Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Archive for October, 2010

Breakfast with Evelyn Fox Keller (Science and Gender Part II)

Posted by Athene Donald on October 31, 2010

The second half of the meeting in Austria on Science and Gender gave me a very different impression, both of the topic and the situation in Austria, than I had garnered from the first 24 hours described in my previous post.  Several points came out that were not initially evident, which could be summed up as

  • What is meant by science/ Wissenschaft?
  • What is meant by gender in this context?
  • What is the status quo for female academics in Austria, and what is the way ahead?

Clearly these are big, sweeping questions which I can only touch on here, and which it would be presumptuous of me to claim any sort of particular prescience about, but I will put down my impressions while they are fresh in my mind.

The first evening was taken up, as my previous post discussed, with a discussion specifically about women in science by two people from outside the Austrian system, indeed outside the Germanic tradition, namely Londa Shiebinger from Stanford and myself.  In retrospect it is interesting and significant that women from outside the Austrian (or even central European) umbrella were asked to speak and I will come back to this point.  The bulk of the second day was occupied with a selection of talks from within Austria covering psychology; the legal framework; neuroscience and biological differences; and stereotyping. All these talks were in German. I followed enough of the neuroscience talk to know that the lecturer was being very ambivalent about the biological differences obtained, verging on the ‘these are tasks women can’t do’, though stepping back from explicitly saying women’s brains made them unfit for science.  (To be fair to him, although his slides gave this impression, his answers in the ensuing discussion were much less disquieting.)  I cannot discuss the other talks because they were beyond me; various attendees have remarked how much they disliked the fact that non-German speakers were invited to present and then excluded from all the subsequent debates by virtue of language. Indeed I have been encouraged to write to the organisers spelling out the inappropriateness of this behaviour. I am not sure I am comfortable in doing this, as my inability to speak German adequately is my own failing and it smacks of cultural imperialism to object to a national society holding its meeting in its own tongue. Nevertheless, this is one manifestation of the anger felt by some attendees about the orchestration of this meeting.

The very last talk of the meeting, by Heidi Digglemann was given in English, in large part at her request so as to be able to be inclusive of Fox Keller and myself (Schiebinger had departed) as she gave an account of her personal life story and the crucial influences and staging posts in this.  Apparently this act of using English required what was described as a ‘palace revolution’ to allow this to be permitted. Very strange goings-on.

However, the evening debate on the second evening was in English involving Evelyn Fox Keller,   Christoph Kratky, since 2005 President of the Austrian Science Fund FWF, Hans Sünkel Rector of TU Graz, and Barbara Alving Director of the NIH’s National Center for Research and Resources.  Continuing with the linguistic theme, it was pointed out that although the English title for this meeting, and therefore the premise on which I for one constructed my own talk, was ‘Science and Gender’, in German the title was Wissenschaft und Gender. In this context, Wissenschaft should not be translated simply as Science, but much more broadly as Knowledge.  Now this has been drawn to my attention, I recollect a long discussion on this very point, coincidentally in In Defence of History coincidentally because this is the book I juxtaposed with Fox Keller’s Developmental Biology book a short while ago here . Indeed I now understand that the organising body, the Öesterreichische Forschungsgemeinschaft, is simply the Austrian Research Foundation and not itself tied to science. None of this was made plain to me in my letter of invitation, nor to the other external speakers I would surmise, based on the way they interpreted their brief.  It does explain why the audience contained philosophers, sociologists, economists etc.  I don’t think in some senses this disconnect mattered, and the material that was presented by the English speakers specifically around science seemed both well-received and to stimulate much debate, but nevertheless it was a disconnect – intended or otherwise.

So what did the Gender in the title mean?  I think many of us, myself included, had taken ‘gender’ to mean ‘women’, but of course that is formally quite incorrect, as the gender studies people pointed out. The evening debate was formally entitled ‘Will Science become Feminine?’ and was interpreted by the 4 speakers in rather different ways, in part because of different interpretations of ‘feminine’ and ‘gender’ in this context.  Fox Keller kicked things off by saying feminizing science should mean bringing more women in, not making it ‘touchy-feely’.  She pointed out that school education sometimes served the role of a technology ‘transforming boys and girls into “masculine” and “feminine”’.  And she particularly objected to remarks that had been made to her throughout her life along the lines of ‘you think like a man’, implying thought is gendered; telling women ‘how’ to think is, in her words, ‘offensive’.  Her desire was to

‘Free science from the shackles of gender.’

Next up was Dr Kratky who appeared to say essentially everything was fine, it was all a question of demographics and time since academic posts turned over slowly in the Austrian system and the number of women was creeping up so – nothing to worry about. Furthermore, he had heard various speakers say (and clearly I was included in this category) that some women lacked self-confidence, but he had seen no sign of it in the speakers so he wasn’t convinced that this was a problem. Indeed some men suffered from lack of self-confidence too. Yes, OK, I’ve said before I’m not usually taken as a shrinking violet, but his mode of expressing this was, to my mind, verging on the just plain rude.

Barbara Avling was by comparison very mild and factual, talking about steps the NIH had taken to support women, the need to take the long view and support people when they needed to step back for a period for personal reasons, and the importance of team science and training people to work (and lead) teams. She argued that the economics meant it was not sensible to invest substantially in training people and then not work to prevent attrition. Hans Sünkel was also rather mild, merely talking about the (rather minor) structures that TU Graz was introducing to try to increase the number of women full professors, and recognizing that numbers were slowly increasing, but that science was not necessarily seen as an attractive career choice – for men or women.

The chair, whose name I don’t recall but who was a woman from the Humanities, kept trying to bring the discussion back to ‘feminising’ science, but wasn’t making much headway with any of the panel. Fox Keller insisted that women will not change science, but that it will evolve, and that there isn’t simply a female way of doing things. The contributions from the floor all tended to go the same way, but also begin to hint at the feelings of frustration many of the women present felt. There was no doubt that many interpreted Kratky’s remarks – and recall that this is the guy at the top of the food chain controlling funding – as implying he believed that since there is no fundamental problem, nothing substantial needed to be done or would be done, and the message did not go down well.

Over the subsequent dinner I began to get a better appreciation of some of the underlying tensions, of which the argument over the language of the meeting was one.  The women I sat with clearly felt that Austria was intensely conservative, with hang-ups left over from Freud and the guilt implied if a mother did not devote herself to her children.  Furthermore, that the senior management of universities and funding agencies were doing no more than paying lip service to the problems many women felt they faced. I was told stories of university managers who would look the other way and do nothing when presented with explicit, written evidence of harassment of female staff; of a so-called law about gender equality that went no further than aspiration with no enforcement; of women who were not enabled/ actively hindered from getting full professorships but left in the limbo of lower level posts without clout. Of course these are things that the UK would have recognized ~20 years ago, but our community has moved whilst Austria  remains a rather hostile environment for women academics. Indeed one of the men I had spoken to earlier in the day said Austria was the most conservative of all the European countries on this front.

But let me return to Fox Keller, whom I had breakfast with on the last day. I had read her book ‘Reflections on Gender and Science’ several years ago, and had reacted very badly to it, interpreting it as hardcore Feminism with a capital F. I have read it again in the run-up to this meeting and wondered what it was that I disliked so much. Possibly it’s that my position has changed, but I actually think it is because I understand the book much better. Far from talking about a feminine way of doing science – which was how I interpreted it originally and which she indicated was a common misinterpretation – she wants a gender-free science. Although she believes she was the one who introduced the word gender into the context of science, it is exactly what she doesn’t want but fears is there. Unfortunately by introducing the word, she seems also to have introduced a hostage to fortune leading to many (my previous self included) to interpret her words as wanting there to be a female way of doing things.  She clearly believes the culture needs to change, to make it less what I would term macho (she called it masculine-esque) but absolutely not to go for simple PC-ness. Nor does she believe there is a female way of doing science, or that having more women will lead to a different type of science.  So, the example of Bernardine Healey cited by Barbara Avling, because she had overseen the introduction of an NIH policy requiring both men and women to be involved in clinical trials for conditions which might affect both, was seen by Fox Keller as an idea whose time had come rather than due to the explicit fact that Healy was a woman.

I have come away from this meeting rather perplexed. I came to give an overview of pragmatic actions I am associated with and familiar with from the UK. I am sure Londa Schiebinger likewise came simply to talk about her ongoing work. Instead I find we were pitched into a political arena where we were being used as external pawns, in the nicest possible way, in an ongoing situation – possibly akin to a war – between conservatives and more progressive academics. A situation where everything including our style, our language and our science was potentially ammunition for one side or the other; we had been given no hint of this backdrop when invited. I am perhaps wiser as a result, but not necessarily happier.

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Discussing Science and Gender

Posted by Athene Donald on October 29, 2010

I am currently at a meeting in a very attractive location (including snow) in Austria on Science and Gender, organised by the Österreichischen Forschungsgemeinschaft.  The meeting overall intends to discuss the topic in a very broad sense, with the participants coming from across the academic spectrum.  This obviously includes the full range of sciences as well as gender studies, but also less obvious disciplines including economics, languages and linguistics. I don’t think I had anticipated this when preparing my own talk.  Unfortunately my language skills are not advanced enough to appreciate some of the talks and topics – 40 year old O Level German just isn’t enough to appreciate the nuances of this field – but the first talk was rather easier: Londa Schiebinger from Stanford, giving an international perspective on the issues.  Her talk immediately preceded mine, and we covered some of the same topics, though with a rather different emphasis.

Londa’s background is in English and History, but for many years she has looked at both the historical and the current situation of women in science. Her talk identified three levels of analysis:

1.       Participation: ‘fix the (number of) women’;

2.       Gender in the Culture: ‘fix the institution’;

3.       Gender in Knowledge: ‘fix the knowledge’.

She discussed point 1 by discussing what happens when you, for instance, teach women how to negotiate for better salaries – a particular issue in the US where it seems all salaries are done by negotiation. When such training was carried out at her own institution, it transpired the administrators with whom the negotiations were done simply didn’t respond to the women in the same way as they would to men coming into their offices asking for a pay rise. Consequently the effect was less than had been hoped, and probably just added to a sense of alienation for the women faculty concerned.  My own thoughts on ‘fixing the women’ were discussed here.  The implied deficit model assumes it is the woman who are lacking something, rather than that it is the culture that is at fault. In the case of the salary negotiations, therefore, giving the women the confidence and skills to negotiate failed because the culture – in this case within the management – was not adapted to deal with this change.

Her discussion of ‘fixing the institution’ was where there was the greatest overlap with my own talk, and I’ll discuss this further below. But it was the third topic I found most interesting, because I was least familiar with it. Her point here was that much of knowledge –most, though not all of her examples derived from the field of biomedical research – is done in a gendered way, producing results which may not be equally applicable to both sexes. (Perhaps I should try to spell out the differences between sex and gender as I understood it from the discussion: sex is about biology, whereas gender relates to sociocultural attributes.)

To take a specific example, in fact from engineering practice, that of crash dummies i.e. those objects used to test the consequences of crash impacts on the body. The first such dummies used were in studies in the US (ca 1949) by the military to study the effect of ejection from ejector seats from planes on the human body. The model built was that of a rather tall male.  These studies were subsequently adapted to study the optimisation of seat belts in high speed car crashes. There have been modifications to the dummies, but it is only very recently that Volvo, if I recall correctly (in other words, in Scandinavia, which I think is telling in itself) have started to study the effect of seatbelt design on pregnant women, using computer simulations.  This despite the fact that foetuses are known to be damaged by the pressure induced by the standard 3 point seatbelt.  This is a clear example of a case where the standard ‘male’ model is assumed to cover all situations (although I presume there have been separate studies on children of different ages and sizes; this wasn’t mentioned), and that simply isn’t adequate.  Despite the obvious shortcomings, US law isn’t requiring any changes until 2011 to ensure the safety of pregnant women is factored in to safety design.  Another obvious example, that is probably more familiar to readers, is the case of symptoms associated with incipient heart attacks in men and women. These present differently. Since doctors are not always trained to recognize these differences, and alert to the variety in symptoms and the location of where pain is felt, many people are not given the appropriate treatment in time.  Response to drugs may also be different, which has significant implications for drug trial design.  All these sorts of effects Londa referred to as requiring ‘gendered innovation’ and this has become a major theme of her team at Stanford,

For my own talk I was originally given a title of  ‘Science and Gender in Academia – a Reflection of Society’, but I felt completely ill-qualified to discuss this and chose to concentrate not on the social or sociological but on the practical and pragmatic steps I am familiar with both locally, through WiSETI, and nationally through the Athena Forum.  However I began with setting this work in the context of the so-called leaky pipeline, and this was where there was most overlap with Londa’s talk.  Issues such as unconscious bias and stereotyping – as manifest in how people (male and female) evaluate CV’s, write reference letters, or judge people at interview –  are so prevalent within our culture we are going to have to work incredibly hard to overcome this. I said that I would like to see senior managers to take some of Project Implicit’s tests – I have mentioned this Project before here – so that they are at least aware of the baggage they, and all of us, carry into the selection of candidates for instance.  We also need to consider the obstacles female scientists may face due to their low numbers, such as isolation, lack of mentors and lack of role models.  However, rather than rehearse the whole of my talk I attach as a separate page a first draft of the paper that will be submitted to the proceedings of this meeting (and the accompanying powerpoint presentation).  This manuscript will be updated in the light of the discussions over the next 24 hours, so should not be considered as the finished article.

I am particularly looking forward to the panel discussion tonight, which will feature Evelyn Fox Keller in (I presume) her role as author of Reflections on Gender and Science, rather than as the mathematical biologist and author of Making Sense of Life I discussed in my last post.  The Discussion is entitled ‘Will Science become Feminine?’. Should be interesting!

Posted in Equality, Science Culture, Uncategorized, Women in Science | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Too Much Interdisciplinarity? From Cliometricians to Mathematical Biologists

Posted by Athene Donald on October 25, 2010

I have recently been reading two apparently vastly different books: In Defence of History by Richard J Evans, a Cambridge colleague, and Making Sense of Life by Evelyn Fox Keller. Despite their widely different topics and approaches, reading them in juxtaposition brought out some striking similarities.

In Defence of History is a book written to defend the discipline of history against some of the more extreme manifestations of post-modernism. As the blurb on the back cover of my edition says ‘under the influence of postmodernist theory, the profession of history is in crisis, its assumptions derided and its methods rejected as outmoded.’ I am not going to comment on any of this, as I read it simply to get some handle on how postmodernism has impacted on the field and am clearly no expert. Likewise I am no expert in developmental biology, the main theme of Making Sense of Life:  the book concentrates on how approaches to embryo development have changed over time, along with what constitutes ‘knowing’. Fox Keller refers to this as a discussion of ‘variations in epistemological culture..[that] are both temporal and interdisciplinary.’ And it is this common strand of interdisciplinarity that both these books  touch upon, that I want to explore in this post: how, in fact, there are some overlapping ideas despite the very different provenances and motivations of the two books. I should add both are books I very much enjoyed reading.

Evans writes an interesting chapter on whether history can be treated as a science suggesting that ‘attempts to turn history into science have been going on for the best part of two centuries’ but on the whole coming down on the side that it can’t. For instance he states that history is not well placed to make predictions about the future because ‘life, unlike science, is simply too full of surprises’. I happen to think science is full of surprises too, but I think it is clear what he means. He also discusses the argument that history cannot be regarded as a science because ‘while scientific knowledge is cumulative, historical knowledge is not’ and that very often different historians will dispute each other’s interpretations and judgement may also come into play.  Well that also will apply to scientists but again, I think it is clear what he means.

However, the main thing that struck me was his comments about the fragmentation of history as a discipline, the spawning of sub-disciplines that then claimed to be more real than the original. In particular, this is discussed in the context of social history.  History – at least in the UK – used to be concerned solely with great men, the nation state and the ensuing politics. The vast majority of people were regarded as unimportant (‘peasants’ if you like) and didn’t feature.  This led to the need for the parvenus who wanted to study social and economic history to set up separate departments and to ‘claim that their own specialism constituted a separated discipline entirely distinct from history proper’, to quote Evans.  So-called cliometricians in the 1970’s wanted to transform the discipline of history by introducing a proper ‘scientific’ basis, particularly with regard to demographic and economic history, using quantitative methods such as those borrowed from econometrics.  Readers of this blog may see why I think this argument is not a million miles from what happens in interdisciplinary science, as I discussed previously, where new disciplines may be spawned as if to replace existing traditional ones.

So where does Fox Keller fit into this?  Her own background is in theoretical physics, but over her career she has turned into (to use her own words) a mathematical biophysicist . In her book, amongst an analysis of many topics, she discusses the emerging field of mathematical biology. She takes exception, for instance,  to how external funding agencies view bringing disciplines together at this maths-biology interface, quoting with displeasure from a press release associated with the formation of a new programme in theoretical biology at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study in 1998:

The use of mathematical ideas, models, and techniques in the biosciences is a rapidly growing and increasingly important field. Applied mathematicians have traditionally used mathematical methods to address a wide range of problems in the physical sciences….However, several areas of biology have gradually developed an understanding of the important role that mathematical approaches can play. Such approaches are often in the hands of people who collaborate with experimentalists, but do not themselves work in the laboratory.

She sniffs at this because it smacks of belittlement of biologists who work in an apparently ‘undeveloped culture’, with theoretical physicists ‘seeking to impose the cultural givens’ of their twentieth century history on biologists.

Likewise she refers to an earlier report from 1992 for a workshop on ‘Mathematics and Biology: The Interface Challenges and Opportunities’  which had stated in patronizing voice:

This is the stage in which biology finds itself today, poised for the phase transition that comes with the total integration of mathematical and empirical approaches to a subject. Many branches of biology are virtually devoid of mathematical theory, and some must remain so for years to come. In these, anecdotal information accumulates, awaiting the integration and insights that come from mathematical abstraction.’

The solution this 1992 report made, smacks of the transformation of the discipline the cliometricians were wanting to make in the case of history: explicitly to develop new research strategies (and new funding routes) rather than simply a ‘physics of biology’.  I think Fox Keller approves of this, wanting mathematical biology to be sui generis rather than a spectrum of approaches which is flexible enough to accommodate many different facets.  Her book, written in 2002, really predates the explosion of systems biology, let alone synthetic biology – both of which obviously represent different overlaps between physical and biological sciences. (The earlier manifestation of synthetic biology, as constructed in the early 20th century, forms a separate chapter in the book, but is a completely different subject from that conveyed by the phrase nowadays.)

Herein lies my concern. The mathematical biology she was flagging up was discussed in 2000 by Peter Dearden and my Cambridge colleague Michael Akam; since then times have changed again, the approaches needed for solving cutting-edge problems have likewise changed  and it is  madness to keep trying to create new departments to keep up. It is bad enough trying to keep abreast of new journals. Meanwhile funding becomes distorted to try to follow these new hot topics.

So, be it cliometricans, social historians or mathematical biologists redefining a ‘traditional’ discipline or claiming that their particular way of doing things must overtake any previous methodology, this approach is, I think, ultimately unhelpful.  These two books, tackling utterly different fields and with totally different motivations, reinforce my suspicion that identifying new fashionable fields carved out of an amalgam of old ones is a dangerous ploy – much better to let natural synergies develop for particular purposes. This suspicion would appear to align with Evans’ position, if not Fox Keller’s. However, the reason why this idealistic approach may fail, the reason why individuals want a new hook to hang their hat on, comes down (of course) to funding and job opportunities. Sitting uncomfortably on the fence between disciplines, rather than inventing new ones, always has the danger that whichever way one falls off it is into a hostile environment which fails to appreciate the synergy one is hoping to achieve.

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Eureka! – the Influence of Scientists on the CSR

Posted by Athene Donald on October 20, 2010

The Eureka reception – hosted by the Times – was buzzing last night. This reception was to celebrate the 1st birthday of the Eureka Magazine and many of those named on the 100 most influential people in science a couple of weeks ago were there at the Science Museum. But beyond that pleasant feeling of well-being that comes with a couple of glasses of champagne (and I’m sorry if that makes me sound like Nigel Dempster) there was an additional buzz doing the rounds, as word spread about the CSR announcement for science. First it was just a hint, that the Times had been briefed, but then it began to gather momentum: it was flat cash for science; the science money was ringfenced – both the Research Councils and the QR elements.

My own ‘best moment’ because it’s when I really believed it was true, was when David Willetts walked in looking happy. Would he have come if things had been as bleak as we all feared? After all, it was only a few days ago the talks were all of 20+% cuts and that the Research Councils were talking about the dire consequences to the grants portfolio. So many people have done so much to make sure science did not get forgotten, despite the absence of a CSA within the Treasury. The list of people who have brought us to this much-less-discouraging -than-one-had feared position is long and many people deserve our thanks. People like Adrian Smith who was present last night, looking thoroughly exhausted but ultimately pleased that the news had leaked (but not at his hands); but there are many more including just the ground swell of opinion from the scientist-in-the-lab and the Science is Vital Campaign. One should not forget the CSA Sir John Beddington, the impact of the economic report by Jonathan Haskel and Gavin Wallis, and the Royal Society’s report The Scientifc Century, plus all the associated contacts and briefings. The media have done their bit, including the recent leaders in the Times and the Guardian in the last couple of days. The message from both Adrian Smith and David Willetts was plain, both said this to me personally, now scientists need to stand up collectively and say loudly and clearly that we are delighted, that this protection for the science budget is welcomed; that we are pleased and satisfied – and then of course to deliver the goods that the arguments have promised. Willetts made it clear we should appreciate what ‘George’ had done – a remark that caused temporary consternation in number 69 on the Eureka list George Efstathiou who was standing next to me at the time, until he realised the remark referred to Osborne.

The devil will be in the detail, of course, it is far too early to know what the reality is – of course as I write the CSR hasn’t even been published. But I for one slept better last night just knowing that the future for us and our scientific successors – those young who are planning a career in science, even if not knowing how they will finance themselves through university since we cannot forget the university budgets still face a slashing today – is not as bleak as I thought this time yesterday.

1745 October 20th 2010 I have now updated this with links and a few more acknowledgements to the people and bodies that have made such a difference in reaching this relatively happy state. The details of the CSR are now known, and there will be many wise deconstructions of what it all means. In keeping with the Eureka spirit, I will point you to Mark Henderson’s view of things, since he was the one who first (I believe) broke the story. But if the paywall just irritates you too much, try the CaSe analysis here – CaSE too played a large part in today’s outcome

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Learning on the Job

Posted by Athene Donald on October 15, 2010

Cycling is one of the many life-skills beyond the curriculum that freshers need to learn rapidly upon arrival in Cambridge. However much they may have cycled previously around their homes, there is something peculiar about Cambridge cycling. Whether it is the on-the-hour rush along Tennis Court Road between lectures, swarming along with hundreds of other students in the same tearing hurry, or remembering your bike lights as the nights draw in, there is much to absorb. This is not something we provide training in; as with so much of life it is ‘on-the-job’ learning.  I was reminded of this today as I watched a young cyclist fail to cycle defensively, coming up on the inside of a bus as it was turning left. Luckily the bus driver was considerably more wise to the ways of cyclists than conversely, and disaster was averted.

At the graduate level we do a slightly better job, not of teaching cycling but of some of the other soft skills needed to survive a PhD: such training might include how to give presentations, writing up their CV’s or thesis planning. However, as one progresses up the slippery pole it seems to me that we are back to learning on the job by one’s mistakes. Some years ago I was asked to participate in a training day for young women at a different institution, entitled ‘If I had only known then what I know now’.  I was supposed to be one of the ‘voices of experience’, but I found it very illuminating for myself. We got to ‘role play’ a committee, with some of the attendees being given specific characters to play out. For myself I was charged with being an inefficient chair of the committee, with a disruptive dean (played by the facilitator) constantly interrupting my attempts at keeping the meeting in order. We all then collectively dissected the dynamics of what had happened.

For myself, I found having this disruptive ‘dean’ a nerve-racking experience, despite it merely being in fun. The moment that stood out in my mind, however, was the woman who had been given the character of ‘just saying no’. She was asked, by me (who didn’t know the character she was supposed to be portraying), to take on some dreary task and she simply looked me in the face and refused. When asked about it afterwards the word she used was that it ‘liberated’ her, that normally she would –like so many of us – have felt obliged to say yes whether she wanted to agree or not. Being given permission, as it were, to say no made her feel positively light headed. We don’t provide such training in the run of things and so, too often, people end up being put upon. Some people are no doubt born with either sufficient confidence, self protection or possibly a complete absence of what it takes to be a good citizen that they apparently have no trouble refusing any sort of chore. For most of us it is a challenge to say I will do so much, but no more. This leads to the danger of being overwhelmed by tasks which may range from the pointless to the thankless, encompassing also those not very appropriate to the skills one does have.  It may also lead to the danger of doing all the wrong sorts of things for the benefit of one’s career, and freeing up others more selfish or self-assertive to make better career progression.

One support system which can help the navigation of such dangers is that of mentoring, as I was reminded today by the receipt the American Physical Society’s CSWP Gazette (CSWP stands for the Committee on the Status of Women). This particular issue – which seems to be openly available – was mainly devoted to a discussion of mentoring, from the viewpoint of both mentors and mentees.  For many women mentoring can prove a vital support system. It does not have to be provided by women for women (in my own case essentially all my mentors have been men), so small numbers of women in an institution need not in itself be a hurdle. Mentoring can be invaluable for obtaining advice about how to tackle an issue, or where to turn to for further information. But even if you know what you want to do, carrying it through can still be a major challenge. I have found the books by Anne Dickson very helpful in this respect (for instance Women at Work , A Voice for Now and Difficult Conversations: What to say inTricky Situations without Ruining the Relationship ) in terms of putting into words some of the confused thoughts with which one may approach a tricky situation and working through them.  But these books still remain at the theoretical level. The ultimate challenge is acting out what needs to be said. I have discussed previously the way support groups can be helpful, and it may be that they can provide a safe environment in which to practice verbalising difficult responses. But beyond this, it seems to me that those providing professional development courses need to consider offering more opportunities for role play to enable the less assertive of us to try out ‘saying no’ in unthreatening situations.

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