Tears Before Bedtime

Tears Before Bedtime

It is a well-worn trope that women weep and men shout. Stereotypical but, although I have occasionally seen women shout I have yet to see a man break down in public when losing an argument (as opposed to when losing a family member, for instance). There is some truth in the stereotyping.

But, in the male-by-default way of the world, shouting is still (largely) seen as something to be tolerated if not approved of. In committee meetings, if not in private, a man raising his voice and losing his cool doesn’t always get to lose the argument. A woman shedding tears in a similar situation is forever after labelled as emotional, hysterical, unable to take the stress of the job and not suitable for future senior roles – in other words, not only is she likely to lose the argument on the day, she may be blacklisted for the future. Indeed, without tears, without even emotion being displayed, women are accused of being emotional as a way of rendering them powerless – or should that be impotent? – as I have experienced to my dismay, if not cost.

Of course in one-on-one situations there have been women who have used their tears manipulatively. Not in the same way as a man (or indeed a woman) shouting to intimidate or bully a junior colleague in a setting without witnesses, but equally an inappropriate way to behave (however much both strategies are of long-standing). But in many cases a woman will break down because she is humiliated, or generally bruised, fed up either with having no attention paid to her yet again or too much, with a tirade directed against her for no good reason. I have yet  to find tears streaming down my face when feeling battered and demeaned (and I rather hope I never do), but it doesn’t mean tears don’t start to my eyes. Still. I try to do the best I can to hide this inconvenient truth. Maybe I should not? Maybe if more of us were comfortable expressing sadness and pain openly and honestly it would make things better for everyone.

Of course there are the times when the stress derived from multiple – and possibly irrelevant – causes builds up and the emotion erupts. A sleep-deprived parent with yet another nursery-produced heavy cold is less likely to be able to hold it all in than someone in the pink of health with no sleep arrears to make up. Someone whose mother has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer is less likely to be fully functional in a committee meeting than the person who has just received their letter of promotion. This background information, the material context, will usually be invisible to the others round the table, yet it will matter as the dynamics take over.

I wish we lived in a society where honesty was prized. It is even harder to accept this is presently true in the midst of all the current political turmoil, with Vote Leave not even pretending to appeal against their conviction for Electoral Fraud and with misinformation if not lies flying around the ether as the UK lurches from one crisis to another. Perhaps there are organisations where it is OK to walk into a meeting and admit that your personal life is adrift for reasons beyond your control, but even if you can do that with a few trusted professional colleagues I can’t imagine many departmental meetings would receive such news well, whatever superficially might – or might not – be said at the time. I have heard terms such as ‘(post) menopausal’ used as a critical assessment of women in positions of authority – behind their backs of course – too often to know that saying you’d slept badly due to hot flushes would hardly be well-received.

Yet the reality is every single person in our professional (as well as personal) circle will be facing demons of one sort or another, at least intermittently. At times these will be more acute than at others. At times it will be harder to hold the tears back than another. I will admit I don’t react well to women who appear to turn the taps on as a ploy, but I only had sympathy for the woman I appraised who broke down when discussing the guilt she felt about not always being there to meet her children after school. Honesty in our emotional stress, as in our politics, should not be too much to ask. But it appears to be yet another way in which women (and probably some men) can be side-lined if they don’t play by the rules of the boys’ club. More power to Jacinda Arden and the New Zealand public and media (mainly) who accorded her dignity and praise for her reactions, including tears, to the horrific shootings of Muslims. Would other countries, including my own, only learn from them.

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Leadership for Our Times

Much has been made recently of Theresa May’s leadership, or rather the lack of it. It reminds me how when I first took up the reins at Churchill College, several people told me the story of an earlier Master, William Hawthorne. Eminent engineer though he may have been, when it came to sensing the mood of the fellowship over the possibility of admitting women he seems to have got it badly wrong. However, instead of recognizing he was out of step, he pushed on making it absolutely clear at the Governing Body meeting where the crucial vote was taken, that he was opposed. He lost, and therefore ended up on the wrong side of history, an example of ‘how not to be a Master’, and one that I was early on and regularly regaled with when I arrived in the college. I have taken it to heart.

On International Women’s Day this year I discussed some of this publicly with Alison Finch, one of the first women fellows in the College (the recording will go up on the Churchill website soon*). She told me that even when she arrived, a couple of years after that vote, Hawthorne still went out of his way to tell her how he had voted against women’s admission, as fellows or students. Quite apart from the ungraciousness of making a young woman feel uncomfortable in this way upon her arrival, it still strikes me as bad leadership. To my mind a more statesmanlike approach would have been to say how the ‘will of the people’ (ugh) had made him realise that times had changed and he now welcomed the admission of women at all levels in the college. The parallels with our modern politicians, I am sure needs no driving home to this readership.

But leadership is undoubtedly a tricky issue for which few of us have had much formal training, in academia or in modern politics (where captains of industry used to leadership, of the sort so familiar to our predecessors, are conspicuously absent). This has certainly been obviously a weakness in our Prime Minister, who doesn’t seem to have grasped the concept of reaching out to opponents, or listening to what they say. It matters in academia too, where differences of opinion can get robust, be it about research or where to place the bicycle sheds (a well-known contentious issue in a city such as Cambridge). Microcosmographia Academica may be an early version of The Onion when it comes to describing political matters, but it is not entirely wrong in its depiction of local behaviours.

I have always been a great believer in learning by watching other people’s mistakes – as well as what they do when things go right, although I think the latter is actually often less useful. It is how I learned about Twitter. We all make mistakes in our own way, but it is an aid in identifying them to see howlers in action perpetrated by others. Watching what people do wrong in chairing meetings I think is really helpful in working out what not to do, but the tactic can perhaps be utilised in many different spheres, be it negotiating Brexit or handling those damn cycle sheds again. (Not, I hasten to add, something that has led to divisions within my college in my own time.)

But leadership is about far more than debating points in committees, and listening is another key skill that many in academia are perhaps reluctant to practise. I am currently reading the recent book by Allen Packwood, the College Archivist, entitled How Churchill Waged War, and the first chapter is devoted to a discussion of whether Churchill was a Chair or a Chief Executive. Allen’s view is that Churchill indubitably was a Chief Executive, and that it was the role he had wanted and waited for over many years. Finally as Prime Minister he could achieve his aim. But that was in time of war and he was presiding over a government of national unity, a government ‘of all the talents’. The UK has not yet reached this point and it would seem that May might do better behaving as a Chair – as long as she can manage to be a good chair.

So what do I think, from years of watching ideal and not-so-ideal chairs, makes up a good one? Not someone who let the conversations waffle and wander on; not one who cuts off discussion too soon so people feel short-changed; someone who keeps to time (with comfort breaks); someone who is able to bring the different strands into the conversation; who doesn’t allow one speaker to talk over another one, who reminds someone trying to claim a bright idea as theirs that someone else (typically, but not necessarily, a woman) had already made that point; someone who is aware of when a shy newcomer is trying to pluck up the courage to speak and makes it easy for them; someone who knows when to wrap up a discussion before the same points are made time and time again in marginally different ways. All those skills are useful in the academic world. I hope I have managed to achieve some of them at least some of the time. They are, I suspect, less pertinent in the House of Commons where arcane rules rule – rules so arcane that I wonder how many people understand them (vide John Bercow’s unexpected introduction of a precedent from 1604 in denying the third meaningful vote last week).

This post will, rapidly, become less topical as some level of clarity emerges from the mists of Brexit, as it must over the next couple of weeks. However the points about being a good leader remain. Churchill is seen as the archetypal charismatic leader, but that was under special circumstances. Faced with the current situation, talking of blood, toil, tears and sweat might not go down so well as when the Nazis were at our door in 1940. Context matters and judging the mood of a committee – or a nation – makes a difference to what will fly. My predecessor William Hawthorne got it wrong, and I think we can safely say our Prime Minister is likewise adrift.

* Available as of 29-3-19 here.


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Lady in Red

There has been some interesting dialogue over Twitter recently regarding what sort of images may – or may not – inspire future generations of young women to think about the STEM subjects and, in the exchanges I’ve seen recently, specifically engineering. What sort of poster girls work best and which just annoy? The argument seems to be that glossy brochures dreamed up by advertising agencies featuring, perhaps, young blond and well-coiffed women look too artificial to be convincing. But, as I’ve explored before, what ‘balance’ in imagery is really appropriate to promote inclusion?

Opening One

And in the flesh too, what kind of role models genuinely do ‘inspire’? Is it better to have someone just a few years ahead of you in the career trajectory or someone at the top of their game come and try to sell you their love of science? Does the latter merely intimidate whereas the former seem approachable and a plausible version of yourself in five or ten years? I worry about this a lot. I worry that if I go into schools to talk I just seem like a dinosaur with a gong to my name, rather than someone sufficiently similar to the pupils that I might be able to encourage them that going on to study physics might be attractive. I have had bad experiences of being met with stony silences, the potent sound of which I always worry is down to me seeming too remote, too inaccessible for pupils – particularly those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds for whom my Cambridge credentials may seem threatening rather than a positive.

However, this week I was invited into a school in rather a different guise: as the person cutting the ribbon as their new building was opened, the building housing their science and technology facilities. The school had set up a competition to their year 7 and 8 pupils to research a woman in science after whom the building might be named, an original challenge and one well-placed to get all the pupils (male and female) thinking about women, science and why historically there have been so few women pursuing the STEM subjects. The final shortlist included Rosalind Franklin, Mary Somerville, Marie Curie, Anne McLaren – and me, as the headteacher’s blog of the school in question, Churchill Academy, spelled out. Churchill, as I discovered, is a village on the edge of the Mendips in Somerset. Wikipedia explains that the Churchill family name derives from this village.

Two of the pupils, Polly Jones and Freya Hatherall (in the photograph above, along with sixth former Libby Scott who gave the vote of thanks, and head teacher Chris Hildrew), pitched to the panel making the decision about my career, and won. I was taken aback but very honoured when the school wrote to ask if I would be willing for the building to be given my name. It is pretty humbling. There are obvious resonances, such as the connection with the Churchill name. Less obviously, since food technology will be taught in the building, that I have worked on starch apparently also struck a chord. My final advantage over any of the other shortlisted women named above is, perhaps obviously, that I am not dead; I could actually turn up to cut the ribbon! And so I did this week. A lovely airy building, well-equipped courtesy of a grant they received from the Wolfson Foundation to go along with the capital money from the Council. I got a chance to wander round (and I couldn’t help noticing the name on all the doors: Donald followed by a number, which gave me a bit of a jolt too).

And so to the title of this blog. As the photo makes clear, I was wearing red on this trip to Churchill Academy. And I realise just how often I do. OK, that particular dress has pockets, always useful if someone is going to lumber you with a microphone and something sadly lacking from so many women’s jackets and dresses, but I don’t think that’s the sole reason I wear red. I have long since given up any prospect of disappearing into a crowd at functions amongst grey-suited gentlemen (or blue-suited if you prefer) so I might as well consciously stand out. Red seems to fit the bill, though perhaps not along the lines of Chris de Burgh’s lyrics. But, and this comes back to imagery, does it matter what I wear? Am I too conscious of this or do audiences (particularly young audiences) really care?

Reading, for other reasons, an obituary of Maggie Thatcher – let me stress, not my role model, even if the College does hold her papers – I was struck by the following sentence

Thatcher was in some respects very feminine, particularly in the endless care she took over her clothes and complexion, but she was no feminist. She preferred to work with men, preferably men who behaved flirtatiously….

I hope flirtation is not in my professional lexicon and I don’t take ‘endless care’ over clothes, let alone complexion (as I said in my speech at Churchill Academy, I may have won the L’Oreal Laureate in 2009, but I am allergic to most cosmetics), but should I worry more if I want to inspire young women? Or am I just so old and irrelevant to most of them that they couldn’t care less what I wear? And what man ever had to worry about these things….? Image, as well as imagery, matters, as does inspiration. I wish I knew how to get this right.



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To Honour Those Forced Out #IWD19

For International Women’s Day I want to take as my theme, the lines from Ecclesiasticus

And some there be who have no memorial, who are perished as though they had never been…

This is not because I’ve suddenly acquired a desire to become a lay preacher. Indeed the reason I know those lines is because we used to sing that verse, and those surrounding them, as a rather mournful dirge at my school’s Founders’ Day each year and the words have stuck. They are actually extremely inappropriate for a girls’ grammar school, as mine was, since they begin

Let us now praise famous men…. Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions…

And so it goes on. No word associated with women appears throughout these verses, so why they were thought appropriate for 700 young girls to sing with wavering voice I have no idea. But let me get to the point.

I want to consider not famous (wo)men, but those who vanish; those women from the school who happily set out on their life trajectories and were derailed. The women – and all like them – whose career choices were impacted by the query ‘do you really want to do engineering, dear, it’s not usual for women’; those whose PhD supervisors gave credit to a male PhD and offered them the opportunity to travel to a major meeting to present the work to the same student without apparently spotting the inherent injustice; those who were bullied and/or ignored in their group meetings and no one spoke up for them; the postdocs who were groped at a conference (when they were finally allowed to attend) or excluded from the boisterous male evenings down the pub when so much valuable information was exchanged; the early career researcher whose letters of reference implied she was hard-working and sociable, rather than internationally-leading and brilliant (although she was); or who was told that there was no point in her attempting to get a permanent position as she’d just go off and have a family;  the inexperienced lecturer who was told to get on with the Athena Swan application with no logistic support or reduction in teaching load; or the woman (at any stage) put on a committee (however (un)important) to make sure there was some semblance of gender balance and then ignored, talked over or sneered at when attempting to speak up.

Those vignettes will seem familiar to most readers. These are the people who have ‘no memorial’ because at some stage they’ve had to give up their dreams in the face of a lack of support, active denigration or passive overlooking. They may have been far more talented than their co-worker who fitted their department’s stereotypes better (gender is of course not the only way in which they may fail to fit to these, but as it’s International Women’s Day that is what I stress here), who got the opportunities denied to them and consequently who saw their careers thrive. These co-workers may have had a sense of entitlement and arrogance which allowed them to feel comfortable with the richesses coming their way, and who never stopped to question who they trampled on en route to their chair.

Sometimes the women fight back. I am reminded of this by the story of a woman I first met as a Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow in a discipline not my own. She asked for advice from me, posing a question that had me stumped. She had heard another newbie (but male) research fellow ask one of the (male) professors in her department out for lunch so he could ask for advice. How could she, a young female, do the same or anything similar? She felt excluded by the social niceties in case, by asking the man ‘out’ it was interpreted as a come-on. The answer has to be simply to keep the offer to a conversation in the tea-room, but it shows the pitfalls (for both man and woman) in this situation and the way the conventional greasing of social wheels in our society may impact on the professional.

In due course this woman applied for a lectureship in the department and, at interview, was told by a senior male colleague that there would be no room in the department for a woman like her. What had she done (and I have no idea, but suspect the answer is that she had two X chromosomes) to warrant a public dressing-down like that? She did not get the job. She left. She is now a very successful head of  department – in a different university – lauded with prizes, and has thrived, with an academic partner and a couple of children as well. She had the determination and resilience to walk away from a toxic environment and start afresh somewhere that supported her better and in so doing proved her male detractors wrong (I hope they are smarting and regretting the loss of a superstar from their department).

She is a success story whose life will undoubtedly be remembered by those in her profession (and her Wikipedia page!) and the impact her research has going forward. Too many others will have lost their way, been challenged or overlooked once too often for their souls to bear. We should remember these in the abstract and vow not to let such women be persistently let down by the system. To make sure this happens is a worthy challenge for all of us on International Women’s Day.

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As the Years Pass, What’s Changed?

Another year and International Women’s Day (IWD is on March 8th) is fast approaching. In a rather wonderful coincidence this year the date marks exactly 50 years since the Fellowship of Churchill College voted to admit women, the very first of the initially all male Cambridge colleges to do so. To celebrate this event I will be holding a public conversation with Alison Finch, one of the first three women to be admitted as Fellows (and an Emeritus Fellow of the College now), alongside the first intake of female students in 1972. This conversation will be recorded and added to the collection of podcasts and videos of my conversations with outstanding women that can be found here on the Churchill website.

It is, of course, dispiriting that such a day as IWD is still needed, but my goodness it really is. It is dispiriting that some people give no thought to the challenges women around the world face on a daily basis except, just conceivably, on this one day. And it is dispiriting that as a result everything gets crowded into this one day, so that too many people can look the other way on the other 364 days of the year. Yet you don’t have to try very hard to hear about the challenges women face each and every day: the media (social and mainstream) is full of it if you care to look. There is the Chris Cook piece today about the unchanging face of bullying in Parliament (not, of course, just women being bullied and men doing the bullying, but that would appear to be the dominant aspect of it); there is the story of the US neuroscientist whose tenure seems to have evaporated in the face of her whistleblowing about harassment; economists study why there are so few women in their field, but the imbalance persists year on year; one of the few well-known female economists Christine Lagarde spoke up this week for the boost the economy could receive if more women were in the workplace and not overlooked or driven out by sexism; and workplace sexism is indeed endemic, with women in senior positions disliked and challenged even when they get there if they behave more like men. And that is before one starts on #MeToo or #EverydaySexism.

Of course myths abound about women’s intrinsic abilities – I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Gina Rippon’s recent book The Gendered Brain to put alongside the works of Angela Saini and Cordelia Fine. The way the world is set up still sees male as default, a problem as entrenched as ever in the modern world of data overload, as Caroline Criado Perez spells out in her own recent book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. These myths are fed into our cultures so that both young boys and girls grow up believing that women are genetically designed to nurture and that men are the natural risk-takers; that it is as unnatural for men to wish to stay at home with the kids as for a woman to be a boss. Having just been reading The Excellent Dr Blackwell (written by Julia Boyd who just happens to be the wife of a former Churchill Master), the first woman to be awarded an MD back in the 19th century, it is extraordinary to realise just how little movement there has been in some of these myths (and inevitable consequences) in the past 150 years.

If you wonder whether bias is over-rated as a problem, consider the story regarding the transgender biologist Ben (formerly Barbara) Barres which neatly sums it up. After a seminar he gave, the comment was heard ‘Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.’ (quoted in Nancy Hopkin’s foreword to his autobiography,  written shortly before his death). You can’t seek a clearer example of implicit bias in the world of science than that. Barres was a great advocate for women in science, fighting sexism till the end of his life. We all have to speak up, challenging sexism (and other unattractive –isms) wherever we see it.

I may be a scientist and therefore particularly concerned about science, and making sure young girls aren’t deterred by parents, teachers or our culture from considering careers in science (physical and computer science in particular) and engineering, but if I were a lawyer or a journalist or an economist, I suspect I’d feel the same. Young girls need to aim higher than being a footballer’s wife (or consort); they need to take pride in themselves rather than simply those they associate with. This year, as every year in the recent past, I want to highlight again my handy list of actions that any of us may want to dip into to find out what more we can do to encourage girls and women to stick with science. You can find this list of Just 1 Action for Women in Science elsewhere on these pages.

So as IWD approaches, it is worth considering progress in the years since Churchill College’s momentous decision of 50 years ago, a decision that was taken against the wishes of the then Master Sir William Hawthorne, a story told gleefully to me many times when I first arrived here as how not to be a successful Master. Cambridge University now has essentially equal numbers of men and women at undergraduate level, yet there are still only about 20% of women in the professoriate. Consequently there is still a significant gender pay gap, with a mean value of just under 20% driven by the grade segregation, with fewer women at the top grades.  The numbers of female professors is slowly creeping up, but this cannot be attributed to historical factors any longer; the time when that was a plausible excuse is long past. The University has, in certain subjects, a gender attainment gap with a smaller proportion of women getting 1sts (and 3rds) than men, a situation that is at last receiving some sort of scrutiny alongside the role of ethnicity. Bullying and harassment are now very  much on the agenda, as well as training about our biases for those involved in appointments. Maybe in 5 years we will see a transformation in our culture, but my belief is, if you want to bury your head in the sand  – or worse expect to progress because of, and not despite of, bad behaviour – it is still possible to get away with it. Bullying, arrogance and selfishness – as well as sexism – have not been eradicated yet and possibly never will be.

Celebrate IWD, read my list of #Just1Action4WiS and let us remain optimistic that change is possible, but I fear my own optimism is tempered with pragmatism, frustration and more than a hint of scepticism that equality is not yet just around the corner.

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