lead to significant detriment to the woman’s progression even if without a sexist intent. As with so many of the different strands that make up unconscious bias, making the bias conscious so that the letter writer pauses, pen metaphorically in the air, may make all the difference. Do you really mean your star female PhD student is hard-working and conscientious – or was the message that you wanted to convey in fact that she was outstanding, goes the extra mile and always exceeds your expectations about what is possible, demonstrating great originality en route? There is an enormous difference in the impact of the two descriptions.

For the supervisor whose pen is now aloft but frozen in their hand as they realise they haven’t a clue how to tackle this letter-writing business which is turning out a lot more challenging than they’d anticipated, help is at hand. When I first wrote about this issue back in 2012, citing a 2009 study by J. Madera, M. Hebl and R. Martin in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the topic had not yet received a great deal of attention. However now you can, for instance, write your letter of reference and pass it through a website which will highlight words that may be perceived as gendered. You will soon be able to tell quite how many words of dubious worth you’ve included. Hence you can deduce whether the description is what you intended or something far from it. After all, some of us some of the time may feel the kindest thing we can say about the dunce in the group (whatever their gender) is that they are hard-working in which case well and good. Sometimes being a team player may be an absolutely crucial skill for a particular role, in which case go for it.

Additionally there are style-writing guides amplifying the basic points I am making here. For generic jobs you might want to look here; or a similar set of advice addressed specifically to scientists, indeed astronomers, here. Whereas a few years ago a Google search for ‘gendered letters of reference’ threw up very little, now it will produce multiple hits. This is progress of sorts.

However, to come back to the original question, there is an additional element implied in the question. The student was applying now for fellowships. Would it be tactful now to raise this topic – or was it actually too late? I consider it might turn out to be distinctly awkward to stand over the supervisor who is about to draft your letter of reference pointing out what they write shouldn’t be gendered and please could they include lots of superlatives. It could be seen as pretty pushy if not downright offensive! Maybe this is something that in general the concerned student should slip into a discussion weeks/months in advance; perhaps it could be brought up in a journal club debate or an Athena Swan workshop. Departments could also circulate information annually to their staff to remind them of the possibility of double standards in adjectives and nouns peppering references. There are plenty of sites now putting out information covering this topic, so it isn’t necessary for every department to reinvent this particular wheel, even if it may still be necessary for each and every one actively to promote this information.

For the reader of such letters of reference it is important to know when someone is described as hard-working because that’s the kindest thing anyone can say, and when the writer actually meant to convey an extremely positive impression but is unaware that their description is gendered and liable to be read in a very differnt way. The more this issue is discussed explicitly, the less women will be unintentionally disadvantaged.

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