The Only Woman in the Room

The Only Woman in the Room, is not only an experience I have frequently endured, but is also the title of a 2015 book by Eileen Pollack (subtitled Why Science is Still a Boy’s Club). I’m not sure why this particular book hadn’t crossed my path until recently, given it is about her experiences as an erstwhile female physicist during her education, but it hadn’t. She and I are near contemporaries but her environment in the USA seems to have been infinitely more hostile than anything I experienced, despite formal similarities.

I went to a girls’ grammar in London. I may have been the only girl in my year ‘weird’ enough to want to study physics at university but no one told me so to my face in so many words and they certainly didn’t make it difficult for me. I had an experienced teacher who had herself studied physics (at Oxford). How different from Pollack’s experience where, in a co-ed school, she was in a minority of one from early on in her attempt to get the subjects under her belt which would enable her to study physics at university. For a girl to enter Yale, only a few years after they had first admitted women and coming from what might have been termed a ‘bog standard comprehensive’ had it been in the UK, rather than some elite academy or private school, was also a huge accomplishment for her. Perhaps when she did it, she hadn’t quite appreciated how big a step she was taking or quite what she would be facing; no one had taken the trouble to warn or prepare her. At least my school had a track record of sending girls to Oxbridge and, even more to the point, Oxbridge had been accepting girls for many years even if in segregated single sex colleges. We were simply not unexpected in the lecture theatre even if uncommon (with a ratio of about 10 men to every women on average across the subjects).

I wrote about the not-so-very-close parallel between the Ivy League transition to coeducation and the opening up of Oxbridge colleges to a mixed entry in a post last year, written in a more impersonal vein on the back of the book Nancy Malkiel wrote (Keep the Damned Women Out). It did occur at around the same time but the fact that Yale and its peers had never previously allowed the admission of women to its courses seems to me to have made the transition to coeducation an awful lot harder than in the UK. Certainly, to return to Pollack’s detailed experiences of isolation, what she terms ‘subtle hazing’ and a constant battle to be recognized simply don’t tally with my experiences of a few years earlier.

Girton when I went up was a women-only college and therefore every time I returned there I returned to being surrounded by women. If I had wanted support – as of course I sometimes did – there were plenty of female friends and Fellows to offer it. But in fact I don’t recall my experiences in the lecture theatre or practical classes resembling the atmosphere Pollack found herself in. All alone as a female in a practical of around 60 men I might have been, but that didn’t seem to be the problem in itself. (The fact I was incompetent was much more to the point). In fact, in my chemistry practical in the first few weeks I was helped enormously by a lad from a posher school than mine who knew exactly what all the different glassware was for. He became a good mate throughout my three years, as well as my best friend’s boyfriend, all because we bonded over a conical flask.

Nor do I remember supervisors treating me differently from my male peers when, in my final year I was finally paired with men away from my own college. Indeed one of those supervisors was supportive then and has remained so ever since (thank you Archie Howie! My erstwhile head of department at the Cavendish, now an emeritus fellow of the college I am proud to serve as Master.). I was one of those tedious students who used to pin down lecturers at the end of lectures about missing minus signs and other things I wasn’t sure I understood, and they never brushed me off however annoying I must have been.

My Cambridge was, for me, a totally different experience than Pollack’s Yale. To take a very close parallel. In my first year – as in hers – I had a test (mine was just a dry run) in physics in which I scored some dismal score in the 30s. I forget precisely what appallingly low percentage it was but Pollack clearly felt scarred that she had scored 32.  She remembers it exactly. She describes in detail how she was so mortified by this failure, the belief it gave her that she was rubbish and everyone else was much smarter, and hence the compulsion she felt to work even harder. She doesn’t seem to have discussed her result with anyone to see whether any of her beliefs were true. I, on the other hand, had a sympathetic Director of Studies, the late Christine Mackie, who said merely she was sure I would do much better when the actual exam came around and she suggested I took the weekend off to clear my brain. (Advice, I may say, I took and cycled to Saffron Walden with a friend on a lovely spring afternoon.  When I next saw Mrs Mackie she seemed a bit startled by the literal way I had taken her advice.)

Pollack was so burnt by all her experiences, feeling at the time that no one ever offered her support or encouragement (although at the end of the book she admits that perhaps that wasn’t quite true) and that she basically was not wanted in the male geek club of physics, that she left the subject despite her initial determination to proceed to a PhD. Instead, although I never really understood exactly how this change was effected, she started attending creative writing and literature courses toward the end of her Yale years, found far more women in the room and a far more welcoming environment, and switched her aspirations. She has since made a very successful career as a writer and as an academic in creative writing. Yet clearly, all these years later, she was driven to try to explore what went wrong, what has changed – at Yale and elsewhere – for women studying physics and engineering. The latter part of her book describes her conversations with young women and, most notably, with Meg Urry the well-known astrophysicist and head of Yale Physics.

She reveals that many women still regard themselves as outliers, as unsupported and struggling in a hostile predominantly male environment. Again, I wonder how similar the experiences she describes of these current students would be to those in Cambridge. I would like to think the answer would be, as in my day, not very. The numbers of women in physics still struggle to get much over 20% but on the whole those I talk to do not describe a hostile workplace. They may find the course tough. They may feel, as I did with my chemistry practical class, that other students are better prepared than they are. Studies of exam results suggest that first year women do fare slightly less well but that the gender attainment gap closes with each successive year (by no means true in all subjects). Perhaps the legacy of the 1970s experiences of Yale and other Ivy League universities lives on in subjects like Physics. Perhaps Oxbridge got some things a lot righter then and now.

I did not warm to Pollack in the first part of the book. Her anger and hurt were visible but she came across as a fairly self-centred and unsympathetic character. I note that one of the reviews I read of the book in the Chicago Tribune obviously shared my reaction saying ‘As the sole focus of two-thirds of the book, they [her stories] land with a tremendous whine.’  Other reviews were kinder and I certainly felt drawn in by the end of the book to her exploration and comparison of now versus then.  In that sense it was a book well worth reading. But the contrast with my own, clearly relatively fortunate experiences, was clear.


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What do We Lose if We Lose Access to the ERC?

This week I was in Brussels in my capacity as a Scientific Council Member of the European Research Council. One of the roles we are all expected to fulfil from time to time is as observer of the various panels that make decisions on grants. There are 25 panels across three domains (Physical and Engineering Sciences, Life Sciences and Social Sciences and Humanities, always referred to as PE, LS and SH domains), and three stages of grants: Starter, Consolidator and Advanced. Each panel meets twice, first for shortlisting and a few months later for final decision after receipt of referee reports on the full shortlisted grants. Additionally there are separate calls for Proof of Concept grants and now the recently reintroduced Synergy grants. This all represents a huge amount of work involving a large number of experts from right across Europe, supported by a highly professional team of Commission employees.

This week I attended Step 2 (that is the final decision-making stage) of the Advanced Grants, spending time observing three panels from the PE domain and two from SH. Whereas for Starter and Consolidator grant applications, applicants are called for interview at Step 2, this is not the case for Advanced Grants. So what I observed was simply panel discussions. I have now written up my notes and shared them with other Scientific Council members. This Scientific Council oversight is an important part of our role and also allows us to check that we are happy with the instructions panels receive; that we know how the process is working and where it may need some additional tweaks or oversight; and that we are confident that the panels are operating effectively. It also makes it easier for us to discuss any concerns the supporting teams may have. In due course any worries that people have about particular panel members’ contributions will also be considered centrally.

That introduction is to illustrate some of the reasons that I am so concerned about the potential loss of access to funding for UK researchers post-Brexit. There is the obvious loss of money. Easy, some people say, the Government will replace the existing scheme with a set of personal fellowships to be held in the UK. Problem solved. Except that such a programme, welcome though it might be in purely cash terms, would not and could not mimic what the ERC offers. If you sit on an appointment or promotion panel, if the applicant is holding (or possibly, has held) an ERC grant at any level, it is noted with respect. A holder of a straight UK Research Council grant will get a tick for the cash, the proof that the applicant can successfully write a research grant, but the respect afforded – in my experience – is significantly less.

And that is because the competition across the whole of Europe, with a success rate of somewhat better than 10% in a typical round but usually less than 15%, is incredibly stiff (basic statistics on this can be found here). The success rate may be similar for UK Research Councils, the competition is undoubtedly fierce here, but the ERC draws from a much larger pool of applicants and there are significant restrictions imposed on submitting a new proposal if an earlier one is deemed to have been below a certain threshold, thereby pushing up the standard of those who can apply each round. As was said to me by a member of shadow UKRI’s workforce recently, there is huge prestige associated with winning an ERC grant. Nevertheless the UK is a very successful country in winning such grants: its success rate is not the highest of all, but the total number of grants awarded has been for most rounds (although in the last announced round Germany had overtaken the UK). In terms of success rate – as opposed to numbers – Israel and Switzerland, both associated countries, tend to do best. The ERC Executive Agency provides the Scientific Council with meticulous data after each round covering information about gender, country and so on for both applications and success rates at the two steps.

So the ERC schemes provide a highly prestigious scheme in which the UK does well. That in itself would be cause enough to mourn its loss to the UK – and I’m sure many scientists are looking ahead with huge anxiety as our access looks likely to be curtailed by the political process, although personally I’m not giving up hope yet. But, there are other less obvious reasons why I think the ERC process is so striking. I’m not saying panels will always get things right; comparing the apples and pears of different proposals is always going to contain a subjective element. But I am not aware of any UK Research Council that goes to the lengths of scrutiny that the ERC does.

As I said, Scientific Council members drop in on panels – unannounced and often unrecognized as I discovered to my dismay, when a panel member kindly told me I was in the wrong room. I did wonder whether, had I been a man this person would have been so swift to rush to judgement, but I will never know whether this was a crude stereotyping or someone trying to be genuinely helpful. Is there any UK Research Council that expects the same of its Council members? I am sure that UK grant panels now do get mandatory unconscious bias training, but do Chairs get additional wide-ranging briefings as ERC chairs do? I certainly haven’t in the past when serving as a chair in the UK. Is data analysed carefully after every round to see whether gender bias is still present despite the training video? Is there a group that considers all aspects of gender balance (I sit on the ERC’s Gender Balance Working Group) – in panel make up as well as in the statistics of applications and grants; or the geographical distribution of panel members? Or the years post PhD of successful applicants….and so on. How carefully is panel composition scrutinised within the UK? And are people blacklisted if they don’t contribute sufficiently, write their reports on time or otherwise fail to come up to scratch?

It seems to me that the rigorous processes that the ERC has created in its relatively short (10 years old last year) existence are less visible in the UK system. And I’m sure this rigour does help strengthen the assessment process. We have all received referees’ comments that make us furious because of their inaccuracy and (at least perceived) ignorance, but for some UK Research Councils at least it is much harder for a panel member to throw a report that appears to be out of line out of consideration. ERC panel members are able, indeed absolutely expected, to use their own judgement in reaching a conclusion and if that includes throwing out a dodgy report, so be it.

If and when we lose access to the ERC I therefore believe we will lose far more than just the cash, important though that obviously is. I hope the UK scientific leadership, in UKRI and Government, will recognize what is at stake if a deal cannot be reached that permits us to continue to apply for ERC funding. And that is all before we consider the loss of researchers who choose to move to countries where such access is still available, to the further detriment of the science done here. I also know how much the ERC itself values the science done on these shores and their own recognition that our departure from the grant competition will not improve the excellence their funding can deliver, the excellence that sits four-squarely at the core of everything they do.

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One Hundred Years

Today we celebrate the Suffragettes’ victory 100 years ago: votes for (some) women. A timely moment to reflect on the state of play in terms of equality. More than seven years ago I wrote the post below about the Equal Pay Act and how the gender pay gap operates in universities. Rereading it last week – in the wake of an article by Gaby Hinsliff – it still rings as true  to me today as then. As Hinsliff says, true gender equality is about more than pay, but pay, as events at the BBC recently have demonstrated, is a good place to start. The same is true in universities and now all universities will legally have to report their gender pay gap, just as Cambridge University has been doing since 2009.

But on this day, as we celebrate the centenary of  women’s suffrage, as we remember the suffragettes and suffragists and think about what they were prepared to do to get the vote; as I think – as Master of Churchill College – about our Founder’s rather duplicitous position on women’s rights and the vote; and as, perhaps even more importantly, we attempt to peer into the future about equality, it is worth reflecting where we are today. We women may have the vote, but we don’t have equality in the eyes of too many men. From Trump downwards (or upwards, depending on your point of view) women may be seen as shrill and to be silenced, as Mary Beard’s recent book Women and Power illustrates so beautifully. We may be overlooked in the promotion stakes or side-lined as a result of child-bearing, regardless of the justice of such acts. We may be attacked verbally and physically at work, in the streets and at home. As an articulate, middle class woman I am undoubtedly more privileged, less cash-strapped and vulnerable, than so many but still I get annoyed when I am told I don’t belong. Yes, that happened again this week when I was kindly told I must be in the wrong room at an ERC panel meeting in Brussels which I was attending as a Scientific Council member observer. I hope the male in question was embarrassed when he found out my credentials. It didn’t matter, but the sense of a presumption of exclusion wounds time and time again for many women the world around.

So in 100 years, do I think we will have reached true equality? As my brief quotes in today’s Guardian spells out, I am sceptical. I would love it if I lived to see gender cease to be a discussion point in the pages of that paper. I simply don’t have any expectation that I will.


What does Dagenham have to do with Higher Education?

This week sees the release of the film ‘Made in Dagenham’ , a film about a group of women sewing machinists at Ford in Dagenham who went on strike to get equal pay with men doing the same job. And it raises the question, is equal pay the right target? Anne Perkins in the Guardian has used the film as a basis for saying ‘it’s the wrong cause at the wrong time‘ to work to close the gender pay gap. Germaine Greer, also in the Guardian, seems to believe that focussing on the idea of equal pay for equal work has meant ‘a generation has been sent off at a tangent’. Are they right? And why should that matter for us in Higher Education?

My university is one of the few in the UK that publishes its Equal Pay Review (e.g.2009 report).  To my mind this is a crucial first step in establishing what is going on in any organisation, but it is only a first step for many different reasons.  Esther Haines has taken this debate about equal pay (though not in the context of the film) through a statistical analysis, and concludes an institutional gender pay gap is an incomplete and ambiguous measure of inequality.’

Absolutely true, the figures in themselves – like any statistics – cannot be used without thought and interpretation about what they mean. There will almost always be vertical segregation in a population such as a university – in other words women are over-represented in the bottom grades which include cleaners and clerical staff, but under-represented at the top where senior professors and administrators are overwhelmingly male. Different numbers and different proportions in the various grades can distort the value of the ‘gender pay gap’ in several misleading ways.  So, such an equal pay review must simply be used as a kicking off point. Nevertheless, it is predicated on the basis that people should receive ‘equal pay for equal work’, exactly what those women in Dagenham fought for and for which we in the 21st century should be grateful.

The reality is that they didn’t actually succeed, they had to settle for receiving 87% of the men’s rate, an increase equivalent to a mere 2p an hour, but they did make a real difference. In part this was because they provided ammunition for Barbara Castle to move towards the 1970 Equal Pay Act.  Just like Rosa Parks they awoke consciousness in places not awake before and started off the politicians – and society – on a long, tortuous path which appears still to have no ending. I find it rather patronizing to be told that this was the wrong cause, because to my mind that is looking at it from the (relatively) comfortable position of 2010 and shows little recognition of the 1960’s reality when there were, for instance, entirely different pay scales for men and women. Equality was so far away it must have seemed unimaginable in a way that is hard to envisage now.

So why do I believe Dagenham is relevant to the Higher Education sector? The mathematician in me tells me that equal pay for equal work is a necessary but not sufficient condition for equality, despite the limitations that are implicit, and the myths that Esther Haines identifies that have become associated with the phrase.  For academics it is actually quite easy to see that rather simple ideas and hypotheses can be examined in some cases. At lecturer grade for instance, the gender of the lecturer is irrelevant, the work is ‘equal’ for all and we are not trying to compare sewing machinists with spray painters as at Ford in the original case.  So, if there is a gendered distribution in pay, that must be telling us something about the organisation’s practices.  Perhaps men are systematically being appointed at a higher point on the pay scale; or women are progressing more slowly through the grade (you will note I am making the tacit assumption that women are being disadvantaged if there is a pay gap).  Identification of any pay differential should enable us to analyse why, and in principle do something about it. In practice, in Cambridge University if I am interpreting the tables correctly – and the payscale here is sufficiently complex  (even if formally transparent) that I should issue a health warning – there is less than 2% difference. This is sufficiently small there is no statutory duty to do anything about it. But we can still just pause and think if there is an underlying issue we need to consider.

However the problem for academic pay here – and I would hazard in most universities – lie at the upper reaches, where the number of women in the professoriat are small, the bands cover a wide range and we have market supplements on top of this which can be negotiated to aid recruitment and retention. All of this information is publicly available as statistical information, but of course not the details of any actual deal. When numbers are small it is extremely difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions, except that the numbers are small. But we cannot readily say there is anything systematic about the way women are or are not rewarded.  A lot more work needs to be undertaken (and will be) to explore that.

I also believe that there will be issues within my own university (and I doubt it is alone) about non-academic pay where it is not so easy to see if there are systemic problems because of our grading system. In particular, historically there were separate pay-scales within the University for clerical and technical staff.  In practice, of course, women populated the former pay-scale much more than the latter though this didn’t add up to actual different pay-scales for men and women. These pay-scales have now all been assimilated onto the single spine, but one can imagine that in some way this assimilation may have continued to favour the historic assumption that technical staff ere ‘more skilled’ than clerical staff. This situation is much more closely equivalent to the original Dagenham case; at that time the crude view was undoubtedly that anything a woman did was inherently less skilled than a man, and this was a view the Unions at the time fully supported (a  useful description of this position is presented by Beatrix Campbell in the second half of the article I mentioned above).  So here, even more than in the academic part of the university workforce, there will be a need to monitor, gather data and then analyse to see whether a substantive pay gap exists and if so why.

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When Should You Say Yes?

I am prompted to ask this question by a whole slew of different events and stories this past week. The question is in part a general one about what is good for careers, and in part it reflects gender issues – as they impact on both men and women. Let me start with the general careers’ question: how do you decide when something you have been asked to do is a wise thing to accept? There are a wide range of situations, and I’m sure I will omit many, so please feel free to add comments to open the debate up wider.

1 It’s something you’ve always wanted to do – the obvious answer is say yes. At once. But two notes of caution. Firstly, check that it really is something that is still desirable, rather than something that was exactly what you wanted to do two, or perhaps five years ago. Maybe your circumstances have changed sufficiently that it is now a distraction rather than a delight; or maybe your own aspirations have changed in the light of other circumstances. Secondly, even if you are going to say yes it is always wise to say to yourself ‘have I got time?’ (If you don’t say this, your family probably will). To fit in this new role/responsibility, what do you need to give up? It may give you the perfect excuse to drop something that has just become a tedious chore, or it may be it simply gives you more clout to carry out the roles you already have. But a quick sanity check is always in order.

2 It looks desirable but you are extremely nervous whether you’re up to it. Think hard before giving your answer in this case. Are you suffering from impostor syndrome, holding yourself needlessly back? Or are you genuinely not ready to step up to this new challenge? Getting other people’s opinions may be helpful here, but it is worth pausing to remember you have been asked to take this new role on by someone who presumably thinks you have what it takes. Few people are deliberately set up to fail by malicious colleagues; that would be a rare phenomenon in my experience. It is also worth asking around to see if there is any training or mentoring that would rapidly give you the skills you need to fit right in. Sometimes you are right to feel nervous, but impostor syndrome can be the devil. You could always agree a let-out with the committee chair (or whoever it might be) by saying that you’ll take the task on ‘on probation’ as it were, and that you will resign if it isn’t working out after some fixed time, which should be agreed in advance.

3 You have a strong suspicion you are being asked because half a dozen people have already said no because it’s a thankless but time-consuming task.  Or you are being asked because they’re short on their quota of (wo)men on the committee (for instance) and are just desperate to find someone who will make the membership look reasonable. You might well want to say no quite rapidly in these cases, unless it’s a cause close to your heart however greedy of time or however much you feel you’re not genuinely being asked because your talents are appreciated. Sometimes thankless tasks can win you many friends just because you show a willingness to take something important seriously when others have not.

4 Much more difficult to decide are those requests where you feel in principle it could be interesting but you know you will permanently clash with one (or more) of your bête noires (e.g. already serving on the committee) or that there is a real danger of the task expanding to fill all available hours and that it will keep you awake at night. On such occasions working out the balance of where the plusses and minuses work out may take a while. I do feel a gut reaction one way or the other is often the right thing to follow, although others will no doubt produce careful lists of pros and cons (think Charles Darwin trying to decide whether to get married here). Whatever, if you say yes (or no) and wake up the next morning feeling convinced you got it wrong – tell them. Changing your mind, as long as it’s fast enough for nothing to have been cast in stone, is better than enduring something in the long term that you realise only looked good on paper but actually will be a nightmare for you personally. I did this once with quite a key role, one that had all been resolved with my department in advance in terms of buy-out, but still within 24 hours I knew that the way the negotiation had been carried out meant there was little likelihood of a happy working relationship transpiring. I never regretted walking away, nor did I detect a loss of respect because I had done so.

But the other situation I want to raise is rather different. I posted a tweet this weekend to a very thoughtful post, by a man, about manels (a male-only panel) and what they indicate about the working environment for men and women. Be you, dear reader, male or female, please read this article because it neatly illustrates how something that can look trivial can form part of a culture that is actively damaging for everyone. If you are a man and think agreeing to sit on a panel that is all male is OK then I’d urge you to consider what message that gives to the audience about the power balance and structure of research in the topic area under discussion. There may be times when it is indeed appropriate for all kinds of reasons, but it is worth considering before you participate in such a panel.

However, it isn’t always clear cut. When agreeing to serve on a panel, in my experience you usually get asked without being told who else is involved – after all, everyone may be being asked simultaneously. It may seem ‘difficult’ to say you’ll agree if there is appropriate gender balance, but perhaps we all should. Until this week I would have said that such a question would be redundant in my case since I’m always the minority gender, but now I realise I’m wrong. I was sitting on a panel which was, in essence, all women. It was a bit more complicated than that as it was a single session in which different people were on stage at different times and a couple of school children were also involved one of whom was male. Nevertheless, the key ‘advertised’ speakers were all women. Did this matter? We were, after all, specifically reflecting on the world 100 years after (some) UK women got the vote, but I do wonder if it was healthy. Perhaps I should have pushed back at the outset, but it simply didn’t cross my mind. The original plan had been to have a male chair (although he had to drop out); does that make it better or worse?  I feel in principle single sex panels should simply always be avoided. I’d be interested to know readers’ views about such a ‘womanel’, to coin a phrase.  What do you think?

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Now I understand Proust better (but feel less positive about Athena Swan)

You know the story about Marcel Proust and the madeleine – how the memories came flooding back when he nibbled at one with a cup of tea. I always thought this was slightly ridiculous, but perhaps ageing means I now have more memories to recapture.  Suddenly it all made much more sense. And certainly, walking down the back streets of London from Kings Cross to UCL last week, I felt assailed by memories. Not of (or because of) cakes, but of episodes and people which inhabited the streets I was walking past. Memories long buried, many from my teenage London years.

As I crossed in front of Torrington Square I was reminded of the friend I’d made in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra who lived there and was a double bass player (to my viola). I lost touch with her so many years ago when I went to university, hadn’t thought of her in years, but suddenly I wanted to know what happened to this exuberant personality. I walked past the Waterstones, familiar to me in my youth as Dillons – the University of London’s bookstore – a place I always thought was worth popping into, although now it’s just like every other Waterstones in the country. But I also remembered a cheering cup of tea there (no madeleine) with a slightly estranged friend who opened up enough to tell me he and his wife were expecting their first child. Looking over to the tower of the Senate House, I remembered how I used to go there at lunchtimes from my gap year job with the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) to read Nature – goodness knows what I made of it at 17 or 18, but it made me feel grown up. And then there was the Student Union where a group of us would head off for a cheap(ish) lunch the summer I was working at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine during a vacation (though continuing the NCB project on the 1958 cohort, as I wrote about before).

As I approached the venue for my meetings with UCL folk, the memories became less cheering. My first session of the day was held next door to the MacMillan building where my mother had had an emergency blood transfusion a few years ago. UCL’s Cruciform building used to house University College Hospital where I visited both my grandmother, after bone cancer led to a broken hip and a need for it to be pinned urgently (that was the first we knew for sure of the cancer); and also my grandfather after his stroke, where he rapidly became institutionalised by the environment on the ward, making conversation about the world outside incredibly hard. That building was also where I went to get my allergies treated when coming home every vacation caused me to sneeze my head off in misery (with hindsight, I blame the cats at home, but I’d always lived with them so it wasn’t obvious at the time that I might suddenly be allergic to them).

But my day at UCL was not about memories; it was part of their Athena Swan initiative. Kicked off with a session of Q+A with around 25 early career researchers, I was bombarded with keen questions. The one that stumped me was ‘what single action would you like to be able to carry out, given the opportunity?’ Because of course if one thing could transform the world for women and men, to bring genuine equality about, then it would already have been done. It is, rather, the need to change so many parts of the system that is the problem: appointment and promotion procedures and criteria; reporting and handling bullying, harassment and worse; child care provision; long hours culture…the list goes on and I’m sure every reader can add more points of their own.

I have long been an enthusiastic champion of the Athena Swan Awards, but I am getting more and more uncomfortable with the workload imposed on those who take the local lead. Too often it is a junior woman on whom this load is dumped.  Whoever gets to take this on may be – as my host for the day and fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger Jenny Rohn is – totally committed, but what recognition do they get for all their efforts? Do they get their time bought out, statistical or other administrative support and a gold star in their application for their next promotion because of all their hard work? Unfortunately, the answer to all those questions is all too often a resounding no.  Even worse, if they are relative junior, how much change can they make to a unit’s practices, however obviously imperfect they may be? It needs the senior leadership to carry the burden, someone whose word really can effect change.

When Athena Swan started it was exclusively directed towards the STEM disciplines and, after a few initial teething problems (which Cambridge, as an early adopter, certainly encountered) it seemed relatively light touch and non-bureaucratic. But as the process has assumed more importance, it has also assumed more rigidity whilst simultaneously giving – to me at least – the impression that the level of awards is not always consistent. There seems too much emphasis on ‘novelty’, not enough on things that might be anything but novel, but are proven to work. I am aware of departments winning silver awards, either because the author can write a good case, or because they have made a lot of progress from a very low base, yet which are actually less favourable as a place of work for women than departments which fail to get their bronze award renewed. I have heard stories that make me very worried that, now the awards cover all disciplines and a broader take on diversity at all levels, there is less scope for genuine reflection about local circumstances and too much emphasis on what looks like a ‘tick box’ mentality. Given that I once wrote a post for the Guardian saying absolutely the opposite, I feel very worried by these trends.

I hope others can convince me I’m wrong in my increasing feeling of discomfort with the process, because I wholeheartedly believe in its aspirations. But currently I feel it has become overwhelmed by, if you like, its own success, becoming large and influential but perhaps no longer agile and responsive. As UKRI take over the oversight of diversity issues, I am optimistic they will pay careful attention to the way Athena Swan now works. I know this is an issue close to Phil Nelson’s heart (the current Research Council chair who will take the diversity lead in the new UKRI structures) and I am glad already to have had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues with him. For everyone, men and women alike, it is important that inclusion really works for all and that the historical inequalities in academic STEM departments get swiftly eradicated.


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