Where are the Women of Yester Year?

A few weeks ago I wrote about Mary Astell, a woman from the seventeenth century whose interest and reading in natural philosophy/science was, as has recently become clear, much greater than had previously been attributed to her. I am intrigued by how women in different spheres are now being rediscovered, or their efforts being accorded more respect, than previously. We can’t reinvent the past, or create women who never existed, but it does seem a bit tough that some of them have simply been forgotten, despite all they did in their own day and, in many cases, the recognition they received for those efforts at the time. The campaign to ensure more women – across many different spheres of activity – are recognized by the ‘blue plaque’ scheme, particularly in London, is an indication of belated awareness of many different sorts of contribution by notable women who ceased to be noted. Next month, for instance, the nutritionist Elsie Widdowson will be celebrated with a blue plaque in the village of Barrington just outside Cambridge.

BBC Radio3 has now made a ‘thing’ out of playing music by women composers only on International Women’s Day each year. I am sure as little as 20 years ago one might have found BBC producers saying such an event would have been impossible as there were only one or two women whose music was up to scratch (or perhaps whose names they knew at all). When I was growing up, the names of Fanny Mendelssohn (Felix’s elder sister) and Clara Schumann (Robert Schumann’s wife) would have been the top two women mentioned in this context, although I believe they were primarily seen as performers rather than composers in their day. And they were always referred to (e.g on Radio 3) in relation to their more famous family members, in the way that I have just described them. These days their music is quite often heard, and pretty impressive I, for one, find it. But there are far more female names heard regularly on the radio now, just in the regular occurrence of things, not simply on a single day each year. That, I suppose, is progress!

There are of course many contemporary composers whose music could be played, ranging from Judith Weir, the first female Master of the Queen’s Music (though there has never yet been one of the King’s Music), appointed in 2014, through someone I overlapped with at my all girls’ school, Sally Beamish, to Erollyn Wallen, who composed a fanfare for Churchill College when she attended a Feast in the College a few years ago; all women working in the UK (though the last was born in Belize). Women composers from the wider world include Bulgarian Dobrinka Tabakova, and the Russian-born Australian Elena Kats-Chernin, both of whose music I have recently listened to with great pleasure having previously been unacquainted with them. That is, unless you count the music from a Lloyds TSB Bank advertisement which the latter wrote as part of her ballet Wild Swans; that ad seemed to get a lot of airtime some years back. However, the more you look the more of such women you find, and it is good to hear them turning up regularly on Radio 3. And turning up in the general way of things, without comment about how exciting or rare it is to find a woman composer after all.

However, it is the fact that women from the past are now being played so much more that I am fascinated by. Their music was always out there and yet it clearly wasn’t regarded as ‘manly’ enough to warrant being played. The grande dame of these must be Hildegard of Bingen, whose religious chants and plainsong are so simple and yet so moving. The Baroque composer Barbara Strozzi, also a singer, seems to have been regarded as a bit dubious over the centuries because she was suspected of being a courtesan. Thus, despite having published more music than any of her contemporaries, her name seems to have languished for generations.

Americans Amy Beach and Florence Price were appreciated in their day, in the late nineteenth and early 20th century, but then seem to have been forgotten about for years. The latter, who was black, was the first American woman to have a major work played by a first rank orchestra (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), in 1933. The UK could boast Rosalind Ellicott, from the late Victorian period, and the suffragette Ethyl Smyth a little later, whose anthem The March of the Women became the movement’s anthem. Perhaps she was regarded as dubious because of that association with those tiresome, militant women but she seems to have been dubbed with the ‘too manly to be a decent woman composer’ label, so reminiscent of the modern double standard for professional women: behave like a man and be frowned upon, behave as a woman ‘should’ and be trodden upon or regarded as likeable but not competent.

I don’t know how many other professional areas there are, in which there were many women active in the past whose names have simply been written out of the record. Some professions were of course formally closed to women, such as the law and medicine from the 18th century on. Before, no one thought to codify such a formal forbidding since it wasn’t expected women would ever try to enter such professions. The move away from early female midwives to professional men who attended childbirth, may well have led to many more maternal deaths than necessary because of the way they felt obliged not to touch women or carry out proper examinations. The battle to get the medical profession to accept women  as nurses (Florence Nightingale had quite a hand in that), let alone as doctors, was long and hard fought. Some of these struggles are described with verve by Julia Boyd, my predecessor-at-Churchill-but-one’s wife, in her enjoyable book The Excellent Doctor Blackwell. I feel embarrassed for describing her in that relative way, because she’s an author of note, but that’s how I’ve met her. Of course, before Blackwell came the army doctor who ‘passed’ as a man throughout her professional life, James Barry, no mean feat to fool so many military folk for so long, with her secret only discovered at her death.

All of this shows how short-changed women have been over the years. For all those composers (and music was at least acceptable for a woman to spend time on, unlike cutting up dead bodies to learn anatomy) who are resurfacing, whose music is being heard and enjoyed, how many more are still unknown and are yet to be (re)discovered? And what of other spheres of activity?

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Giving Due Credit

Due Credit

When I was setting out as a young PI, the standard thing to do (on acetates, once we’d moved on from 35mm slides) was to acknowledge co-workers – students or postdocs, or wider collaborators – via a simple list at the end, with affiliations as appropriate. These days, mini mugshots on the relevant slide are de rigeur. It is very nice to see the human face behind exciting results.

However, whichever way it’s done, what matters is that it is done. Because upon occasion, even if the whole act of acknowledgement doesn’t get omitted, individuals may do. Too often, that implies bad behaviour, bad faith, on the part of the senior scientist. Let me give a couple of examples. I once observed a senior scientist, now dead, give his talk in honour of a prize he’d just been awarded, carefully listing every person he’d collaborated with in whatever capacity – bar a couple. Both female as it happens (although in my experience gender is not necessarily a contributing factor), and substantially more junior than him, albeit already independent researchers. Both people he had had pretty public fallings out with after extended and fruitful collaborations starting during their student years. It was noted by others in the audience with some revulsion. It was shocking behaviour, and yet there were – of course – no consequences for him. He was the one winning the prize; they were ‘merely’ being short-changed.

I find this kind of behaviour deeply depressing. It is just one way in which the established scientist feels they are untouchable, as they indeed almost invariably are, and can get away with whatever they feel like. It involves no active aggression, bullying or harassment, and yet the damage may be substantial. It does not have to involve women or even junior scientists. On another occasion I watched a different (male) senior scientist give a conference talk about his work with industry. He was very proud his fundamental work had such relevance to manufacturing; indeed, that was rather the thrust of his talk. Yet the industrialist I was sitting next to, who was funding the work, someone I too had collaborated with, turned to me in disgust at the tenor of the talk in which team members – both from industry and academia – were being written out of the presentation. No acknowledgements to the wider team, it looked as if the work was almost entirely down to this single senior scientist. The industrialist felt such dislike of the behaviour, which was clearly of a long-standing pattern in his eyes, that he admitted follow-on funding for the project from his company had all but been cancelled because of the professor’s behaviour.

Why do people do this? Why do they feel it necessary to take all the glory, or withhold other’s fair share, when they – as senior professionals – don’t need it. Furthermore, no one is going to be fooled that the professor was spending long hours in the lab, rather than sitting on committees, running a department or devising new teaching courses. Few professors are going to be doing the legwork of lab or computational work, even if they are the ones who have to write the grants to fund the work and exhort their team to better things. In an ideal team, everyone plays their part, even if not necessarily equally. And everyone should be appropriately credited.

Ottoline Leyser, as UKRI’s CEO, and Amanda Solloway, as the Science Minister, talk a lot about research culture. What will and should they do to stop this particular sort of inappropriate and unattractive behaviour? How will whistleblowing be made easier and less painful for the whistleblower? Should my industrial colleague have stood up in the Q+A and challenged the professor’s behaviour, pointing out how Joe Bloggs and Jane Doe should have been credited with carrying out the finite element analysis, and Ann Smith and Tom Brown the experimental studies? After all, he was close enough to the project to know exactly which students and postdocs had done which part of the work. If he had, no doubt an embarrassed silence would have fallen upon the room. That sort of thing simply isn’t ‘done’. When the first professor I mentioned had omitted the names of Dr X and Dr Y from their credits, when many in the room knew this, should I have stood up and challenged him (goodness knows, I’d challenged him enough in private on other matters) and said how come those names were omitted?

In this particular case, I had indeed raised the issue behind his back in a different context, by pointing out to a (different) prize-giving committee he had a reputation of not giving due credit. My intervention was not appreciated – even though I did it privately and discreetly to the chair of the committee – and I was brushed off, essentially told that it didn’t matter. But it did and does. Not giving credit where it is due means those written out lose street cred, impact and citations, and hence their own prospects are damaged. Said professor duly won the highly prestigious prize.

The trouble is, our cultural norms make silence the name of the game, so that the victims continue to suffer. Speaking up when one knows the truth of the matter should be everyone’s responsibility. Yet, even for those of us with standing, there is a cost to such speaking up. Without such matters falling necessarily under the usual terms of whistleblowing – although in some cases omissions, particularly on papers, will be straying close to research integrity territory – we who call out bad behaviour are in danger of simply being dismissed as troublemakers. I don’t know what the answer is. I wish I did. I do feel more noise should be made about those who don’t always give credit where credit’s due. I think, given a room sprinkled with people who can spot what is going on, it should be possible to introduce a scientific form of sending to Coventry, of marking down future grant applications and refusing to allow such people conference slots. I fear this is just a pipe dream of mine.

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Red Tape

The announcement of a review of bureaucratic red tape in universities may bring either a smile of relief or a hollow laugh. Why are universities (and funding bodies) so entangled in this nasty stuff? Is it because they love to hire lots of makeweight administrators regardless of need (I think not!), or is it because the Government imposes endless layers of regulatory checks and balances? Once upon a time, before Margaret Thatcher’s suspicions alighted on academia (if you aren’t aware of this history, I recommend Jon Agar’s Science Policy under Thatcher to fill you in, an open access pdf), there was less determination to scrutinise academics’ every move. It wasn’t academics who dreamed up ‘impact’ as something we all needed to have if we were to be funded; it wasn’t the bench scientist who thought the REF was a desirable way of measuring university outputs and thereby creating some of the myriadleague tables we are now plagued with. The design of forms for research grants is just another example of evolution rather than intelligent design.

So, it is hard not to believe some good might come out of this recently announced review. Who wouldn’t want to cut red tape? However, it does rather depend which particular bits get cut. To give an example of a particular form I’d love to see simplified, one that I cited to a senior UKRI employee recently, I’m all for scrapping the format of the referee’s form for UKRI. It comes in many parts, which tends to lead to a lot of tedious repetition – tedious for both the referee to write and equally for any soul who has to read it before a committee meeting – but that fragmentation often ends up making it extraordinarily difficult actually to express a coherent and accurate assessment.

Once upon a time, a referee form simply asked for the grant to be judged in free-form text, so one could more easily say this bit is good, that bit is bad, but overall it’s likely to be illuminating/rubbish or whatever. Now, the requirement to address numerous specific criteria means that a distorted perspective can so easily accidentally be transmitted, and words need to be dreamed up to cover issues that perhaps aren’t so relevant to a specific grant. I’m sure the intention behind the form’s creation was good, and probably driven by concerns about issues that too often got overlooked such as researcher training, but it’s overly complicated and not fit for purpose in my view. Time for some pruning back, I think.

The news that the link between Athena Swan and funding was to be broken with no clarity about what might ensue predates this recent announcement but – as the Athena Swan Review Group recommended a year ago (I was a member) – there is no doubt that the Athena Swan process needs its bureaucracy lightening. AdvanceHE seems to be moving slowly and, I might say, confusingly towards implementing the Review’s recommendations. The tardiness towards introducing a more fit-for-purpose application procedure is to be regretted. Nevertheless, whatever shape the process may take in the future, as with the referee forms I mention above, some things are much harder to capture than others. This was the reasoning behind the Review’s recommendation to implement a culture survey, so that the lived reality in a department could be captured and assessed.

To give an example of what fundamental behaviours will never be caught by a form of metrics and good intentions, let me cite an example of sickening public behaviour I watched on a webinar recently. This was not organised by an academic institution, although academics were involved, and many minorities would recognize with a sinking heart the behaviour I observed. A panel discussion was the particular format of this webinar, with a white male chair, who was a non-academic, and two men and two women as the panellists. What ensued was that the women were persistently interrupted by the chair, the men never. One of the women tried to intervene to shut the chair up when he – yet again – jumped in to silence the other woman. As a tactic it didn’t work; the chair was impervious to this attempt. The male panellists did nothing.

That, as I say, was not a meeting in an academic setting, but it is too easy to imagine exactly the same occurring in a department meeting. Indeed, one hardly needs to imagine it because many readers will have seen something similar at first hand. It infuriates me that it is the women who have to attempt the corrective measures, while the men sit complacently – or blindly – by. My first ‘excuse’ for the chair was that he was simply old (he certainly looked it!) and out of touch with current social norms. A quick Google about him, however, indicates he’s somewhat younger than me, so I feel less forgiving.

Men as allies has become something of a ‘thing’, but at times like this it is crucial that they step in to ensure all voices are heard equally. It was outrageous for the chair to treat half of the panel as second-class citizens by virtue of their chromosomes. But, no amount of form-filling by a department will capture such noxious behaviour, particularly if it happens to be the head of department talking down those who don’t conform to an expected ‘cis white male’ norm. All one can hope is that processes such as Athena Swan, once they are tidied up and our recommendations carried through, facilitate the honest dialogue about what goes on in a particular institution to highlight inappropriate and damaging behaviour.

Getting rid of red tape could be wonderful. I’ve highlighted one example of where simplification of forms could really help (in my experience) and one where no amount of form-filling will necessarily capture reality. Every reader will have their own favourite examples. I worry, though, that as long as this Government (indeed, any Government) feels academics are not to be trusted – viewed as too radical, or at least as containing too many ‘well-meaning Guardian readers against the bomb’, to quote an old CND badge – forms will continue to be a staple of our lives, forcing us to jump through hoops, provide numbers of dubious utility and never, unless it is in the mythical beast that will be ARIA, just allowed to get on with our jobs using some common sense and constructive imagination.

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As we ‘celebrate’ the anniversary of the UK’s first national lockdown this week, reflection seems in order. Things that seemed unimaginable last March, we now take in our stride, in the sense that we simply get on with them. Coming to terms with them is a different matter. For all those who’ve lost family and friends, inevitably things will never be the same. Grieving their loss will continue to be a heavy burden to bear. For those who haven’t seen some of their closest relations or pals during the past year, but with that possibility conceivable in the months ahead, circumstances permitting, there will still be much grief at what has been lost. As for those who’ve lost their jobs, for students of whatever age whose education has been disrupted, for the joys of youth (or indeed of any age) that have been upended and left in tatters, there is so much to mourn.

In academic establishments up and down the land, Zoom burnout is pervasive. We’ve sat staring at screens till our eyes and heads hurt, our backs and legs are stiff and our brains frazzled. Zooming friends for a chat no longer seems such an attractive option, when it is just another screen of pixels to stare at, however much the support and gossip received may be welcome. We’ve adapted and committed to trying our outmost in these far-from-ideal circumstances, working long and hard to keep universities functioning as best they can. A College can provide much support, from food to good wifi, even libraries (Churchill’s is open in a restricted way) for those students who are here, with tutorial advice always to hand at the end of a screen.

I’m sure the community is divided into those who believe spring is a positive time of rebirth and those who see this anniversary of lockdown as simply commemorating a year of misery. My mother always used to regard spring as the cruellest time of year, because new beginnings in Nature just reminded her of all that she hadn’t achieved and never could (she did, after all, leave school at 14, and in later years I could never persuade her to embark on an Open University course). For many years she was trapped in London with caring responsibilities, and not able to get out to breathe the country air or hear the cuckoos and chiffchaffs arrive, things that meant so much to her. That sense of being trapped in an urban environment is one that feels all too familiar to me currently: no opportunity to visit the sea, no mountains to relish and – even in the best of times – to my knowledge, no cuckoos within the city, although I’d expect to hear chiffchaffs soon.

bee in spring flowers Mar21 Bee visiting Chionodoxa at Churchill College today

But I will try, harder than ever, to believe in the spring-as-rebirth motif this year. Take the bee I saw today in the College grounds as a positive message. The hope that the successful vaccination roll-out and the most recent lockdown really does mean that normality seems more than just a distant dream. Cambridge term has now ended and, although it doesn’t mean the mass exodus of students in the usual way, it does – thankfully – mean fewer committee meetings to pin me to my screen. There are many challenges to keep us all on our toes, but I will try to remember my own advice of last year ‘In time of crisis, be kind.’ For all those who have been struggling with productivity (I’m inclined to think everyone will be nodding at that point), we need to remember that being kind extends to ourselves as well as everyone else.

As the Master of a Cambridge College, this past year has been intense. Decisions have had to be taken on the hoof with incomplete information, particularly in the first few months.  I am deeply grateful to the wonderful team and sense of community spirit around me. But just because we’ve all been trying to jump through ever-changing hoops as government directives have come and gone, it doesn’t mean the normal work of the College can stop. I have not had to adjust to on-line teaching, because I’m retired and no longer teach. (Although last summer, I did have to undertake online examining as part of my swansong from the department, and tricky I found that. In those early days we were still getting to grips with on-line marking of scripts, sharing screens and virtual whiteboards, not to mention the incompatibility of Microsoft Teams when wearing different institutional hats, something that is totally frustrating.) But all the usual round of decision-making committees continues, and some particularly challenging and unusual circumstances have made this term more complicated and worrying than most for me. Such occasions, when both ‘sides’ choose to see the one in the middle as an enemy, are part of the uncomfortable reality which can rear up unexpectedly for anyone in a leadership role.

I hope the Easter vacation, such as it is, will give all of us time to pause, to smell the metaphorical roses, to curl up with the novels that we’ve wanted to read for months, even if we still can’t see the grandchildren/grandparents/godchildren/best friend and other much loved but now distant people in our lives.  Burnout may be pervasive, but it needs to be factored into the lives we lead. It means we must treat ourselves, and everyone else, with kindness, to escape the burden imposed by incessant emails by venturing out into whatever fresh air is to hand, savouring the warmer weather and lengthening days. Every time I hear a blackbird or dunnock sing, I take heart.

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How are Universities Supporting Those Worst Affected by the Pandemic?

This pandemic has thrown all kinds of inequalities into sharp focus, ranging from fundamental matters of health and wellbeing to job security. The consequences of all these issues will echo down the years ahead, long after the pandemic is a fading nightmare. In terms of (higher) education, the digital divide and who does the homeschooling will both cast a long shadow on opportunity and career progression. Whereas I can say little knowledgeably about the digital divide, which will have significantly magnified other forms of disadvantage already entrenched in UK’s society, I want to say more about the inequalities that homeschooling and caring responsibilities have placed on those who have shouldered the brunt of these, typically women.

In the USA the combined National Academies have recently produced a report Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine looking at the impacts and what measures have been, or should be, introduced to mitigate this impact. (It is worth stressing that of course it isn’t only women who have been impacted but, as I’ve written about before quite early in the pandemic, along with many others, it is clear the impact falls disproportionately on women and, typically, those at relatively early stages.) The simple measure of extending the tenure clock, in US terms, may not help and can actually hinder relative to men, a point reinforced in this recent study.

For many of us, the blurring between work and home – given that you don’t have a commute of more than a few paces when working from home – causes all kinds of problems, again spelled out in this report. We are all used to the person on a call who blanks the video briefly to deal with a child’s worries. But these interruptions matter, impacting – once the Zoom call is over and concentration should be unbroken – on productivity, be it of teaching material or research paper. Data is accumulating across all sectors which shows it is the woman who is more likely to be disrupted and disturbed in this way, or who has to fit in as much work as they can around a day’s homeschooling.

So, how will Universities factor this in? I know my own University is trying to construct appropriate modifications to the paperwork for recruitment and progression to allow some information to be given about the severity of impact on an individual that can be factored into decision-making processes. The devil will be in the detail, as well as the eyes of those who read the statements and then have to work out how to take into account particular circumstances. This will be a challenge, but at least it is one Cambridge is recognizing and working on to make as fair as possible.

Note added 18-3-21 What follows was what I understood at the time of writing, from information in the public domain, was the situation at Liverpool. However, I am now led to believe that the story may be considerably more complex than what I first wrote implies, with many other factors being considered by the University. No doubt in due course the full story will come out and I sincerely hope that the crude metrics I describe below represent only a tiny part of the complete picture. As it stands, the story looks shocking. I hope time proves it incorrect.

Will all universities do likewise? I’m afraid the evidence is no. I want to highlight what is happening at Liverpool University (I believe something different but similar is going on at Leicester) where 47 staff are being required to reapply for their own jobs as downsizing is planned so redundancies are in the air. Now, all universities and colleges are hit by financial pressures, brought about in large part by the pandemic and Brexit, so shedding jobs may be a desperate necessity although the Liverpool case seems to be about much longer term structural changes. However, what is shocking in the Liverpool case is the criteria by which people are to be axed. Metrics, pure and simple, not to say crude.

Two figures of merit are to be used. An individual’s research grant income and Elsevier’s Field-Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI) score for their personal research output. Just these two figures! Think about that….no value is placed on teaching – what an omission ­– or on general citizenship such as mentoring, pastoral care or contributing to the institution’s equality aims. These are the glue that hold a department together and which the University proclaims are important. I don’t think anyone believes that metrics such as Elsevier’s are particularly robust and grant income will be largest for those who do none of the crucial academic ‘housework’, and probably – according to UKRI’s own statistics – who happen to be white and male. Has anyone conducted an equality impact assessment on using these two criteria alone as they are required to do? Because it is extremely hard to imagine they impact everyone, regardless of their characteristics, equally.

As the NAS report makes clear, women’s careers have tended to be more damaged than men’s. A recent UKRI blogpost by Dr Sarah Arrowsmith, a researcher at Liverpool, examines this specifically in their university’s context. This analysis showed grant application rates for male academics in 2020 actually grew by over 11% compared to 2019, but applications by women fell by nearly 20%, giving rise to a net difference of over 30%. So, immediately one can see how the pandemic will impact on the metrics differentially by gender, those metrics that are to be used as they reapply for their own jobs.

Worse, if one considers a longer time period, what about all those good citizens who have contributed to progressing equalities work, such as pulling together the Athena Swan applications or helping to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum. Liverpool holds a Silver Institutional Athena Swan award, and so do some of the departments where these redundancies are now targeted. Yet, the work done – and we all know pulling an Athena Swan award together is no light touch job (at least as yet; maybe implementing the recommendations of the Review Group will finally make this achievable) – gets no recognition in the criteria being used to decide who keeps their job. This is deeply worrying. It means that the statements that the University makes such as

“Equality and Diversity will be knitted into the fabric of our Faculty and enshrined at the heart of all we do”

(quoted in staff’s open letter about these redundancies) have no value.

In the end the institution will simply be full of those people who think only about their own research, how much cash they have and where they publish. I’m not sure I’d think that would be a very nice place to work, or one where the teaching – with no weight given to this at all – is very good. It is unlikely there will be a diversity of staff and there will certainly be no one to work to improve that diversity going forward.

This planned action by Liverpool University is to be deplored as a retrograde step. I hope they will reconsider. I hope all universities will be giving much more consideration to these issues in the round as and when the pandemic finally recedes.

*Please see comment below for a correction to this statement. The 47 staff are not being offered the chance to reapply for their jobs: they are at risk of being made compulsorily redundant.

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