Moving On (Part II)

As readers will know, improving the situation for women in science is dear to my heart. One of the roles in which I’ve been able to make some sort of a contribution has been through chairing the Athena Forum. This group was set up in 2008 as a successor to the Athena Project, which kickstarted the whole Athena Swan process. The Athena Forum in its current incarnation no longer has direct links with the Athena Swan process, which is now overseen by the Equality Challenge Unit, but it still maintains the same ethos and motivation. Its mission is stated as

to provide a strategic oversight of developments that seek to, or have proven to, advance the career progression and representation of women in science, technology, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) in UK higher education.

Last week saw me step down as chair of the Athena Forum, which I have chaired since 2009. More than time for a new broom and I have passed the baton (or perhaps that should also be broom) on to Ottoline Leyser, whose wonderful booklet Mothers in Science: 64 Ways to Have it All she produced when she won the Rosalind Franklin award in 2007. I am quite sure that she will do a wonderful job as Chair and continue to move the agenda forward.

As many will know, last week also saw the announcement of the latest batch of Athena Swan awards and it is encouraging to note that more and more universities are signing up and departments winning awards.  However, this is not an ‘if you enter you win‘ competition and, hidden beneath the successes there are departments (possibly even universities) that are failing in their applications. This has to be a good thing, in one sense since it means that securing an award really does indicate that an institution is embracing change.

Despite the progress that has been made, despite all the Athena Swan applicants that have been successful, there is no doubt there is still a need for such an organisation to maintain pressure on funders and universities alike. The very fact that some departments and universities have, in various rounds, lost their awards shows that progress is not yet deeply ingrained everywhere and organisations that think they can get by simply by ticking boxes and then never thinking about the matter again need to think again. However it is nevertheless the case that improvelents are being made. It may be frustratingly slow, there may be all kinds of endemic problems in our society way beyond the higher education sector that are likely to continue to prove intractable (gender segregation of toys, low aspirations from teachers and parents alike when it comes to girls doing science and lack of role models being some obvious ones for school children, putting them off from ever starting on the STEM career path) but, reading a legacy report of the original Athena Project for my last Forum meeting does highlight that there is visible progress. The report will go up on the web in due course, but it needs more polishing yet.

After the Athena Forum committee meeting there was a workshop hosted by them at the Royal Society to which a number of funders came to discuss the ongoing issues and the extent to which they can influence change. In some instances there may be easy wins. One might think of the RCUK statement in this light, in so far as it is now a very obvious stick with which organisations can in principle be beaten. I daresay in practice it was a non-trivial task to find a form of words all research councils could agree to as with any political communiqué.  In other situations it may be much harder for funders to effect change in institutions when it is individuals that they actually fund. They also need to make sure that their own practices are as excellent as they can be for their own internal employees and the committees (from Research Council councils down) that they run. Data is currently being collected as a follow-up to the previous Report on Good Practice by UK Research Funders to see how far things have moved in general on this front.

Sarah Dickinson from Athena Swan gave a presentation at this workshop, passing on some tips from her experience of submissions and some analysis of success rates. The organisation is currently running a pilot both for Research Council Institutes and, more recently, for non-STEM departments. All this means that the impacts delivered by Athena Swan should be starting to impact soon on other disciplines where, as my recent foray into Philosophy departments has revealed, all is very much not well.

However let me conclude with a few random questions that were raised in my mind at the workshop and from reading recent media stories. I’d be interested to hear people’s views because these are very much not black and white issues.

1 Sarah Dickinson said that a Head of Department sending emails late at night sends the wrong message because it implies everyone else should also be working late at night. While I understand why this could be interpreted this way, it also seems to me that one of the joys of academia is that one has a lot of flexibility about when one chooses to work. If it suits someone to leave work mid-afternoon to go and pick up the kids and then spend the evening with them, but go back to work once they’re in bed, that strikes me as perfectly reasonable. I remember once expressing concern about a grant administrator who was sending me late night emails and they pointed out that that was the way they chose to work for this very reason. Clearly no head of department should expect or require anyone to work at what would normally be described as antisocial hours, but if they choose to do so then that should be fine (and of course it may be the head of department whose work pattern is as I’ve described above).  What do people think about Sarah’s statement?

2 For women about to go on maternity leave what assumptions should one make? I had always thought the correct assumption was that they would do nothing unless one was told otherwise – it should be entirely their choice – but managed to cause grave offence by taking this line recently. I have certainly known women who have absolutely held to the line that their research group can just get by on their own for the full period of their leave without any contact from the PI. I can’t imagine that I would have felt comfortable doing that for a year. Indeed I didn’t: I continued to see my students and read their work during my 3-4 months of leave, but the choice has to be the individual woman’s. Nevertheless it took me completely by surprise so to upset someone by starting from a position of assuming nothing. How do others approach this?

3 From the press I came across a story about ‘mumpreneurs‘, women who set up businesses from home whilst looking after their family. Clearly what they are doing is impressive, but does a new word really have to be invented for this, which is so clearly gendered? Entrepreneurs is a perfectly good ungendered word, unlike so many words in our language, so why create a new one? I can understand that individuals might want to stress their entrepreneurial activities were home-based rather than run out of an office, but how about ‘entrepreneur-from-home’ which remains entirely gender-neutral? After all, perhaps it’s the dad who stays at home (particularly with the new paternity laws) so why specify which parent is involved? Is it relevant to the business plan?

So, answers please to this rather random set of questions!


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23 Responses to Moving On (Part II)

  1. Lisa Fredin says:

    1. As most people check their email constantly via smartphones and having been on extremely life changing emails that come it at midnight I think sending emails in the middle of the night is not a best practice and can often cause a lot of stress and a sleepless night for the recipient. However, I totally agree that people should work on schedules that are best for them. I often WRITE emails late at night but I just delay when they are sent and set them to go out around 6-7am the next morning. Then it is waiting in peoples’ inbox first thing in the morning.
    2. I know students of professors who went on maternity leave and the students often felt very gypped. They felt they could have had a better PhD experience with a professor not on maternity leave. I don’t understand how you can go away for more than a month (for any reason-sabbatical, vacation, being sick….) without checking in or having a research professor or post-doc in a clear leadership position with authority to make major decisions without your input. That said most professors I have worked with have done this, being available via email, having meetings via skype when out of town if they are critical, etc. I think in today’s technological age this is getting easier and easier.
    3. mupreneurs is a stupid word, lets just not use it. I don’t any term other than entrepreneur is necessary, if women choose not to use the new word it will eventually fade out of use.

    • Laurence Cox says:

      I agree with Lisa on 1) & 3) and cannot comment on 2). I have had experience in working with people in other time-zones; one collaboration with colleagues in South Australia meant that we had to hold video conference calls at 7:30 am (the only time when our working days overlapped). I would say unless you really need that information urgently, you should think about the recipient of the email and not send it until the morning. If you are dealing with someone whom you know is working different hours from you (or in a different timezone) then send the mesage at a time that is most convenient to them. That way you are also sending them the (unwritten) message that you value their time.

    • paul martin says:

      #2 How times change. I did not see my PhD supervisor for weeks and it was well before email, but he was there for the important stuff. Many students nowadays demand instant feedback when electronic comms are involved …. chill

  2. chocagar says:

    Agree that as long as there is no expectation that others either respond to, or send e mails late at night, then working patterns are entirely a personal preference. My HoD likes to do his e mail early morning (as did my last HoD); neither has any expectation that I will reply then. I have family breakfast and the school run to handle, so my e mail time is generally late evening, but again, would not expect a response until “normal” working hours.

  3. chocagar says:

    Oh and as for the supervision issue, it totally depends how it is handled. The PhD student needs some clear chain of reporting and access to support; however, need it be the supervisor? I realise this might depend on the size of department, as alternative source of support are easier in larger departments.

  4. Jenny Koenig says:

    One person’s maternity leave is not the same as another’s. One person may have no family nearby and have a baby that never sleeps and/or has health problems whilst another may have a baby that sleeps to order with plenty of grandparents etc to help out while they make a quick trip to the lab for a meeting. What’s important is that there is a clear and frank discussion in advance of the maternity leave setting out expectations and putting in place alternative supervision support. Then this needs to be reviewed on a regular basis (every couple of months, say, if it is a long maternity leave). We need to make sure all involved get the support they need and are not just abandoned and told to get on with it.

  5. Catherine says:

    Maternity leave is a tricky one as all babies/parents/jobs are different. My first child was a colicky non-sleeping baby, and it took me at least 6 months to be able to think straight again, let alone concentrate on anything work-related. I’m now on leave (from being a postdoc) with my second, who is a much easier baby, and this time round I could concentrate a bit on work again if necessary.

    I found it felt a bit isolating to be completely left alone by colleagues while on leave, even if they’re trying to do the ‘right’ thing (legally as well as morally). So I think some formal keeping in touch scheme would be nice, which allows for flexibility on both sides and for review as time goes on. Being completely left alone on leave because ‘you have other things on your mind’ is not far removed from benevolent sexism.

    As for ‘mumpreneurs’, I always see this associated with setting up typical ‘female’ businesses – fashion, cupcakes, parenting etc. You’d never see it about the mum who’s set up a world-leading tech company (if indeed there are any!).

  6. Geologist says:

    I work at all hours on those days that I choose – AND – I work with people from all over the world, so the hour that I get emails varies considerably and I think it is up to the recipient to not let others’ work habits cause them undue stress.

    If you have a boss that is telling you that you must work all hours then you have a problem. I supervise MANY people and what I care about is their output and I give them plenty of warning when deadlines are coming. It is up to them to handle their own schedules and decide when they want to work – and I encourage vacations. If they want to work weekends and in the middle of the night, then that is their choice. If I see them overdoing it, I talk to them about taking a break. But it is my responsibility to not let myself get all worked up if they email me in the middle of the night – I don’t have to respond then. I can control when I want to deal with whatever issue is at hand.

    Otherwise, assume nothing, and work when and how YOU want to. That is the best part of academia – choosing your own schedules as best you can.

  7. I strongly disagree with Sarah Dickinson’s comment that “a Head of Department sending emails late at night sends the wrong message because it implies everyone else should also be working late at night”.

    Sending late night emails implies no such thing. Phoning faculty late at night would be another matter.

    Just as one example, I tend not to send or respond to many emails between 5 and 8 pm when I go home to spend time with the kids. After that I often complete any unfinished business of the day and of course it is also a great time to communicate with American collaborators.

    Surely the fundamental point is that made by “Geologist” email is like a letter – to be read and attended to when one is ready and able. Email is not an “instant” conversation and there should be no expectation of an instant response.


    PS Not a Head of department but finding a happy balance of being an academic and Dad.

  8. Jenny says:

    As a departmental lead preparing an application for a silver Athena SWAN award I’ve been struck by how unrealistic some HR people are in their expectations of academics work loads and habits – point 1 seems a classic example, flexible working is encouraged but working outside core hours is not!

  9. Susan Lea says:

    You’re right that flexibility is the key advantage of an academic career and that includes the flexibility to send emails in the middle of the night. The maternity leave issue is more problematic. Complete abstinence from committees and teaching (lecturing etc) seems a given but, for the PI, how to manage your group is much harder – rather by definition our groups tend to be sufficiently specialist there is no obvious deputy. Whilst its fair to ask senior postdocs to help with day to day issues it is not their job to do the overarching management required during an extended maternity leave. But this is again where academic flexibility should help and email is great aid. The idea that a science group leader is only thinking about science during working hours is clearly not true and despite lack of sleep, the vast majority of new-mum scientists I’ve known don’t want to be cut-off from science for the duration of leave. Its therefore important we help by providing spaces in departments where new mums and babies can safely meet with groups. There is no expectation that you must do this, simply a facilitation of the process for those who wish to do so. A complete break is clearly easier when maternity leave occurs earlier in your career where your absence holds back your own science but isn’t impacting on as many others work – here it seems much more possible to genuinely turn your focus to home for a period before return.
    Mumpreneurs is just silly and patronising.

  10. Alice Bondi says:

    I’ve never understood this issue about sending e-mails late at night. Surely it’s up to the person RECEIVING to decide when they want to look at their e-mails? That’s the glory of e-mails to me – that they can be sent when one wants (I’m a night owl, it’s liable to be 2am) and the recipient can look at their e-mails when they choose. I always thought this was the great advantage over phone calls, that I’d never be interrupting someone else’s life. If you have your phone, tablet, or whatever by your bed overnight and have sounds on to alert you to incoming e-mails – just turn the sounds off, surely? I’m not an academic, but I frequently send e-mails to other members of voluntary organisations in which I’m active, and they go when I’m ready to send them.

    I can’t see how noting the time an e-mail has been sent gives out any message beyond “this is when I choose to do my work”.

  11. Helen Wilson says:

    For me, (1) is a struggle. I’m a deputy head of department with two children under 5, and my working day is very non-standard. I regularly send late evening and weekend emails to make up for my absence during core hours – but I do worry that I’m putting subconscious pressure on my juniors by doing so.

    On (2), for a decent length of leave (say, more than a term) I think the conversation needs to be had about what effect the leave will have on the department and the group; but with a very clear expectation that if the mother doesn’t want to touch work when on leave, she has that right. I did very little academic work while on my year and eight months (respectively) maternity leave and I’m glad of it.

    As to mumpreneurs, I hate the word but I am setting the phenomenon a lot among my peers so maybe it does have a use. But yuck.

  12. Veronique Boisvert says:

    About maternity leave: as others have mentioned above it is a tricky issue because babies are very different and for one woman it might be possible to still be somewhat involved while for others it may not. It seems obvious that if a woman desires to keep in touch she should be allowed to do so. However because there are so few women in departments, comparisons might creep up: why is X taking a whole year maternity leave without any contacts while Y only took 3 months and even showed up for group meetings? I worry about unofficial expectations and undue pressure.

    I have observed that we tend to think that 3-4 months away from the lab is going to be a huge amount of time, while in reality it is not. But I must say that I am still undecided about what to think about a full year away from the lab. On the other hand, since most women academics will return to work full time, this is likely the only time in the child’s life that we will be fully dedicated to them, so personally I felt it was important to make the most of this special time and not obsess too much about work.

    Finally, what about men academics? I wish that maternity leave was more equally shared between parents: 4 months with the mum + 4 months with the dad, (full pay in each case) what could be more ideal? (of course the Scandinavians do something close to this) If every academic parent, male or female, took a few months parent leave for their children, women might stop feeling so different from their colleagues because they go on maternity leave.

    A related issue I am currently looking into is what happens when post-docs go on maternity leave? Does the extra money come from the research council of the grant or the university? I am pretty sure the university extends the contract by the amount of the maternity leave taken, but what about the grant end date and any other such details? It would seem unfair to me if a PI was being disadvanted from hiring a woman as a postdoc.

    • Catherine says:

      I can tell you about my experience taking maternity leave as a postdoc, but I think the exact outcome depends on individual circumstances, department, and perhaps on the source of funding.

      Statutory maternity pay is paid by the government, but it was left to my PI to cover the top-up pay offered by the university. He has raised this as potentially discriminatory if it puts PIs off hiring women for fear of maternity pay eating into their budget. My contract wasn’t automatically extended due to the fact of taking leave, but it was renewed as taking leave is supposed to be ignored for the purposes of contract renewal. That is, my PI couldn’t let my contract lapse and then renew it again when I started again after leave.

      And your post brings to mind another point, which is the difficulty in finding affordable flexible childcare to enable a (partial or full) return to work with a young baby. University nurseries are oversubscribed and there are few other options near university departments. It would be far easier to do some work while on maternity leave if there were better childcare arrangements available.

  13. Nikki Botting says:

    I totally agree that sending late night emails offers flexibility rather than pressure. The feeling of precedent from the HoD sounds more to do with that HoDs leadership style generally than late night emails per se.

  14. stephenemoss says:

    I’m totally in favour of late evening/night email postage – for many of us there are too many exciting distractions during the day (e.g. Health and Safety Meetings), then the undiluted pleasure of family life takes over on arriving home, and after the kids have been fed and watered you never know, there might be something worth watching on TV, and once the dust has finally settled one invariably winds up the evening by dealing with the backlog of the days emails.

    The key point, as many have noted here, is that those on the receiving end can always choose not to look at their emails or mark up my messages as spam. When I don’t want to look at emails I take a shower or get on a plane, or choose some other displacement activity – cycling and email reading are totally incompatible.

  15. So far the weight of opinion seems to be that flexibility wins out over any sub-text of pressure to work outside core hours. Personally I do sometimes write emails at night and reread them the next morning before sending to check for incoherence, bad temper (if it is in itself a rapid response to someone else’s message that may have caused me to feel irritated or worse) and to show I personally am not on instant response mode. But if on the other hand it’s an easy response and I just want to get it out of my ‘to do’ list, I fire it away at any time of day. This is particularly true when travelling, when days may be spent out of contact either in meetings or just without access. The last thing I want to do is feel that inbox pressure is building up to bursting point.

  16. stephenemoss says:

    And I forgot to mention that at my place of work (UCL Institute of Ophthalmology) our first pitch at Athena Swan landed us a silver award. I had little to do with the submission, but played a small role 13 years ago when, as Head of a newly formed Department, I recruited precisely equal numbers of male and female academic staff. This was purely by chance rather than an extraordinarily prescient preparation for the future, but happily all are still with us. Two of the male recruits and two of the female are now full Professors and all have, on occasion, sent me late night emails.

  17. Cindy Vallance says:

    The late night emails question came up in a session we did about integrating life and work in academia. One Professor mentioned his School (not HR) was thinking of implementing an internal rule about emails out of core hours while another from a different School absolutely advocated for flexibility given her own approach to work and balancing her time. I agree strongly with the latter – as long as we aren’t expecting responses at unusual hours to emails, being overly prescriptive helps no one and bounds us up in rules that serve no good purpose.

    And yes, let’s collectively ban ‘mompreneurs’ from our vocabulary.

  18. Steve says:

    The late night emails thing has made me think about when I send responses. To be honest with you I haven’t given it much thought but have heard the presumptions of people who receive them that said person is putting the hours in, or that they’re doing their job more than others. I think a clear message of flexibility is a must.

    On the absence from work isn’t it within most employment contracts that replacement cover can be applied for in the case of maternity leave? I would have thought that this is a must, both to cover the students/postdocs in the group but to also not detrimentally effect the person on maternity leave by making their group not effectively operate as well as it could. I personally would speak to the person concerned giving them options but making them aware that paid cover is an option (is it?). I’ve long suspected that maternity leaves are not dealt with in the right way. Flexibility is again the key. If the person concerned wants work days blending in to their leave then so-be-it. If they want a complete break then an effective plan, suiting each person’s needs (and the groups) has to be worked out, well in advance.

    For me the eradication of any gender referencing would be a good thing. I went to see a transvestite comedian in my University last night (Andrew O’Neill). He put it very well ( in that often our perceptions of men do this, women do that are all really based on gross errors and silly labels that don’t actually have any basis. I forget the humour he used but do have a look at his blog.

    Ban the phrase ‘mompreneurs’. What a stupid label. It also puts too much expectation on people to start a business when at home perhaps forgetting that actually bringing up kids and being the main child carer, whether male or female, is in itself a full time job worthy of the highest praise and admiration. Showing some acumen and combining caring for kids and setting up a business shouldn’t be gender labelled, as if it were a characteristic of women alone. I know several dads who have done the same thing. In their case they were often assumed to be struggling with the typical “mum at home” role and were asked if they found it hard to be a man at home and was that the reason to set up a business. I doubt the same logic would be applied to a woman…..

  19. Juliet Coates says:

    1) Late-night emails: no problem at all for me, due to a supportive culture within my department (this is key). I do take out 4.5 hours in the middle of the normal working day to pick my son up from school, and to look after him after school, so I restart my work in the evening when he goes to bed. I *love* the fact that I have this flexibility, which is enabled by a supportive head of school. HoS and I often have very useful (or even downright hilarious) email discussions in the evenings…. This is a valuable interaction that I would miss out on if we went down the “core hours” route.
    For me as a single parent then the only way to avoid evening work would be to put my son in after school care, a solution which neither he or I are happy with. I consider myself extremely lucky that I have the flexibility to work outside of core hours. My lab members all know that I do this, and that if they receive emails from me at odd times this does not mean I expect an instant response; I have always been very clear about that. In turn, my lab and my HoS also know that if it is a school holiday or a strike day then they cannot necessarily expect *any* email response from me during their core working day! It’s about mutual trust, reasonable expectations and a supportive working environment. There can be no “one size fits all” approach.

    2) Maternity “leave [me alone]” or not? This should be up to the individual: free and frank discussion with an understanding Head of School is key, before and during maternity leave. So, in some cases wholesale institutional cultural change would be needed! A new mother will not necessarily know before, or indeed once, the baby is born what will work for her and so flexibility and ongoing dialogue is required. (Much will depend on baby’s health, sleep pattern, mother’s health etc).
    From my experience (6 years ago), my then HoS was supportive re: flexibility of leave, but I ran into logistical problems with grant funders that I had not given enough thought to ahead of time (I would approach the situation differently in the future).
    For example, my grant funder at the time seemed unconcerned that as a lab head I was planning to be on maternity leave for 6 months – “if you think your postdoc will cope OK that will be fine”…. In retrospect this was not really a constructive enough response. How can I know ahead of time what will happen to the dynamic in the lab? I was lucky that one of my colleagues kept an eye on my PhD students, but every time I popped in to work with the baby I could see that things were not right in the lab, but I felt unable to do anything about it properly until I returned to work: very stressful all round. So, when a PI goes on leave, should the grant be put in abeyance, and a temporary university post be found for the postdoc? This might not suit all, but it should perhaps be an option that Universities and Research Councils should explore more fully.
    Another problem I ran into was that I had put in a grant pre-proposal to a charitable funder when I was still pregnant, which was successful (a letter appeared in my pigeon hole while I was away – no email (!); letter only passed on to me by chance). When I asked if I could delay my full grant submission to a later round after I came back from leave, I was told no, and when I asked how I should then handle the situation the response I got was “we make no exceptions – you could get somebody else to write the grant for you!” (this was from a woman!). Perhaps things are different with this funder 6 years on, but really it showed a lack of understanding of what maternity leave means, and this needs to be addressed for organisations that require drawn-out multi-stage grant proposals.
    One other point of note on this subject (which is rarely addressed) is that around 15% of new mothers suffer from post-natal depression, and here again an all-round supportive working environment and culture will help to ease some pressures that may be drivers of this condition and thus improve the health of academics on leave and returning from leave.

    3) Mumpreneurs: I have no problem with the word “mum”, but “mumpreneur” is completely unnecessary. I am proud to be a mum. I am a mum and I also happen to be a scientist: I am not a “mumscientist”. They are two different aspects of my life, and my number one priority is being a mum. I would hope that the fact that I am a mum would not make anyone think differently about the quality of my science.
    We do run the risk nowadays of lauding the whole “working mother” thing to the point where those mothers who choose to be full-time parents feel completely devalued. I have friends who work full-time caring for their children who freely state that they are incredibly lucky that they were able to make that choice, but at the same time feel they constantly have to apologise for it. It destroys their self-confidence. My own mother was a full-time mum for many years, and was there for all of us at key times. (Incidentally, my father was a flexibly-working academic, even back then!!). Without my supportive and flexible family environment, then perhaps I would not have got to be a scientist at all; who knows. What works for one mother does not necessarily work for all. Let’s not try and label people, or let labels be indicative of perceived value to society.

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