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 the ‘Women’s Issues’ Category

What Women Think – First thoughts on the Athena Survey of Science, Engineering and Technology 2010

Posted by Athene Donald on November 9, 2010

I have been glancing through the results from this year’s ASSET survey.  This is a web-based survey of academics at postdoctoral level and above, both men and women, asking them about their experiences and career progression. The results  make fascinating if rather depressing reading; depressing because all the way through – at this nationally aggregated level – we find there are still significant differences in the perceptions of men and women and almost invariably where this is the case it seems to be the women who feel disadvantaged or at the very least less optimistic. What follows is an entirely personal and somewhat preliminary take on the figures.  I have not attempted either to compare with earlier surveys (the Athena Forum produced a summary report on the two earlier surveys) or with the figures I have seen for my own university, so this is simply a first reaction to the bald percentages given. You should read the full report to get the actual numbers.  I believe there will be a more formal report released early in 2011 by the sponsors of the survey.

There were ~ 4500 respondents at the faculty level (of which just under one third were women) and another ~2500 at the postdoc level (of which 52% were women), so the numbers are large enough to believe that the differences reported really do reflect the current situation in universities. However, of course there will be differences between institutions and between disciplines and these totals mask all these subtleties. Universities will have access to their own figures broken down by department, so locally much more specific issues can be examined, although inevitably without the statistical certainties of large numbers.  I do hope institutions will carry out such local scrutiny, and readers may want to find out whether and where such scrutiny is going on: heads of participating departments should have received their own raw, disaggregated data some time ago.

If we start by considering issues relating to ‘progression and representation’, the first curiosity that stands out is that significantly more men than women seem to be aware of women in science initiatives in their own department, although more women believe they are personally benefitting from such initiatives. A second curiosity, given the general beliefs about ambition, is that amongst academic staff more women than men aspire to be a senior departmental or university manager. Perhaps the men want to stick closer to research, or that the women see this as the only route really to get recognition, but we can’t tell that from the questions posed.

However the bad news for women starts seriously with the questions around appointment and promotion. There are clearly far more women than men who appear to know little or nothing about promotion criteria and the process involved, particularly at the departmental level; women were also more likely to believe that women were actually disadvantaged ‘in respect of promotion and the provision of positive feedback’. Why should this be? Is it because men were significantly more likely to feel supported by their current line managers (in the case of postdocs) or senior colleagues (in the case of academic staff), according to the survey?  Male academic staff turn out to be also more likely to be appraised as a matter of course than women, which will also be relevant to promotion. This is a worrying indicator that things are not as equal as one would like to believe, even on such a process-driven aspect.  Male academic staff also believed their contributions were valued by their department more than women did for each heading in the survey: research, teaching, success in working life, external professional activities and administrative work, with the differences being most significant for research and external activities. This is of course only about perception, but it does imply that women feel undervalued, whether or not that is the message each department is in fact conveying or wanting to convey. For the postdocs, things looked much more even and female postdocs were actually more likely to believe that their successes in working life were valued than men.

Looking at factors contributing to career success, more women than men expressed the view that an absence of role models and an absence of mentoring had been detrimental to their career. These worries might have been anticipated, but it is useful to have the hard numbers backing up the anecdotal evidence. In terms of factors that had been beneficial there was almost universal agreement that hard work was a major factor in career success, but male academic staff were also more likely than women to identify luck as a contributing factor (there was no difference between the genders at the postdoc level) and they were also more likely to feel that their ability to attract PhD students had played a part. Do female academics attract fewer students? We can’t tell from this study, so it is not clear if men attributed success in part to this but the actual ability to attract students was or was not actually different.

And how did the men and women regard their working environment? It is disheartening to see that faculty women were significantly less likely to feel socially integrated (male and female postdocs were equally likely to feel OK about this), or that they had an opportunity to serve on important committees; and two thirds of the women felt the workload was unfairly allocated – as did more than half the men.  These last figures were almost exactly the same for the postdocs.

So, we still have a situation in academia where women feel disadvantaged and the suspicion must be that there is some basis for their belief, as manifest by the inequality in appraisal provision for instance. At the postdoc level the differences are less marked, and that must be a cause for hope.  Nevertheless, this large scale survey demonstrates a continuing imbalance both in the external atmosphere and the internal feelings around professional life in the SET subjects for men and women.  A comprehensive study such as this cannot simply be dismissed as soft, anecdotal moans by whingeing women; this is what it feels like for them at the coalface.


Posted in Equality, Research, Science Culture, Women in Science, Women's Issues | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

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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Is Travel Good for your (Career’s) Health?

Posted by Athene Donald on October 10, 2010

In order to move up the rungs on the academic career ladder it is inevitable that one needs to fill in an answer to the question of ‘talks given’. At the lower levels, departmental seminars and small national meetings will suffice to satisfy, but moving upwards the demands get greater: invited lectures, international talks and plenary talks at international conferences become de rigeur.  This immediately poses a problem if, for whatever reason, you don’t want to travel. Perhaps you have a fear of flying but, for parents of small children, there is another obstacle. Quite simply, you don’t want to leave them. This is particularly acute for women and may hit them just at the time they are applying for a permanent post, senior fellowship or promotion. How serious a problem is this?  I would like to propose that there are in fact significant advantages in restricting travel – and if more parents believed this, it could reduce career-angst a little.

I was a lecturer when my children were born and for a number of years I restricted my travel to only about 3 days a year – or more accurately, 3 nights away from home a year. Really. These days I am frequently away 3 nights a week but back then I absolutely tried not to travel, not to be away from my children, however much I knew my husband was there to look after them and was more than capable of doing so.  Whatever biological differences there may or may not be between the sexes, I do think the maternal bond is very strong!  So, did that disadvantage my career?

In some ways I am sure it did – my international visibility was not great and if you turn down invitations, it soon becomes well known and the invitations dry up. However, and why I think the answer is less clear-cut than might first be thought, there are some definite plusses. Just think of all that time you don’t waste in airports – though a long layover in Newark once enabled me to read an entire thesis cover to cover, which I suppose was a positive – or the overheated hotels with lousy food you can give a miss, the many identikit convention centres you can avoid.  All things which one’s soul is better off without. Furthermore, while my colleagues were out on the road, I was back home talking to students and hopefully inspiring them to better things whilst keeping them on the straight and narrow.  I kept in very close touch with them and had time to read and comment on their thesis chapters, write the papers and produce grant applications (as well as being able to keep my carbon footprint down) – naturally at the expense of less time to network, raise my profile and make useful contacts.

I believe that this is an acceptable trade-off for a few years. When my children were small I basically didn’t travel; that was fine, I had my lectureship and I wasn’t trying to get promoted. When they were a bit bigger, say 5 and 7, I started travelling rather more, got some US talks on my CV so that I looked convincing when it came to promotion to Reader. Then I (and they) found their adolescent years sufficiently troubling that I cut back on travelling again – but amazingly/luckily I had already managed to get my Chair by then, so this mattered less. The timing maybe worked fortuitously well for me, but I think it is worth saying loud and clear that travel has a significant opportunity cost – in terms of useful working hours lost – as well as an obvious opportunity gain. But for parents, and most particularly for women for whom this is undoubtedly a particularly acute problem, trying to balance home life and the apparent necessity of jet-setting, I would say step back and think carefully. Some travel is vital, much may be as much about ego-stroking and having interesting experiences in exotic parts of the world as actually being productive for your career. Don’t assume more is necessarily better.

Finally, I would like to invite those drawing up promotion criteria to think carefully about this issue.  Is a long list of talks given an unnecessary hurdle for young parents? How many talks are needed on a CV to be an indicator of quality? Aa an alternative would it be reasonable to ask applicants to list invitations received, as opposed to talks physically given? The invitation is the true measure of esteem, the fact that the talk was delivered is less material, unless judgement is actually going to be made about the inherent quality of the talk – and no one does that on a promotion panel!

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‘Every Other Thursday’ – Do Support Groups Support?

Posted by Athene Donald on September 21, 2010

Every Other Thursday is a book about a woman’s self help group in California, which has attempted to address the problem of where academic women might find support. Founded on the precepts of radical psychiatry, the group gathers every other week with a structured format: time is set aside for each member to discuss issues in her life, and in a supportive environment she is encouraged to express her emotions.  I personally did not find the book, which I read a while back, described a solution to the issue of support that I thought would work for me; it was too structured and required a time commitment I could not imagine making.  Nevertheless I am reminded about this book, by two very different blogposts: one from Sylvia McLain which expresses some scepticism and ambivalence about women’s groups; and one from YoungFemaleScientist which expresses frustration at the general uselessness of any advice she got, from women or men, to specific problems she faced.  This post is, if you like, a downbeat counterpart to my upbeat assessment in the wake of the Athena Swan awards .

That particular post is about how institutions are changing their internal procedures and cultures, seeming to head in the right direction even if perhaps too slowly. Nevertheless there is a big gap between policies being decreed from on high, the sort of actions that underpin an Athena Swan award, and what it actually feels like for the individual scientist struggling with research not going to plan and being unsupported by those around – or worse, being actively denigrated in the subtle drip-drip way that such denigration usually manifests itself as.  I would not like it thought that I don’t recognize such problems exist. Far from it. Indeed, one of my motivations for starting this blog came from a younger (female) colleague in Cambridge saying to me in surprise at some point in our discussions  ‘You mean this happened to you too!’. No one should believe people who have made their way up through the hierarchy successfully have done so without hassle, misery and/or setbacks. That remark I suspect applies equally to men and women, although the form the knocks may have taken probably differ.   I would hazard a guess that relatively few men have been sexually propositioned at conferences.  I would also suspect that at least half,  and possibly nearer 100% of women have been. I should hasten to add this is an unscientific comment, as I have no statistics to back up either of those statements.  I merely know that leery drunken males can often be found at the conference bar.

YoungFemaleScientist clearly feels she rarely receives useful advice or even apparent empathy from those she turns to. She translates this as a lack of caring, and that probably isn’t true. As a professor I find it hard to strike the right balance between empathy and self-disclosure. With friends there is an ongoing bond of trust, between work colleagues – particularly of different seniority – this is unlikely to be the case. If a student comes along complaining of sexual harassment, would it be reasonable, helpful or even wise for a professor to say ‘this happened to me too’. It could come across as trivializing the incident (ie this happens to everyone so put up and shut up), or irrelevant (it happened 10 years ago and times change), or even find its way round the department at the speed of light. But if the professor stays detached then it may look like the uncaring response that is being complained about by YoungFemaleScientist. Of course, if there are simple solutions people probably will help: a word in the ear of the relevant offender might solve the problem without a formal complaint, but I fear rarely so. (Lest it be thought that I am trying to sweep things under the carpet, let me say that any clear case of harassment should always be reported.  The trouble is so many – the unwanted compliments on dress or appearance, the frequent touch on the arm, regular innuendo – are ambiguous enough not to be easily dealt with.)

And this is where I differ from Sylvia McLain.  Asking for help from senior colleagues is always likely to introduce discomfort of this sort. Practical tips of course should be sought: how do I write a grant? Should I submit a poster abstract to this conference? What funding is available in my field? How can I improve my CV? Would it be wise for me to take this position? Or accept this new responsibility? All these sorts of questions can and should be asked of anyone and everyone who might be able to help. But support groups of essentially one’s peers, formal or informal, or simply a supportive group of individual friends, are more likely to be a better resource for the vexed question of how to cope with everyday fraught situations: there will be no black and white answers and discussion should be the name of the game to tease out strategies that work for a given situation. In my experience these helpful friends and colleagues most certainly don’t need to be in my field (sadly lacking in women in any case, though these supporters don’t need to be female), since so often the problems are basically generic though nuanced by the local environment.

Let me describe a generic problem which bugs most women above a certain rank: how to make your voice ‘heard’ on committees for which the women are in a minority. The scenario runs like this. You rise through the system until you are asked to sit on some committee with teeth. First you have to gain enough confidence to open your mouth at all, and when you (finally) do offer some wise words, maybe after attending several meetings, no one appears to take your contribution on board. Shortly afterwards an (almost invariably) male colleague says very much the same thing and everyone gets very enthusiastic, indicates how insightful this is, what a splendid idea, just what’s needed etc. Nearly every woman I know has had this happen to them, and often not just at the start of their ‘committee career’ but time and time again. I would be interested to know if men feel this happens to them too; no male has ever mentioned it to me, but then why should they?

So what is the solution? I have to say I wish I knew. Someone once suggested I should have voice-coaching to train myself to lower my voice, because then I would sound more like the majority males. I did not follow up on this and, as I have argued before here, that implies that I, the woman, am the problem rather than those listening. Another possibility would be to join the school of thought that thinks they will be heard if they get red in the face and thump the table; also not an attractive proposition to many. Saying ‘excuse me, I just said that’ may be justified but I doubt if it would be productive and on the contrary would tend to make one look merely petty.  I suspect, as with the narrative about pulling a committee chair up when behaving inappropriately described here, having allies (probably male) on the committee who can say ‘but Athene just said that’ might be helpful, but is certainly not always viable or indeed probable.  It is a frustrating problem but, as I say, may not be the sole province of women.

At the end of the day problems ranging from coping with sexual harassment to managing to get listened to at committees are all about us as individuals. What works for me may not work for you. Likewise, what support works for me may also be very different from what others need. We each come to any situation with our own previous baggage, coloured by our upbringing, education and whatever good or bad experiences we have encountered en route. But support groups and individual friends are a vital resource to help one survive, progress and (one hopes) ultimately thrive.

Posted in Equality, Science Culture, Uncategorized, Women in Science, Women's Issues | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

The Drawbacks of the Deficit Model

Posted by Athene Donald on August 31, 2010

Following on from my recent post, and my remarks about not being a shrinking violet, let me take up the theme of the ‘deficit model’ discussed in a recent post by my erstwhile colleague and WiSETI project officer Esther Haines on her own blog.  The deficit model and the interventions used to overcome the resulting problems were described by Carol Muller as follows:

“… interventions have been characterized as efforts that focus on a “deficit” model, in which it is assumed that these individuals lack something—ability, experience, interest, inspiration, motivation—that they need in order to succeed. In this model, attention is paid to mitigating that deficit, typically by providing programs—summer camps, internships, remedial courses, special study groups, mentoring programs, social opportunities, seminars, evening programs, etc.”

This has the danger of making women feel they are the problem, rather than the problem lying in the culture that expects everyone to be the same i.e. in this case, male.  By being told I am ‘not a shrinking violet’ I hear the statement both that I ought or am expected to be one, and that I stand out, for the wrong reasons, by not being one.  To my mind that is a trivial example of the deficit model: if I were male I would be ‘forceful’ and that would be OK.

Positive actions to overcome the perceived deficit can indeed be constructive: workshops to build up confidence may be helpful and WiSETI runs some locally, as do many groups.  (Although positive action itself can have a negative side to it, and can be perceived as getting dangerously close to positive discrimination.  As last week’s THE pointed out, there is something of a backlash against any such actions ongoing from white males).  But the organization itself needs to change structurally, from the top, so that differences between the genders – or race, or whatever it might be – do not per se form a criterion on which judgments are made. This is what mainstreaming is all about, and again locally we are pursuing this path.

Let me give a small, but significant example. In the university’s promotion forms we have traditionally had a place for people to give details of what were known as special circumstances. Typically, this was to permit people to say they had taken time out for childbirth/maternity leave, though it also made it possible for other circumstances such as long term sickness to be declared. The University is changing the wording this year to additional circumstances. So, you no longer need to feel you are somehow different and need special treatment simply because you’ve had a baby, or a career break, and it will probably also help men to feel more comfortable declaring their own caring responsibilities. These are events that happen on top of one’s work, but they don’t need to imply you will be singled out for careful scrutiny because you are ‘special’.  The new wording should make such declarations feel less threatening.  We will see.

I have been horrified to hear, from women within my university, that in the past they have been explicitly advised by line managers including heads of department that they should simply not fill in the box at all, not admit to having had a baby/time out. I find this astonishing and unhelpful as a straightforward explanation of why there may be a hiatus in publishing seems to me to be much more constructive than a visible but unexplained hiatus which will be interpreted as someone having an ‘off’ period in their research.  As ever, actions that help everyone are likely to help women proportionately more, but by widening what is admissible I hope that parenting more generally will be seen as normal and work-life balance considerations will no longer be off the radar. But then, maybe I’m an optimist.

Posted in Equality, Women in Science, Women's Issues | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »