It’s the start of a new term in Cambridge and this weekend the streets around the city will be full of nervous looking parents trying to find somewhere to park to unpack their anxious looking children. (One of the many advantages of Churchill College is that, as an out-of-town-centre college it has far more space for parking and unloading.) This cohort, like the last several, will arrive burdened with the consequences of the pandemic and social and educational isolation in ways we have yet to discover for this particular age-group. It will be many years before the lasting effects of Covid are no longer an issue for students.
Over the summer I received a fair number of invitations to talk to different groups of students and postdocs around the University about my book, Not Just for the Boys: Why we need more women in science during the upcoming term. I am pleased to realise that the book has penetrated many different departments locally, although whether it has reached the people who might be able to act upon some of my recommendations as much as the early career researchers who have to work through the challenges, I don’t know. I could also wish such penetration were true in other universities too, that the leadership of departments look at how their staff – and indeed other students – are behaving and act accordingly. However, one only has to hear about the comments some men think it is OK to put out on air about women and whether or not they are to their taste sexually (I won’t repeat the remarks Laurence Fox made, but they were outrageous) to believe that our universities will not be exempt. They will contain men who rate the women on their courses or in their research groups not for their brains but for their bodies and convey such views in their words and actions. Of course, such harassment is common across many sectors but, if numbers start out low in subjects like engineering, physics and computing, isolation may make an unpleasant situation much harder to cope with.
This week I start the term by talking to researchers at the University School of Clinical Medicine and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in a joint event on Monday (in person and online). At the end of the week, I go further afield to talk at New Scientist Live at Excel in London. I may have a fair idea of what sort of lecture environment I’ll be talking in for the former, but what size audience and what age and occupation distribution I will encounter for the latter is much less clear to me. Of course, one always has to respond to the audience one finds, modify the way one talks about each Powerpoint slide in the face of the faces in front of you, but public talks feel very different to the more familiar one of an academic venue. The New Scientist Live talks I believe will also be live-streamed, opening up an invisible channel to people sitting in their own homes, or potentially down the pub given I’m talking at lunchtime. Keeping remote audiences engaged is yet another challenge, but it is one that it is almost impossible to judge with what success.
With the various talks lined up for the months ahead about my book (there’ll be another one in London at the Royal Institution on November 16th), I am conscious how each organiser has put slightly different demands on me. Not just a question of audience, but of length of talk and how long to set aside for questions from the audience. Sometimes the talks are not talks but discussions, as for instance the upcoming event I will be participating in with Diane Coyle and Tabitha Goldstaub about ‘Why we need more women….’ through the Bennett Institute. Diane has written plenty about the dearth of women in her own subject of economics. What this all means is that each and every talk has to be written separately. If you think I just turn up and deliver the same talk as I have already given multiple times before, you’d be wrong. I’d be very bored if I did, and so would the audience.
I learned the hard way a long time ago, when still very early in my career and travelling, as it were, with my one and only talk (back in the day when it was hard copy transparencies and 35mm slides that were the norm), that repeating the same talk over and over again leads to a lack of attention and animation in the speaker. Sometimes, even, a complete loss of the thread of one’s words: have I said this before to this particular audience? being a particularly vicious thought as a source of confusion as one stumbles along.
The one audience I fear I am not reaching through my talks, blogs etc are teachers. I hope there will be many at New Scientist Live, but I have had no correspondence from anyone who recognizes the issues from their own schools. When I went to Parliament to meet MP Carol Monaghan(see image), a former Physics teacher from Glasgow, she recounted some of her own methods to ensure girls felt fully integrated and belonging in her classes. I wish more teachers had given the matter so much thought. Carol was a member of the Commons Science and Technology Committee which carried out an enquiry into Diversity and Inclusion in STEM, a committee chaired by Greg Clark and to which I gave evidence. The report from the committee received a bland and defensive response from the Government which did not please Clark. I wish I had a way of reaching out to teachers, as I feel they have an absolutely key part to play in encouraging more girls to follow their dreams into technology and physics.
So, talks aplenty coming up for me in the weeks ahead, along with the normal busyness of a Cambridge term. Not only do I have a talk to give about my book on Monday morning, but my last speech to Freshers after their formal welcome dinner that evening.