Regency Restoration Part 2 – Who doesn’t love a good old Regency tiled floor?

Really, who doesn’t love a good old tiled floor. So classy.

We have tiled floors in our flat, of course we do. Our Regency flat (yes, I am persisiting in calling it that) only became a flat in the early 1900s about the time that Downton Abby was filmed (see what I did there). So it is a bit hard to tell if these floors are Victorian, Edwardian or Georgian-slash-Regency. I’m using Georgian because who knows where that crazy king was when our floors were installed – on the throne, off the throne, on the throne, off the throne, loose some super cool colonies, off the throne. Who knows.

After a bit of research using the interwebs I have come down on the side of Georgian. When in doubt, remember the Victorians were showy, Georgians not so much. This is all relative, Regency architects were quite happy to thrown in a couple of columns as the ‘less showy’ option. Victorian tiles look more like this (this is not our house – you will note the absence of magnolia).

victorian tiles

I am somewhat frightened of most Victorian design. I mean look at those ladies shoes, those have got to hurt. Plus corsets and bustles. I remember a friend of mine telling about her future mother-in-law showing her around her newly re-decorated rooms and telling my pal they were ‘Done in the Victorian style’. Before she could think about it she said ‘I thought you were going for frontier Bordello’. I have a similar feeling about Victorian after going to an exhibit of Vicky and Albert’s stuff at Buckingham palace. Who knew how many object of use you could make from antlers, I sure didn’t. My decorating advise would be, if your going with Victorian, do so sparingly or go full-out and open a saloon.

Except for part of our hallway, the bulk of the tiles in our flat were carefully disguised under a I-can-hide-any-stain-even-tea-and-coffee coloured carpet. If you are having a frustrating day, I recommend ripping up old carpet. It is SO satisfying and quick. Thankfully the carpet installers did a pretty poor job adhering the carpet to the floor and the undercoat came up pretty easily with the carpet.

Georgian floor

It looks so much nicer than the carpet. This time, rather than being insanely pleased with myself and thinking ‘I’m finished’, I did realize there some cleaning was to be done. 100+ year old tiles weren’t grouted really like they are today. They were just rammed as close to possible to one another on a bed of some kind of cement. They are constructed of clay and according to the conservation folks “When the floors were new, they were generally scrubbed and waxed or oiled every week.” Which is perfectly possible with a load of servants, and I am sure that the great designers of these buildings never imagined a world without servants, even less the horror of a block of flats.

With baked clay tiles which are older than whoever my ancestors were who fled this Island back in the day, you have to be gentle and USE THE RIGHT PRODUCT. I am a chemist, I spent some time researching different substances and they all came to a similar conclusion – alkaline + surfactant. This seems to be a restoration theme, evil basic compounds. I did my PhD work on superacids so maybe it’s nice to spend some time on up at the other end of the pH scale.

I started with some ONE TRUE GOD FAITH Dr Bronner’s. I followed the advise to DILUTE, DILUTE, DILUTE, OK! and gave the floors a good wash. Incidentally, if you’ve never heard of or used Dr. Bronner’s go buy some. It is a great soap, even when you aren’t backpacking and it makes for some good bathroom reading.

Dr Bronner's tiled floor

It kind of worked, but it can also be pretty harsh, Dr Bronner’s, if you don’t dilute enough. If you wash your hair with it, you will see what I mean, but basically it will take your luxurant locks and turn them into dehydrated straw. I was a bit nervous about it so I decided to buy the real deal, Vulpex Soap, which apparently they use to restore things like Rembrant’s. Again, it’s not cheap, 250mls is around £20 but a little goes a long way. Plus you’ll have it around if you ever feel the need to spruce up your battle armour as it’s been used for this commonly (according to the label) and it has the Queen’s seal so it must be good. Vulpex rocks becuase you can dissolve it in both white spirit (no not moonshine, though I suspect it would dissolve in that too) and in water. I trundled off to Poundland and secured a trusty Nylon brush for an entire £1 and set about scrubbing.

When it was pretty clear I was going to end up leaving Oxford, I decided to start going to the gym. I’d always been a runner of sorts but I decided powerlifting might be the better way forward (take that Osteoperosis) and to save my ego because I run at exactly 1/2 the speed I used to run when I was in my 20s. Inspired by my husband, who actually can lift heavy objects, I realized it’s far less effort to get tired lifting for an hour vs running for an hour at least for me. I squatted, deadlifted and benched my way into slightly better shape.

This is where I would like to claim I am actually clairvoyant. Sort of like A Prayer for Owen Meany – I must have known that lifting weight would prepared me for something, in this sort of mystical way. In my deep subconscience I knew that having Michelle Obama arms (or Linda Hamilton arms as I like to call them as I thought she was the coolest thing ever in T2) would prepare me for some life experience. I can’t decide if I am sorry or happy to say it was scrubbing 150+ years of dirt off Georgian tiles. This, my friends, is a full body workout. It’s on your knees scrubbing. It is work those triceps and firm up your core kind of painful. It is cardio endurance too, you have to keep going even when you loose the will to pick up that scrub brush one more time, or you’ll be scrubbing till the cows come home or until Brexit is actually over.

“Why don’t you rent a machine to do that?” my husband asked after watching me limp around for the rest of the day (1 room took me 2 days). “I guess because the restoration sites say do it by hand, but really because renting a machine is eye-wateringly expensive” I told him. I then went on to explain my Owen Meany mystical theory. He’s used to me.

Here’s how you do it if you want to know…

Dissolve some Vulpex in white spirit – scrub until you cry (this gets up paint/carpet glue/tape/stuff I don’t want to think about what it really is)
Walk around with a towel under your feet on it. What all the websites definitely agree on it that you can’t leave water pooled on the floor. This is 1) messy and 2) can get under these non-grouted tiles and lift them. Also wear a mask, unless you want visions of nice DIY ladies, then don’t.

Dissolve some Vulpex in water – scrub until you can’t wave your arms in the air like you don’t care and you can’t sit up to get out of bed in the morning because your abdomen hurts so much (back in my day core was abs, I am not really sure what the difference is). Then rinse with water – just on a cloth – no mop, no puddles. Then do the towel walking thing again and it will look like this…

clean Regencyfloor

It’s hard to take a picture of a black and white floor which exposes the true horror of what came first. I still need to scrub it again, but that is for another day. Now I am going to work on moving like a slug, because I think that’s the only way I’ll be able to get out of my bed in the morning.

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Regency restoration – Part 1, use the right product.

I, along with my husband, am the proud new owner of a Regency flat. The pedants among you will quickly point out that there is no such thing as a Regency flat. This is true, but I think I should be given a pass because it is so much easier to say than “a flat in an old Regency-era Terraced building”.

Regency architecture is impressive. Our flat has giant ceilings. It has mouldings. It has 1920’s wall paper (very durable). It has amazing tiled floors. It has Dado rails – a term I proudly trot out on any given occasison that I only learned about a month ago. It even has chandeliers (!). It is also completely covered in layers and layers and layers of paint topped off with a lovely 1992 shade of magnolia.

I used to associate magnolia with sweeping yards of big succulent-looking trees and bad ass mature Southern women who took no crap from nobody. Now, like everyone else in the UK, I only think of emulsion or matt. The only reason I can fathom why this color is called magnolia is that it is precisely the colour of pantyhose adored by old women I went to church with in the 1970s. That darker shade of beige. Incidently, it’s called Savage Ground if you shop at Farrow and Ball, which is arguably a more appropriate name and far less affordable than your garden variety magnolia.

When I was 24, I spent an entire winter helping build a house in the woods. It was my boyfriend at the time parents’ retirement dream and they paid us (not much) to do it up. I needed the money. My job was to hang dry wall (plasterboard in the UK) and finish it (spackle or plaster if you are British). My boyfriend who had two first names as a name – so you really had to call him by both – was a task master. Surprising, considering he was a laid-back hippie raft guide kind of guy, but I got paid and was desperate for the money. Under his tutelage, I acquired some skill by the end of that winter when the raft guiding season started again. I could plaster, sand and paint like a pro, at least in my own mind. I think this experience led me to believe I was some kind of a nascent decorating expert.

“I think I can do a lot of this.” I told my husband. Armed with my pallet knife, masking tape and paint thinner, off I went to tackle my first room ..


Note the attractive mask, this is because I am a chemist and I used to run a research group so I know about Health and Safety. Also, it is fetching…

This was the back room and I am kind of lazy, so I thought, “I’ll just paint the walls” because Lord knows it needed more paint and ‘I’ll just strip the Dado rail and skirting boards rail with paint thinner and it will be fine.” Being styley, we went for 2 tones and here is what it looked like

room with paint

It looked better, in fact so much better I was really pleased with myself. Who needs anything other than a cheap ladder and some paint? Who needs anything other than some paint thinner and a pallet knife. I ate a big meal and went to bed happy ready to commence a bit of paint stripping the next day.

skirting paint

Appropriately clad in my paint-thinning PPE, which made me the prime minister of DIY in my own mind, I applied the first layer of paint thinner, waited the appropriate hour and then applied the second layer. I was looking forward to the scraping, I have just left my career and want to move to another and stripping off old paint in great big swathes seemed just the task for thinking about what next. I mean I could even be some kind of DIY consultant or Restoration expert, why not? I would in 4 or maybe 6 short hours be easily able to have yet another well-deserve evening meal and feel satisfied with my daily accomplishments, where unlike doing science all day there would be an instant result.

After 6 hours this is what it looked like …

skirting with paint thinner

On the upside, I did have a lot of time to think. It is just that you don’t think the things that would lead you to a great and beneficial new career, except if the job description was to sit in a corner crying and swearing. I had to resort to YouTube. YouTube has everything. Want to learn a new computer coding shortcut? YouTube. Want to know how to vacuum your Afgan hound? YouTube. Want to know how to improve your front crawl? YouTube. Want to watch goats who feint because they are bred to fall over when they’re scared? YouTube.

YouTube has about every DIY video you could want, ever. I spent a fun hour procrastinating looking at how to rewire our Regency flat. Unfortunately, you need things like certificates to do this. I found a nice lady, who had all the right equipment I’d like to add, who talked about a *specialist product* PeelAway. I’d link to her but I can’t find her again, maybe I dreamed it or maybe she came to me in a vision after I had inhaled way too much paint thinner, but I found the product. PeelAway is restoration paint stripping magic according to YouTube and claims it can strip away 32 layers of paint in one go! I was sceptical and it’s expensive so I bought a wee 5kg tub of the stuff (£45!) and smeared on our Dado rail.

It is like evil cake icing made of sodium hydroxide and surfactants. It will burn the hell out of you (wear gloves) and try not to smear it on your face when you forget it is caked all over your gloves when you go to push up your glasses.

peelaway application Dado rail

You then cover it with the special laminate sheet, which they call blankets (awww). So cozy, but don’t forget it is evil, evil paste.

peelaway blankets

I left it for about 36-48 hours. I knew it should take this long because I did the test patch thing. I usually don’t do the test patch thing because I am the world’s most impatient human but because – Regency Flat – I have decided to do the right thing. And the big reveal …

peelaway after

It worked! It is amazing. I used PeelAway1 (for paint before 1972) and I am now an addict. I am selling my old clothes on eBay to support my habit because PeelAway costs around £100 for 15 kilos and you can’t use it sparingly, you’ve got to slather it all over and on your copy of the Daily Mail, just purchased to catch the run off (promise). It is worth it though, and I guess reassuringly expensive if that makes you feel better about it. Now the room looks like this.


But not without 1001 other steps and backsteps, but those are stories for another day. You will be relieved to know that I didn’t make a YouTube video because I think I am not cool enough and might have just smeared PeelAway all over my phone and decided that not many people would want to watch 3 weeks of sped up mistakes or me in the same paint covered 501s for 3 weeks. I am off to eat my big meal and dream of nice YouTube restoration ladies and magnolia bleeding out into the sunset.

Posted in diyqueen, leaving academia | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Diversity? Who needs your diversity, we already know we are the smartest people in the room.

I am a member of an exclusive club. We, in our club, decide who the smartest people in the world are. The club, naturally, only contains white women who are below 5 foot 3 inches in height; 1.61 meters for you Europeans out there. I’d like you all to take a special note of me including the metric and the Imperial as this shows I am not biased!

This exclusive short, smart, white women’s club is undeniably in the best position to decide who is the smartest among all of the people in the world because we members of the club all think alike! Don’t all smart people think alike? We are the judge of that. Did I mention we are all heterosexual too? This is especially important because it ensures that we all have similar desires and backgrounds. That is how we know we are qualified to decide who is smart. We know we are smart – of course we are smart because we are short, white, heterosexual women who are well known to be the smartest among all of the people who ever lived. Largely because we are the only ones who have been vetted using our specially developed what-it-means-to-be-smart criteria.

In the past we didn’t have to justify why were smarter than everyone else. This was better; we were looked up to and no one questioned us. Now we have to provide evidence so we’ve come up with these criteria. What are they, you ask? Anything that shows that short, white, heterosexual women are smarter than everyone else, of course. We work with evidence all day long, so we understand evidence better than anyone who is tall or male or not heterosexual.

Why are you asking me to justify this again? I am smart; you are not. I am also taller than most of the people in my exclusive club because I am 5 foot 3 inches. They all look up to me! I am at the top, they all know I am the smartest too. Why? Because I said so and I am the tallest. It is a well-known fact that the taller women in the short, white, heterosexual women’s club are the smartest. I look at evidence all day long, I remind you, so I know what it is to be smart.

We let a few taller people into this club a few years ago and they just didn’t do as well. They received far fewer accolades. Not as many were awarded prizes from the short, heterosexual, white all women panels comprised of members of the short, white, heterosexual women’s club. When we judged them they simply weren’t as smart, these tall women. We gave them every chance. It was exhausting for us; we had to stand on boxes and wear platform shoes just to make them feel comfortable. I mean there are more of us than there are of them in the club – why do we want to make them feel comfortable? They can go feel comfortable somewhere else, where people are taller and are not very smart.

I am sure that those of you who are not short, white, heterosexual and a woman don’t understand how much effort it is to prove we are smarter than everyone else. We have our own metrics, but people are starting to call those into question. This is outrageous – this is what dumb people do to try to join our club. It would only dilute us and teach us how to think differently.

Thinking differently, quite simply, is not what intellectually curious people do. We stick to our own dogma and fight off any changes. Why? Because we already know we are the smartest people in the room.

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On Serena (not the Tennis player) and the Smokies. Read the book, avoid the film.

“Read this book, you’ll love it. It’s set in Appalachia.”

This was what my reading guru said as she handed it to me over the summer.

I am from Appalachia. Technically, like a large proportion of American kids my age, I grew up in a suburb. I did however spend 10+ years living and working in the mountains and my kin are from there so I’m going to claim cultural rights.

I was excited about the book, writing about Appalachian culture is a new(ish) thing according to some of my pals who are wiser about literature and poetry than I. Apparently, just in the last 20 years or so books about the lives and souls of hillbillies are becoming more of a *thing*, rather than being solely portrayed as evil stalkers, stupid comedy-relief fools, or the bible-quoting sure-shots in most US war movies. Appalachian culture is unique and somewhat different from other cultures in the Southern US. For one, most people’s ancestors from that part of the South fought for the Union not for the Confederacy. If you go there, especially straight after spending a week in Richmond or Atlanta, you can feel the difference. People talk funny. They sound like me, or they sound like what I used to sound like before I ended up with some redneck, mid-Atlantic weird mutt of an accent.

The book was Serena, by Ron Rash, who clearly knows his Appalachian history. The book, on the surface, is about logging. Rich Yankees (of course) come and rape the land while poor Appalachian folks cut the trees, which is reasonably historically accurate. It is also set in the late 1920’s, after the Crash, when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was being set up there is some logger/enviro tension: a tension that still exists in those parts today. Pro Tip: (in case you get confused like me): Smoky is the range, Smokey is the bear.

I thought the book started pretty slow, but then I know the scene. Rash’s description of the different types of folk up thar in them mountains is brilliant. Of course they are stereotypes, but they are well done stereotypes and it sets a nice backdrop.

Serena (not an Appalachian) shows up, the new wife of the lumber company owner – George Pemberton. She is a bad ass. She can do all the things that gentle women aren’t supposed to be able to do – shoot, chop, eyeball a good straight Tulip Poplar or Hickory for felling. She’s also a bona fide bitch. I think I’m not giving away any spoilers here as you figure this out pretty fast if you read it. While is a female trope, it’s a trope done well. Serena has agency and makes decisions. Serena is tough and strong and also appalling. She is also much, much tougher than her husband George. The other central female central character is also pretty tough, just a different kind of tough than Serena. She’s well described, there are some tough-ass women in Appalachia, I’m related to a whole mess of them.

I liked the book, I didn’t love the book, but I was won around by the book. I am, however, Appalachia-style judgemental about such things so I was never going to love it (I prefer Charles Frazier, but to each her own).

After finishing the book, I decided to watch ‘Serena’ the movie. As with many movies based on books, it’s nothing like the book. I am not a snob about such things. Sometimes movies are better than the book (The Bourne films, trust me), but ‘Serena’ the movie was far, far worse than ‘Serena’ the book.

All of the book’s beauty was boiled away. Watching it, you kept tirelessly thinking it might come back, but it is the hope that kills you. The subtlety of the different Appalachian characters were either absent or so smashed up into a single character they lost any nuance. The mountain folk turned back into the standard-boring Southern stereotypes. Worse and I think so much worse I am going to be shouty… ALL OF THE WOMEN LOST THEIR POWER/AGENCY. They went from tough (yet flawed) women to crazy (think Mrs. Rochester) or just full on whimpy. All of their tough-ass characteristics were given to the male characters and the women, well they had to be entirely *saved* by the boys. In order to make them a bit more exciting than beige wall paper there were a few gratuitous sex scenes added. There were also couple of bat-shit crazy wailing scenes to show lament and to really just seal in that *women are there to be rescued or breed* stereotype.

I’m starting to get more than a little sick of this. Film makers still seem all too eager to revert back to the *women are there to be looked at* stereotypes, even when they have a better starting point from the original source. I know this has gone on in literature since time immemorial but really, can we just stop. Thankfully, Reese Witherspoon is getting sick of this too, so at least some films are getting better about turning women into 1950s stereotypes randomly. Hopefully, the next time Ron Rash has a book he wants to turn into a movie, he’ll run straight toward Pacific Standard productions, so Hollywood will stop turning his women into wimps.

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On double standards – in Tennis and otherwise

I know next to nothing about the official rules of Tennis. I do, however, know a bit about double standards.


Societally, women are often expected to operate at a different standard to men. Usually, it is a higher standard. Not always of course, we still have the tropes about *women drivers* where women are often expected to be worse than men at handling heavy motorised equipment. Why is beyond me, anyone who has ever ridden in a vehicle with me vs. my late brother could easily tell you I was the better driver – of course David driving skills didn’t provide a particularly high bar to jump over.

This double standard this is not universally adopted, not all people think this. But as a society we still largely expect women to be more ‘moral’ or at least a bit better behaved. Women are sluts when they sleep around, but men are sowing their oats. Women are manipulative if they try to influence an outcome, while men are persuasive if they do. Women are *bitchy* where men are *assertive*. The list goes on and on and on and on.

One of the reasons I believe this double standard is so persistent is that most people don’t want to believe it actually exists. So much so that when folks call double standards out, they are often vehemently attacked. They are hysterical, snowflakes, blind, trying to play the ‘gender’-card (I don’t know about you, but I never got one of these) or told “No, that’s not sexist because I am not sexist!” News flash: you can say sexist things and not be a full-on 100% full-time card-carrying sexist. Just like you can say racist things and not be a Neo-Nazi.

Rather embarrassingly, I am surprised at how often I default to this standard double-standard narrative in my thoughts. I don’t mean to. I am, of course, horrified at myself once I catch myself. I am even more mortified if someone else has to flag this up for me and let me know I am being sexist. If you’ve ever experienced this, it’s shamefully, awful. It makes you want to put a bag over you head and start abjectly apologising to every one you meet for the next 6 days. It is also really hard to admit, when someone flags it. My first response is almost invariably, ‘No, I’m not!” I mostly go all double standard with women I don’t personally know. Women who show up in the news. Sometimes even women who stand up and say ‘this is sexist’. Even though I have done this myself, it is so much easier to think ‘No, it’s not’ and to spend a whole lot of time trying to justify why you aren’t sexist.

Case in point. My first response to watching the recent Serena Williams kerfuffle was to think. ‘Is that really sexist? She was behaving pretty badly.’ I know pretty much nothing about Tennis. So with the magic of the internet, I read about the rules of Tennis violations in a match. There are quite a lot of them, but here is the rub, there is no consistent way about how the rules are applied. As a referee, you can either throw the book at the player or not. It is, like much sport and peer-review in academia, down to the discretion of the referee.

These are breeding-ground situations for decisions to be heavily weighted by unconscious bias and the application of double standards. These at-your-discretion-situations are where unconscious bias most often raises its ugly head. These are the exact conditions under which is imperative we are more conscious of unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is so pervasive because it is so much easier to say ‘No it isn’t sexist’ when quite possible it is. It may not be *meant* to be sexist, but this is the unconscious part.

Personally, where I would like to see our society get to is when someone says ‘Hey, that’s sexist’ our first reaction not to be immediate denial, but rather ‘Maybe it is?’, because 9 times out of 10, there is some truth in it. Women are often held to different standards than men, this is ingrained in so many parts of our society – from films to boardrooms.

After some reflection and education about the application of sanctions to disobeying the rather extensive rules of Tennis, I can see what Serena Williams means and I think she is being subjected to a double standard. Serena gets the book thrown at her, while many a male player is just warned (yes, I know there are exceptions). It is worth reading Billie Jean King on the topic if you know as little about Tennis as I do. Regardless whether you agree with Serena Williams or Billie Jean King or not, I think we should start striving to listen to accusations of sexism rather than just dismissing them outright.

Posted in double standards, sexism | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

On quotas in Academia – do we need them?


As a graduate student I was asked to participate in a `women in science’ group. I refused. I was an old(er) grad student compared to my cohort, my goal was to get in and get out as fast as practically possible, so that I could be gainfully employed. I’d spent years working very low-paying jobs and I was over it, anything optional that was going to delay me from finishing my PhD quickly, I wasn’t going to do. I also thought all of the feminism of my mother’s generation had acheived the goal, that the issues were over. I grew up at a time when `girls didn’t really study physics’. You could study physics, it wasn’t barred to you as a girl, but people thought girls were pretty weird if they studied physics and it wasn’t exactly encouraged. I thought all that was over. I was 32, not 15 and the world had changed, everyone knew that girls could do anything a boy could do. I believed in the `trickle down’ theory of academic diversity, as more women gained entry, the academy would just naturally balance out.

I was an idiot. I should have known better by simple observation. I was naive and I wasn’t even that youthful, so I can’t even use the ‘lack-of-experience’ card.

When I started my PhD, there were two female full Professors, out of a Department of around 40. There were a few other womn instructors, but no assistant or associate professors on the tenure track. There were a few new faculty hires during my time as a graduate student and not a single one was female. During one of my first (physics) conferences in Toronto – I still remember that strange feeling of walking into reception and looking out among the sea of scientists thinking ‘Am I the only woman here?’. Around 15 years ago, I moved to the UK to take up my post-doc, there were more women at my new institution – post-docs and graduate students mostly- but, again, only two senior women out of 50 senior staff and no one in between.

Initally, this very obvious lack of other women in the room did not unduly suprise me. I’d worked in all sorts of male-dominated environments – many of which were fantastically supportive of women – both the companies and the colleagues (I’m looking at you Wildwater, Ltd , Chattooga). At that early career stage, I was just getting on with my research and, being independently funded, I was only really answerable to my funders and my own production. I have slowly realized over the last 15 or so years that the reason why I didn’t like women in science clubs is because I don’t want these organizations to exist simply because I DON’T WANT THIS TO BE AN ISSUE. I want to believe in a meritocracy where everyone is known professionally, for what they do, not for what gender, race or sexual orientation they are. This mythological world should exist – and I really want it to exist – but this isn’t where we are – and I am not sure we are even close to this ideal reality.

Now, I am (perhaps) less of an idiot. What is clear more than ever to me now, is that we are not going acheive equality by patiently waiting. There are some slow changes happening. Academia talks about these issues a lot more than they used to. We are at least trying to pay attention to unconscious bias and these are all good things. But with these good things also comes an awful lot of backlash (is Athena Swan really working?) and in many cases even with a fair start, institutions revert to being male dominated – Computer programming used to be `women’s work’, now it is a male-dominated field.

How long do are women meant to wait for equality to just naturally arise? I recently heard an excellent discussion with Helen Lewis and Polly Toynbee. At one stage in the discussion Lewis was talking about her research on suffregettes and Toynbee asked her what she thought about the suggestion made by some (not by Ms Toynbee herself) that the more militant suffragettes really might have gone too far because women would have gotten the vote anyway. Helen Lewis’ response? “That’s like saying they would have gotten the vote if they had just asked nicely.” When in reality the proposal for women’s suffrage had been tabled by governments year after year and was quite controversial. There were plenty of men and women who thought that women shouldn’t be voting. Despite years of organization, lobbying and peaceful demonstration in The Equal Rights Amendment in the US HAS NEVER BEEN RATIFIED, even though it has be re-introduced every year since 1982, still no dice. Why has something so simple as a bill – which only wants to ensure that the other 51% of the population in the US is guaranteed equality under the law – never been passed? This just seems absurd to me, democracy is supposed to be about equal rights for all and why wouldn’t any democrat (with a small d) want to support that?

So what is next, how do we fix the academy which is still largely failing when it comes to diversity. Does science need quotas?

I don’t know, but I do know this is where many of us who have been thinking about these issues stop short. There is not overwhelming evdience that quotas always work so well and there is also an inordinate amount of backlash from quotas, they remain highly controversial. I imagine I will even get some backlash for just mentioning this. Personally, I think quotas can be a force for good, they can sometimes force a change a culture; but then again I don’t want to discrimiate against anyone as we should all have `equality under the law’. Most female scientists I know want to be known for their science and they want to be able to compete in a fair environment, where you aren’t judged by your gender, but the reality is that often this is not the case – we are often not on a level playing field but rather are trying to forge up the hill while others are running on flat ground.

In reality, entry into and promotion within academia is often opaque and if we are truthful – quite subjective. It is difficult in academia, to decide who the *best* person is for an academic job. When a member of faculty is employed, they are generally hired for their research and their ability to run a research group. But research scientists (and most academics) are a broad church, so how do you compare them? Applicant X has 50 research papers, spread over a variety of journals and has raised 3 million in research funding. Applicant Y has 25 research papers in good solid technical journals and has raised 2.5 million in research funding. Applicant Z has 15 research papers all in high impact journals and has raised 250k in research funding. They all work in different fields. They could all fit in different niches in terms of teaching. Who do you hire? How do you decide? Neglecting for the moment that X,Y and Z might have had better *success* in publications, for instance, just because of their gender or race or if they worked for said famous person in the first place, how do you actually decide who is *better*? This, often times, is where unconscious bias comes into play, this is where the desire to hire ‘people like me’ can rule the day, reinforcing the academic mono-culture.

I feel uneasy about quotas, as I think many of us in academia do, but what is the alternative? Trickle down employment? What I do know, is that things are getting better for women in science (and other minorities in the field) at a glacial pace and doesn’t seem like it is ever going to change. I didn’t realize until quite recently that people had been saying to female students in the sciences since the 1970s that things would probably equal out in the next 30 years. It’s been almost 50 years and it’s still not leveling out, perhaps we need some kind of shock to the system. Perhaps we need to force the change. Were I still younger maybe I could just ask nicely for some fairness. Now that I am older, I can see why the suffragettes were burning buildings down.

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On ‘lower impact’ publishing – it’s better than you might think.

Over the course of the last two or so years, I have had a number of personal issues to deal with. Family illnesses, the sudden death of my older brother and some other things (I will spare you the gory details). Fortunately for me, my scientific research kept going. Why? Because I had an absolutely fantastic research group who worked hard and stayed in touch with me during my absences. During all of this the group had 2 PhD and 4 MSc students finish and we managed to publish 13 papers since 2016. Hoorah.

my group
Me with my research group in November 2016.

One of the choices I made during this time was to stop submitting things to high impact factor (or top-tier) journals. Why? For speed and for my sanity. I have nothing against top-tier journals, they serve their purpose. I have several publications in these journals which I am proud of. However, top-tier journals are not the only journals out there and they are not necessarily the most well read in a particular research area.

One of my favourite journals is The Journal of Chemical Physics. This is an excellent physics journal, which has a lower impact factor than, for instance, Nature Physics, but to quote one of my collaborators – ‘people read the shit out of that journal’. My experience with J. Chem. Phys. is that they are fair, fast and on the whole you get very reasonable reviewers. The editors are exemplary and the accepted publication production process is streamlined and easy. I have a bunch of fairly well-cited papers in this journal and I have read a number of damn fine papers in this journal. Word on the street is that you must have good technical chops to get published in J. Chem. Phys. If you ask me, this is what good science is about.

However, there are some among my peers who don’t think publishing in lower impact journals is useful. In fact, they think quite the contrary, that it shows your research isn’t *good enough* to be accepted to a *better* (meaning higher impact) journal. To some scientists and importantly to some people who are in a positions of power to decide who is a good scientist, only the top-tier journals are *good*. If you don’t publish in them enough – as a corresponding or first author – than your research must not be as good. I am not going to name any names but I am sure quite a lot of people think this, because I have heard quite a lot of people say it. It is, quite simply, a ridiculous, yet pervasive myth. There are a number of reasons why some research is not published in top-tier journals rather than just because it isn’t *good enough*. A given researcher may not have many publications in a top-tier journal because they haven’t submitted them there. Perhaps, like me, they are in a hurry to get something out and don’t want to spend the 8 months it takes to go back and forth between the reviewers and the editors – in my experience publication in top-tier journals takes about 100x as long. A given piece of work may have a better fit somewhere else, somewhere where it will have the shit read out of it . This does not mean the research (or the researcher) is not any good, it just means that piece of research is not in a top-tier journal. I, for one, have never decided NOT to cite an interesting piece of work because it is not in Nature or Science.

In the end, science has to stand the test of time, not the test of what journal you happened to get it into during your lifetime as a scientist. The truth is, none of us know what that future looks like – as much as we like to think we can predict where science will go next. In the future, it certainly won’t matter if our contribution was read in Nature or The Journal of Chemical Physics. It is the science, rather than the vehicle it is published in, that actually matters the most.

Posted in Impact Factor, scientific publishing, Uncategorized | 22 Comments

On harassment, the power differential and a modicum of hope

Anita Hill 1991 Testimony Senate

In 1991, I came down with a sudden stomach bug. As is common when I am too ill to think, all I could manage was planting myself in front of the television in an effort to keep myself mildly distracted from reality. Rarely do I have such precision in remembering my various illnesses, but I remember this day so particularly because I spent it watching Anita Hill testify about being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas. What I remember most about her testimony was precisely how calm Ms Hill was, she had nothing to gain by this and everything to loose. Absolutely everything. At least where I was from, people didn’t talk very much about sexual harassment and they certainly didn’t speak up about it very often in public. I watched it thinking Anita Hill was the bravest damn woman I had ever seen. I also watched it firmly believing that there was absolutely no way that man would get appointed; then he did. It was a close vote along party lines but one that was ultimately won by with the support of Southern Democrats.

Why I thought he wouldn’t get appointed then is beyond me now. I should have known he’d get appointed. Even though I was only 23 at the time and no ‘grown-up’ talked about it in public, it is not like I hadn’t seen and heard things of Weinsteinian proportions before. It is just that 30 years ago, most people knew better than to report it, officially anyway, because what would be the point? Usually all reporting would mean is that the victim’s suffering would be enhanced and the perpetrator would walk about with no consequence to speak of. I guess I naively thought but this is a Supreme Court appointment, surely they must believe Anita Hill – she has nothing to gain from this, the “adults in charge” must take this seriously. I was really wrong, and the Senate vote seemed to follow the logic of one Senate Judiciary committee member who didn’t think whatever Thomas had done was all that bad – or as he said ‘Is that it?’ They appointed Clarence Thomas and there, as a Justice on the Supreme Court, he still sits.

Two weeks ago the New York Times broke a story about Harvey Weinstein, which opened a watershed and the stories just kept on coming. Reading these stories is appalling and simultaneously depressing to me. It is an age old story, person in powerful position is an serial abuser, person in powerless position is frightened, horrified, trapped, guilty and feels (or more accurately knows) that the power differential is so great there is nothing they can do. They just have to suck it up.

And then to my inordinate surprise, Weinstein has been fired! This is different. People are still speaking out. This is new, I agree SE Cupp this feels different somehow.

At almost the same time as the Wienstein news broke, Science magazine released an article about David Marchant a BU professor – who bullied and harassed his staff in the antartic and has been doing so for years. He appears to have a particular focus on bullying women and there have now been several complaints. Notably, one woman didn’t report his behaviour until she had tenure for fear of the repercussions. Why? I have seen some folks on Twitter openly wonder; because, like the victims of Weinstein’s advances, there is a power differential. Big famous professor has power over your future, student/post-doc/technician in a position of weakness.

After hearing and indeed witnessing so many similar stories in my life, this made for depressing reading but I then I realised, this article is actually IN Science. It is being covered as a real news story after a build up of allegations against someone who has abused their power. This is different. This is not my fellow graduate students warning me not to be alone with Professor X in a room as in days of yore, this is in Science, for everyone to read.

Maybe, just maybe, we are beginning to shift towards a better, more safe future for everyone – where it is safe to speak out and the odds won’t always be against you.

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On taking a knee

When I was a teenager the 1980’s there was a spate of burning the Stars and Stripes in the US, as a protest to Ronald Reagan’s policies. Which particular policy is hard to remember as Ronnie had a whole heap of policies that weren’t exactly favorable to many people, especially to people that didn’t have a lot of money. Perhaps turning Old Glory into a pile of ash was focused on Reganomics and its core component of ‘trickle down theory’. A tenant an old friend of mine call ‘the rich pissing on the poor’.

What people may have forgotten is that the issue of flag burning went all the way to the Supreme Court – who ruled that flag burning was a reasonable form of protest and that people shouldn’t be jailed for it. People were pretty upset about this issue on both sides and Congress spent a whole lot of effort trying to pass a flag burning amendment to the Constitution (which never passed) to make it illegal. Personally I would rather Congress do things like attend to the Debt Ceiling and ensure that affordable health care be provided to all – but that’s just me.

In the US today, you can burn a flag if you want, but I don’t think people do it much any more – perhaps they got bored with it and Reagan is long gone, even if the lasting legacy of his policies (good and bad) are not. Now people are taking a knee during the US national anthem in protest, which is much less incendiary than burning a flag, following a simple,symbolic gesture by Colin Kaepernick – who says he’s doing because “[I’m] not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

That’s what taking a knee is about. As a side note, Kaepernick is not the African American athelete to protest the treatment of African Americans in the USA, in the 1960’s Muhammed Ali served jail time for refusing to go to Vietnam for the same reason.

Like myself, some people applaud ‘take a knee’. I think it is a sensible, non-violent, important protest and I think Kaepernick is right, I think the US does oppress people of color – whether overtly or covertly. A pretty large number of people disagree with this and believe that the national anthem is some kind of sacred thing and if you don’t stand (and put your right hand over your heart) that you are some kind of evil anti-Patriot. This includes our current president who seems to have a certain a penchant for fueling the fire. Personally I think to get this aerated about a song or a piece of cloth is ridiculous but this is just my opinion. More importantly, all the anger about our little national ditty in the US is swamping out the thing we need to be talking about.

We have a problem with racism in America. We have a massive, national problem, the statistics will show you this in a 5 minute Google search

NAACP – Criminal justice fact sheet ()
The Sentencing Project
The Do Something campaign
Time Magazine – The Great Racial Divide

and there are plenty more.

I am not saying this is our only problem in America, but it is an issue and it appears to be getting worse. We Americans are getting worse and worse about listening to one another. People don’t like to think they are oppressing anyone, so it must not be true, seems to be the attitude. And perhaps on a day to day basis it is not true of what most of us feel about people who are different. But how often do we check ourselves? How often do we listen to each other who have an opposite point of view? How often do we say instead of ‘ooh taking a knee is offensive’, ‘I don’t agree with this guy but what is he trying to say?’

I do not personally know what it feels like to be and African American, as a white woman this is an experience that I couldn’t possibly know much about. My only experience of this is when I had an African American boyfriend in East Tennessee and lordy did people stare at us – either with disapproval or with wonder – for doing something so simple as going to the grocery store. I didn’t know this happened, I didn’t know what it felt like. In reality I still don’t know what it is like as when I walked down a different aisle all that judgement magically went away.

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On Louise Richardson and the avoidance of homophobic teaching

Oxford Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson is causing quite a stir this week. For one, she gets paid a lot of money – which is not as much as footballers or bankers and less than her peers in the US. Prof. Richardson’s salary is within the ‘going rate’ for VCs at the moment and certainly isn’t at the top of the VC pay scale and it is in no way linked to high fees, she says, but is fairly standard for a VC of a big university. This hype about it, according to Richardson, comes from a ‘mendacious media’ and ‘tawdry politicians’ and has nothing to do with student fees, there are student fees because the government is subsidizing Universities less than they used to.

There are clearly two sides to this issue, Richadson believes her pay is fair while others think it is exorbitant to pay a VC this much when academic faculty are paid less and students are paying large yearly fees for university access. What do you think? Let’s discuss both positions.

And that is how you facilitate a discussion as a teacher. What do I think? I’m not going to tell you, it is irrelevant to this discussion, I am more interested in listening to what you think and hearing your arguments – pro and con. What I wouldn’t say, or rather shouldn’t say, as a teacher is ‘you are a bunch of snowflake whingers about this fee business and I think you should pay me extra just for the honor of having me as your tutor and oh and by the way I don’t like gay people’. (For the record, I don’t believe this. I have a healthy disdain for using the word ‘snowflake’ to be dismissive of people with real concerns and whether or not I like someone has nothing to do with their sexuality.)

I agree with Louise Richardson’s statement that:

“As teachers, we must model to our students how to respond to views they find objectionable, not to avoid them. We must be robust in defending free speech against those who wish to constrain it,”

We as teachers must absolutely defend free speech and we must absolutely teach our students to respond to views which they find objectionable and not avoid the tricky stuff. So far so good right?

But what is not OK as a tutor or teacher is expressing your personal bigoted (or non-bigoted) views to students in tutorials or lectures. I, honestly, cannot think of an example as to when this would ever be OK. Oxford spent a long time not letting women into many colleges at the University. Presumably when they did show up, if a tutor who told their new female tutee ‘I don’t think women are smart enough to be here’, Louise Richardson would have expected a first year undergraduate in a male-dominated University to just challenge them to enhance the academic discussion? Or maybe she would have told this new student – it’s up to you to figure out why smart people have views like that? It’s a bit ‘blame the victim’ if you ask me.

We are all entitled to our personal views, and holding these views shouldn’t bar us from employment, but as the The Oxford SU LGBTQ+ Campaign says:

“recognise that individuals are entitled to personal views and opinions, we see no way in which these are relevant to an academic context, and believe that the expression of such views has detrimental effects which go far beyond making students feel ‘uncomfortable’.

And this is the truth of it.

Defending free speech and facilitating difficult discussions is one thing, making students feel inferior and unwelcome is another. I am not sure what Prof. Richardson really meant, but her words certainly suggest that she is not willing to call out her staff for being bigoted towards their students. As one of her staff, if I did this I think that my employer, Oxford University, should call me out for it as it is not acceptable, professional behaviour from a teacher no matter how ‘smart’ I may or may not be. Being ostensibly intelligent does not mean you can behave like a bigot towards your students. Can you imagine someone reasonably suggesting ‘She says really racist things during lectures, but she’s a smart racist so this makes it OK’? Well I can, because when I grew up in the Southern US people did say things like this and substitute ‘homophobic’ for ‘racist’ and this is exactly what Richardson’s words sounded like to me.

Writing this post makes me entirely uncomfortable. I am employed by Oxford University but I feel it is rather important to say. I guess, in the end, I am just following my VC’s advice that if you see ideas that make you uncomfortable then it is up to you to challenge them.

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