Becoming a Leader

This week I took part in a panel aimed at young adults who see themselves as future leaders. An interesting, if slightly disquieting experience. My fellow panellists were two young men in their twenties, who had both already done amazing things setting up charities and networks to support the disadvantaged. Inevitably I felt very grey and old. I was tremendously impressed by their energy, their self-awareness, but also their apparent confidence at such an early stage in their careers.  They weren’t afraid to admit to the importance of embracing failure and learning from it, they believed strongly in good communication as being a core part of the role of a leader and, crucially, also kindness. All things with which I could only wholeheartedly agree.

Nevertheless, if I think back to myself in my mid-twenties, leadership was simply not on my horizon. I hadn’t got beyond thinking about how to be a research scientist. When that went sour during my first postdoc in the States, I threw myself into singing in a Sweet Adeline group and baking pumpkin bread for their cake sales, along with sewing my own costume by hand (I had no sewing machine). Domesticity at that point (if only briefly) trumped my unsuccessful scientific career. I certainly took no steps to assert myself even in the choral group – after all, I was a Brit, an outsider to their American ways. And once my research took off again and I started thinking about future positions upon my return to the UK, I was very nervous at the thought of trying to lead a research group. I’m sure that the status I was assigned in a role play at a ‘what to do after your PhD’ course, when I was allocated the committee secretary role and expected to make the virtual tea (of course, I was the only woman in the group), fitted who I thought I was rather better than being leadership material.

I am glad, on this panel, I was not asked one of the questions I was sent in advance as a possibility: ‘How did you begin to see yourself as a leader & champion? Was there a particular moment, or was it something you have always been passionate about?’ I never was, nor do I think I am now, passionate about being a leader. It is something that I have fallen into over the years. It started with inheriting someone else’s large research project, and then taking on another one, also not of my own creation. Having been accused this week of not always regarding myself as ‘agentic’ by a friend, I should say I mean it when I say ‘fallen into’ leadership, but it is nevertheless a choice. I could have said, I will not run someone else’s grant just because they’ve left the country, but then I’d have been turning my back on a wonderful opportunity, not to mention funding for three postdocs (albeit I had to invent projects in a field I had no experience in, as this was when I first strayed into food physics). One should remember one can still be perfectly ‘agentic’ whilst taking advantage of every bit of luck that comes one’s way. Luck, both good and bad, is something we should all acknowledge plays a part in our lives (Michael Sandel’s Tyranny of  Merit discusses this at length, as he addresses the vexed question of meritocracy, a topic I may return to at a later date when I’ve finished reading the book).

Perhaps in this context, one should recall Malvolio’s speech in Twelfth Night Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them’, replacing ‘great’ with the word ‘leader’. Were my co-panellists born as leaders? Is there a gender angle at play, in the way girls are expected to ‘play nicely’ rather than dominate the playground? I suspect the way we bring girls up, the way schools, parents not to mention the media (social and otherwise) influence their attitudes as to what is ‘acceptable’ to their peers and society, does indeed have a role in all this. When I mentioned to a female friend, a leader in her own right, the question ‘when did you first see yourself as a leader’, she guffawed, replying that someone who sets out to be a leader is probably not someone who should be let near a leadership role, citing some of our politicians as examples of how that can go wrong.

So, should we expect men to be more modest, or women more assertive as they consider their roles in society? No doubt the answer is a bit of both. However, this post is prompted not just by the panel I sat on this week, but also by more of my reading matter. I’m currently enjoying a fairly recent biography of Simone de Beauvoir ‘Becoming Beauvoir by Kate Kirkpatrick. Beauvoir’s contribution – one might say leadership – in developing existentialism as a coherent pattern of thought, seems to be being recognized quite late in the day, in part because of how her own published writings (as opposed to her personal writings and diaries) depict things.

Beauvoir famously said ‘”One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” For her, as for many girls growing up, the idea of what is expected of you as a girl, slowly impinges; those cultural aspects and behaviours are what then significantly modify a girl’s natural inclinations. This idea of becoming, of course, lies underneath the whole of Michelle Obama’s book Becoming as she developed from a kid growing up in a poor Chicago neighbourhood, to become the First Lady, with immense presence and charisma and indeed power, but not in the conventional way. Is it chance both these women, of undoubted influence, use that same word ‘becoming’, or does it reflect a deeper truth of how women, past and present, need to find their feet?

If I look back on my timid teenage self, the rather lost mid-twenties post-doc, the young mother who was struggling to balance everything while having that crisis of confidence so commonly found in women who have recently given birth and are battling conflicting personae, did I ever ‘decide I wanted to be a leader’? The answer, for me, has to be no. I suspect Obama would fall into the same camp (think how often she has categorically stated that she doesn’t want to run for political office).  If true gender equality is ever to be achieved, making sure both young men and women feel leadership is equally within their grasp but that there is no requirement for them to aspire to such a role, must surely be part of the altered culture in which we bring up our children. Battling against such aspects of what is now deemed to be ‘toxic masculinity’ (think Bullingdon Club in this case) is just as crucial as enabling women to feel empowered.

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Keeping On Keeping On

In the UK, as in many other countries, we have entered another lockdown, mysteriously assigned in some quarters a decimal point, as in lockdown 2.0. It’s a lockdown with a difference, in that the rules are not the same as last time around (and therefore tending to be confusing), and logic in the rules is not always present to my scientist’s eye.  Life in Cambridge is hugely unlike the first lockdown, however, because the colleges remain full of students. They may not be able to live the life that generations of students have been able to before – usually portrayed as consisting of large parties, formal dining and the consumption of large amounts of alcohol in the bar. There will be no struggling out of bed for a 9am lecture. On the contrary their lectures are likely to be constantly on tap, painstakingly recorded by hard-working lecturers who resort to Twitter to rant about the challenges the different (but apparently universally infuriating) software available for the task throws up. (Retirement spares me that, if not filming videos for internal College use.) Online lectures are, I assume, available as much at 9am as midnight. Circadian body clocks may no longer impact quite so strongly on the teenage university learning experience.

However, much of what I wrote in the spring – be kind to others and, equally importantly, be kind to yourself – still applies. I fear that many of us find the latter in particular hard to keep in mind. We may all have acclimatised to Zoom, Teams or other web platforms (there seem to be an almost infinite variety that can be used for webinars), but have we developed new levels of stamina to cope with this endless, uninterrupted screen time, without the advantage of walking – or cycling – from one meeting to another to provide a welcome pause? In my case, I’m sure the answer is no. There are days with no respite, no time mentally to shift gear, or even to find the relevant notebook or ‘paperwork’, let alone a cup of tea or other form of comfort break.

Cambridge lectures traditionally run from five-past-the-hour until five-to, in order to provide time for the mass of students to migrate from one venue to another. Those of you who have lived in Cambridge may recognize that from the stream of first year natural scientist cyclists along Tennis Court Lane rushing from the New Museums Site to the Chemistry Department around 10am three days a week. Unfortunately, convention does not yet seem to have decreed Zoom meetings operate in the same way, although the better organised convenors of longer meetings do seem smart enough to allow for mid-session comfort breaks. We live, in this lockdown age, in ever more pressured ways. The brief aside at the end of a committee meeting with one key person to resolve a niggling concern is impossible; the casual getting to know people in advance of meetings in order to marshal cogent arguments better has gone west. These losses can impact on how committee business gets done and we are the worse for that.

Nevertheless, the pressure doesn’t go away, just because we are all having to find new ways to work, as well as novel routes to unwind. I see the Guardian has produced suggestions from their columnists, with a strong flavour of ‘be kind to yourself’, but also ‘enjoy nature’. I am lucky. My current ‘office’ has enormous windows overlooking the Fellows’ Lawn, with its greenness and majestic Metasequoia, a joy to watch through the changing seasons. Outside at the front this morning there was a flock of long tailed tits in the crab apple (possibly) trees, and squirrels doing their duty of squirreling away acorns. Live in the country I may not, but I can – and do – enjoy the open feel to the College as, I hope, do our students as they go about their lawfully permitted exercise. Nevertheless, the low sun through the large windows is a complete pain for Zoom: my face is always illuminated all wrong (never mind the anxiety about the black circles under my eyes): I’m either blinded by the rare sunshine, or in complete shadow, or so it feels.

I don’t feel I’ve established a new routine to relaxing, though, now almost all the normal evening activities of a Cambridge head of house are banned, by which I mean a regular diet of formal, working dinners, possibly interspersed with hosting lectures or attending concerts. I started off lockdown intending to learn how to use Tableau and watch videos of all the Mozart operas. I started…..but failed to complete either, like so many other good intentions we all set out with. My reading veers from the grim if highly educational (Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II by Madhusree Mukarjee, telling me things I need to know about Churchill not through the lens of a UK-centred view), to the thought-provoking Head, Hand, Heart by David Goodhart, but regularly reverting to much lighter fare (EM Delderfield’s period piece series of The Provincial Lady, for instance) not to mention Twitter. However, in recent weeks, blogging has required more creative energy than I typically have left at the end of a long day of Zooming, as regular readers will have noticed by my comparative silence.

But, here we are again, confined to barracks, metaphorically at least. Still glued to the screen, day upon day, trying to maintain an equilibrium in the face of constant buffeting by external matters over which we have no control (but at least there is good news from the USA).



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Mentors and Role Models

Five years ago I received a package in the post, with a covering letter from someone I’d never met. Dan Davis, Professor of Immunology at the University of Manchester and apparently a fan of this blog, had sent me a copy of his book, The Compatibility Gene, ‘in case it would be of interest’. A former physicist himself, he had written – as I discovered when I read it a while later – a fascinating book about immunology accessible to a lay-reader with no prior exposure to that complex world. The current dire state of the world seems like an appropriate moment to reread the book, to derive as much benefit as I can about a discipline that is now so crucial and at the forefront of everyone’s minds. It is as good as I remember: accessible, informative and full of intriguing historical vignettes about how the field developed.

One key character in the field is Peter Medawar, a giant – literally and metaphorically – whose insatiable thirst for knowledge, coupled with endless energy even after suffering some near-death strokes, produced such significant advances in the burgeoning field during the post-war era. On my blogpost I’ve cited Medawar a few times, both in the context of creativity and as the opposite of an arrogant scientist, whose advice to young scientists still resonates today. He was clearly a remarkable man, although I will admit to being disappointed by his own reflections, Memoir of a Thinking Radish,which seemed to  have none of the panache of his other writing, but was laboured and less informative about his life and work than I’d have hoped. Medawar was clearly a hero to many people including, I would judge, to Dan Davis.

Julia and Athene from Gove photo copy

That set me thinking about role models, mentors and sponsors once more, spurred on by WISE’s campaign around encouraging more women and girls into the STEM subjects for 1 of the Million day ‘to recognise the role models – the mentors, cheerleaders and allies of any gender – who inspired you’ for November 4th. This, coupled with the news from the Institute of Physics last week that the polymer scientist Julia Higgins had been awarded the Sam Edwards Medal and Prize, prompts me to write. Julia – pictured above with me at a Royal Society event some years ago – was always the highly visible female polymer scientist a decade ahead of me, who was the nearest person I ever had to a (female) role model, and who was undoubtedly something of a mentor and sponsor to me throughout my career. (Sam Edwards was an even more key figure in my life, as I’ve written about before. This pairing of prize name and winner was particularly sweet to me.) I don’t think she and I ever quite felt comfortable about the role model aspect; she once said I’d shocked her by referring to her as such. I suspect the whole concept was much less well worked up 25+ years ago and it seems to have mattered less to us than to early career researchers of today.

However, mentoring is another matter. Julia was the person I turned to for advice – because of her extensive experience – when I was first asked to chair a research council funding committee. Her wise words I still remember: give everyone a chance to have their say, stop the discussion going round in endless circles, and bring things to a close with a clear summary of the ‘verdict’ before moving on. She was absolutely right. Cutting discussion off too soon leaves a feeling of being aggrieved. Letting it drift on – which, in my experience, is much the commoner sin – is just maddening for all not immediately concerned in the discussion. Additionally, Julia was a helpful ear when I wasn’t sure where my career was going, once I had been deemed not suitable to be head of department by my peers.

Julia has had a long and distinguished career as a neutron scatterer of polymers, moving into the field just as beamlines were becoming accessible for such experiments. (Sam, although a theoretician himself, was – if I recall one of his many dinner conversations accurately – significantly responsible for obtaining approval to build ISIS, the UK’s neutron source, during his time as Chair of the Science Research Council from 1973 to 1977. Sam and Julia were something of a mutual admiration society.) She made seminal contributions in understanding polymer structure, thermodynamics and motion in solution.

She has also been a great champion of women in science and this is another arena in which I owe her quite a lot. At least I think I owe her. At the time I was far from sure when, as the Athena Forum came into being in 2007 once the original Athena Project came to an end, and the Athena Swan charter moved elsewhere (and she had been very instrumental in setting Athena Swan going in the first place), she and Jocelyn Bell Burnell fingered me to take over from Jocelyn as Chair after she had served for a year to get it going. At this point I had barely entered the field of gender as a policy issue, although I had been active in Cambridge (through WiSETI for a couple of years). I felt very ignorant about what had been done nationally, and what could and should be done in the future. There is nothing like getting stuck into something to learn about it. Learning on the job is scary but no bad way to get immersed in a subject fast!

A little later it was again Julia who set me up – by passing on her own invitation to me – to present my first formal, international academic talk about gender matters in Austria, a talk I wrote about very early in my blogging days. This was a nerve-racking experience too; I felt such a novice in the face of eminent speakers like Stanford’s Londa Schiebinger  and Evelyn Fox Keller. But the only way to learn is to give things a go. Do not believe anyone springs fully armed (like my namesake, the Greek goddess) ready to do battle. Like every other novice, the first time was the hardest for me and thereafter it has got easier with practice.

Julia threw me in the deep end, an end she no doubt had survived herself at the outset of her own championing of gender issues. She gave me advice and opportunities and was always encouraging. I noted two of my slightly younger (male) polymer colleagues remarked over Twitter just how encouraging she had been to them in their earlier careers when this most recent prize was announced. She may have been awarded the Sam Edwards Prize for her polymer physics skills, but for many of us, she shone in far broader ways than just her science. So, for WISE’s 1 of the Million Day, I nominate Dame Julia Higgins, DBE FRS FREng.


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Getting Behind Diversity Statistics

Earlier this year UKRI published ‘harmonised’ diversity data across all its councils. These did not make for comfortable reading, with attention being particularly focussed on two findings:

  • Female and ethnic minority awardees tend to apply for and win smaller awards: median award value for females ca 15% less than for males (£336,000 vs £395,000;
  • Median award value for ethnic minority awardees is approximately 8% less than that of white awardees (£353,000 vs. £383,000).

Now EPSRC has presented its own disaggregated data for gender (but not ethnicity), reinforcing the message that women are awarded smaller grants than men and apply in lower numbers than their proportion in the academic workforce would indicate. Furthermore success rates diverge as the value of the grant applied for increases. For the largest grants – greater than £10M – there have only ever been two awarded to women over the period from 2007-8 to 2018-19, a pretty shocking statistic.

The trouble with statistics, however, is that they don’t tell you what the underlying causes are, and these gender differences could arise from many different causes, not all of which – indeed potentially none of which – can be laid at EPSRC’s door.

I foolishly put out a tweet

in which the inverted commas sign around ‘timid’ was too subtle for some readers. It is of course that there will be some academics who indeed do believe the alleged unwillingness of women to take risks – an interpretation neatly skewered by Cordelia Fine in her book Testosterone Rex ­– lies at the heart of women not successfully receiving these mega-buck grants, but I think we have to look further and harder for potential explanations. And then try to work out how to design analyses that may tease out which are the key factors.

During the time I was the University of Cambridge’s Gender Equality Champion (2010-14) we were faced with a similar conundrum. We found that women were more successful than men in receiving promotion and wanted to know why, but they applied at lower rates and typically there were longer gaps between successive promotions. I proposed the following possible causes:

  • Women waited longer to apply until they were absolutely confident that they would succeed, whereas men were less worried about failing by applying too soon.
  • Women were not tapped on the shoulder by mentors encouraging them to apply at the earliest moment.
  • Women’s productivity had been slowed in child-bearing years and so they needed to wait longer before they felt ready for the next stage.

We tossed these ideas around, but the data we had could not possibly confirm or refute any of those ideas. The one thing we did know was that historically women had seemed to be less certain about processes and presentations by the relevant PVC helped to demystify processes, something particularly important if – again – women were lacking informal mentors who would help them through what might have seemed like the maze of applying. The University could, and did, address through appropriate presentations to clear the fog.

So, with the current EPSRC data, it is possible to come up with a whole range of explanations, of which blatant bias at panel meetings is probably the least likely. I am sorry to say that I suspect some of the discrepancies may lie more squarely in the domain of the applicants’ universities than at the research council.

Let me start by considering the miserably low number of women who have successfully been awarded ultra-large grants. As some of my Twitter feed pointed out, grants this large are typically for doctoral training accounts or some sort of infrastructure award. In some cases, these huge grant applications may need to be submitted under the name of the Research PVC ex officio. I do not know the proportion of women who hold such roles. I do know that the present EPSRC CEO, Lynn Gladden, was my university’s PVC-R for six years. I understand Rachel McKendry (UCL) is the only woman to lead a doctoral training centre*, but it is perfectly possible that Lynn is the other woman in the select group of two holding such big awards; I have no idea.

However, for grants of between £1.5M and £10M the proportion of women applying is only just over 11% compared with a benchmark percentage of ~17% in the EPSRC academic population. The figure below shows that, whereas for women, success rates are fairly constant independent of grant size, this is not the case for men; for them, the larger the grant the more likely they are to succeed. This seems very curious. What follows is highly speculative, but I hope someone will do some proper analysis.

EPSRC diversity copy

Firstly, for many of the larger grants – probably occurring under specific calls – there is likely to be a university-level sift. If women attempt to lead such applications, is it the university that is favouring a male-led bid in preference to the woman? Based on my experience in university politics, I can see only too easily how the man may look more forceful and command more favour than the woman, regardless of intrinsic merit of either the specific application or the particular woman who wants to lead it. Bias may well creep in at this point, unconscious though it may be. (I have always worried about pre-sifts for fellowship competitions and the like, because I have yet to hear of a process that properly takes into account different factors including diversity, rather than a gut feeling about who is ‘best’. Some universities may have this cracked, and if so, it would be good to hear about it.)

Secondly, as another person postulated over Twitter, the women may anyhow have found themselves stuck on so many committees to give gender balance; or have so much pastoral care dumped on them because ‘they’d be so good at it’, that perennial guilt-inducing argument; or indeed they may be juggling home-schooling during a pandemic, or whatever equivalently happened before this interminable wilderness of strangeness. Women, in other words, may have too many other demands put upon them to allow them to devote the huge amount of time required to put together a large grant. If they are not perceived as the stand-out academic in their department, little leeway may be given to them.

Finally, they may actually prefer not to go for the large grants, not because they are ‘timid’ but because they think smaller enterprises are better for those within them. Ottoline Leyser – UKRI’s Director has, certainly in my hearing, spoken up for the ‘small is good’ model of research groups. Women may be opting out, in some cases, of applying for the largest grants because they would prefer to stay close to their research team.

So why do men do so well when applying for large grants compared with women. I have so far put the blame on universities to a large extent for the relative paucity of women applying for large grants, but I do wonder about the data in that figure. I find it deeply worrying. When women do put their hand up with a large grant application, what is it that makes them less likely to succeed? It could still be that universities don’t offer the same support to a woman putting the application together. Or it could be that the grant panels subconsciously really do see men as being ‘better’ at running a big show. Or that all the legwork was done behind the scenes before the grant was submitted anyhow. I’m not sure – other than by having trained social science observers attending decision-making panels to see what is going on – how to examine the possibility of bias entering into decisions, and the small numbers may mean statistics defeat an analysis anyhow.

As a final remark, I’d like to highlight one of the steps the EPSRC are apparently congratulating themselves on, namely that they have increased the number of women on panels and as panel chairs. It sounds good but having 30% of women on panels plus 31% acting as panel chairs when they are only at 17% in the pool of researchers, means women are expected to give up – on average – twice as much time as men to this community service. There is no doubt that sitting on panels is wonderful experience (although I sometimes used to think I learned more about what a bad grant looked like, rather than a good one, which only used to throw me into paralysis when writing my own).

It is great that more women are being given the opportunity to see how the system works. But, simultaneously, they are also being asked to give up time to this service when they could have been writing their own grants. If the evidence supported the view that having more women on panels led to fairer decisions the case would be stronger. But all the evidence I saw during my time at the ERC** showed, across the board of all disciplines, a larger proportion of women on a panel tended to lead to women being more disadvantaged rather than less. I fear that sticking more women on panels may smack more of doing something that looks like a quick fix rather than resolving the issues the current data is showing up.

So, great the Research Councils are doing this analysis. Not so good that the numbers aren’t encouraging and the reasons for this are still obscure.

*Correction: In fact Rachel led an IRC not a DTC, but the fact that she is one of only 2 women to hold such large grants remains the case.

** I have now been able to establish where this data is, with some help from Claudia Jesus-Rydin from within the ERC who pointed it out. Isabelle Vernos, then Chair of the Gender Balance Working Group, published an article in Nature including this.



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Of a Retiring Nature

The end of this month marks my retirement from my professorial position at Cambridge, something that I still find rather surprising. My career on that front has just faded out, yet another victim of the pandemic; the conference planned for the week just past to celebrate my career, bit the dust a long time ago. There is absolutely no rite of passage, other than (mistakenly) being sent an ‘exit questionnaire’ asking me why I was leaving. When I pointed out that this was pretty inappropriate, I then found myself having to negotiate the status of my university card to enable me to get – eventually – back into the department. Pandemic past, I will need to sort out my office. This all feels a sad end to 35 odd years working for the Cavendish.

Of course, my life won’t change radically. I continue as Master of Churchill College, with a somewhat increased notional time allocated; I will continue on the various committees I serve on for different bodies, writing my blog and so on. My research group had slowly been winding down anyhow, with my last PhD student being awarded their degree in February. This year’s bizarre examination season – a mixture of virtually-conducted vivas and online papers to mark was my portion – will be the last I ever have to wade through. What should I do with all my own (hard copy) notes on exam setting and lecture notes? The latter include both those I personally took all those years ago, and those I have given, or at least those I gave up until the advent of everything being done via Powerpoint. I cannot believe the beauty and neatness of my own lecture notes, as evidenced by the photo; my handwriting has deteriorated a long way since those heady teenage years. I chose that image because Electromagnetism was the first course I myself taught some dozen years later, and with an identical syllabus. Those lecture notes of mine came in handy….
lecture notes

It is strange to look back on what has changed and what really has hardly budged at all. The proportion of women taking physics in their final year in Cambridge has perhaps doubled, from around 10% to a little over 20%. The number of women on the Physics staff has, however, mushroomed. From my appointment in 1985 as the first lecturer (imperceptibly pregnant) formally on the staff, to now, the change is remarkable: after I retire there will be four female professors, two readers and six lecturers, plus two other women who hold joint lectureships between physics and another department. There has yet to be a female head of the department (not for want of trying on my part). The department currently holds a Gold Athena Swan Award although, given the bonfire of bureaucracy I wrote about previously, will they bother to continue? I hope so, but I am deeply concerned about Athena Swan’s future.

Looking back from a position of undeniable seniority, it is sobering to realise that at one point I was so miserable, over a number of years, that leaving Cambridge seemed the only sensible thing to do. As an interdisciplinary scientist surrounded by purists, as a woman leading a burgeoning group yet whose voice never seemed to cut it, my mid-career years had some really dark moments. This, note, was when I was already a professor and an FRS. As I discussed this week with Anne Glover – former Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission – in advance of our (recorded and soon to be available) public Conversation, mid-career can be every bit as hard as the early years for women and even, at least in both our cases, worse. That moment when you become a player but equally an alien threat, clearly bothers some men.

When during my unhappy years, I described my interactions with one particular colleague to a friend, he shrewdly remarked that the professor in question probably didn’t know whether he should interact with me as if I were his mother or his girlfriend. That felt about right, after I’d had to chair a committee (I was deputy head at the time) and this guy had publicly berated me but then privately asked me afterwards if what he had done, in another part of the meeting, was OK. I suspect I just grunted at him at the time. Now I would have the luxury of greater confidence enabling me to be a bit more explicit about my view of how he had behaved.

I was fortunate in the support I received from other colleagues, both senior – such as Sir Sam Edwards and Archie Howie (who also happens to be a founding Fellow here at Churchill and very much still active) – and more junior. To keep going when it feels like your head is continuously hitting a brick wall, is hard. My research was always rewarding (if often frustrating), and I loved moving from topic to topic. Maybe I did this too much, but for me that was how I got my kicks, something I described in a relatively early blogpost. It is something of a cliché to say that it is the people who make your job worth doing but, just as there are those who make life miserable, those students and postdocs who challenge and stretch you are immensely satisfying and mind-expanding. But, equally, the students who start off slowly but blossom as their research progresses – ideally, but not always, because of your own input – are a pleasure to watch and to interact with.

Even those students who are most difficult to deal with, for whatever personal or scientific reason, bring their own reward as they finally sail through their vivas: I have never had a student who failed their PhD, although I have had a handful none of whose work ever saw the public light of day in a publication. And, in at least one of these cases, it was because every experiment they tried – and there were many, this was not in any sense a lazy student – came up with a null result. These days one could have posted such negative results on a preprint server to demonstrate that, despite differences in production of the particular material (chocolate!), none of the physico-chemical tests we attempted showed an iota of difference; back then it was formal publication or nothing.

People ask me what got me through the difficult years. Obviously I owe much to my supportive colleagues (not to mention my husband) who listened to my moans and gave me advice. Often the advice was to leave and go elsewhere. To a large extent the reason I did not go was my sense that if I went – and some encouraged me to go citing constructive dismissal, although I’m not sure how well that would have worked out in practice – I was letting down all the women who would come after me. If I couldn’t stick it out, who could, was my fairly conscious thought. It felt important to weather the storm in which I felt engulfed. Ultimately, I am sure that was the right thing to do. But I did get angry and, in due course, this anger led to me getting involved in the issues facing women much more explicitly. That deviation from the purely scientific in due course gave me a voice that was taken seriously within the University when, as a scientist, it seemed I frequently was not. Accidentally, I found an alternative path to being able to make a difference.

Others said, even at the time, “it doesn’t look as if you’ve done so badly”. Fair enough. As I say, I was both a professor (at a time when this was still a Cambridge rarity) and an FRS. But the frustrations were real. I found it bizarre that I was taken much more seriously outside Cambridge, including at the Royal Society even as a newbie FRS. That gave me confidence that it was something peculiar to the Cambridge of the time. As I head off into (semi-) retirement, I hope the current generation of mid-career women find a much more supportive environment in which they can thrive, whether in their science or in their wider contributions to the community. That their voices are heard, without the need to raise them, and that obstacles are not put in their way because people find them different from the male-by-default attitudes I suspect I faced in my day.

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