Athene Donald's Blog

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

Stereotype Threat, Underperformance and Diversity

Posted by Athene Donald on November 18, 2010

Some months ago I came across a review in the THE for a book with the strange title of Whistling Vivaldi, by Claude Steele and it finally came to the top of my reading list recently. Far too late to write any kind of review, I will instead write a commentary on why it may be relevant to the vexed question of women in science, and any minority’s performance more generally, under certain exam conditions.

Steele’s research has identified a phenomenon he termed ‘stereotype threat’ which is defined as “a situational predicament felt in situations where one can be judged by, treated in terms of, or self-fulfill negative stereotypes about one’s group”. In other words, when taking a test, for instance, the candidate is not simply performing according to their innate ability: this ability is moderated by the impact of contingent and situational factors deriving from generally held beliefs that people have about the performance and abilities of the candidate’s grouping – as defined by race, sex, age or whatever.

This work grew out of a study Steele made of minority (in general black) students in top-ranked US universities where they seemed to underperform on the basis of their entering SAT scores. What he discovered, by carefully constructed laboratory studies, was that blacks perform significantly less well if they are reminded in some subtle way before the exam that blacks aren’t expected to be intellectually as strong as whites. If the test is introduced as one where intellectual strength is not being tested, though it may be an identical test, the blacks perform as well as the whites. Likewise, stress the fact that girls aren’t so good at maths before a test (using of course girls and boys thought to be equally strong) and lo and behold the girls perform less well than the boys. Tell them the test has nothing to do with maths ability but is exploring how a task is tackled, or some other neutral issue, and the differences go away. A whole host of different factors were studied under test conditions and in ‘real life’ and all the evidence points to this being an important factor. When a test really matters – and the effect doesn’t seem to come into play when the test is easy or people don’t care – then being reminded of a negative stereotyping can wreak havoc with your results. Even if this reminder of the stereotype is separated in time from the actual test there still seems to be damage done.  However, give the same test but without the same contingencies, so implying that the negative stereotype is irrelevant to the test, and the underperformance vanishes.

So, how does that play out in the world? If girls are consistently told by their peers, in the media or by their teachers that girls don’t and can’t do maths or science, the evidence is that this will lodge in their sub-conscious to the extent that it will cause anxiety during tests, so lowering their performance. This effect then becomes self-reinforcing; having done badly in one test they will ‘know’ that because they are a girl they will do badly in the next – and so they do, until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and they walk away from the subjects. This could be one factor that reduces the number of girls doing physics and maths at A Level. No one makes similar comments about biology so the girls’ numbers, on this argument, would hold up – as indeed they do.

Melinda commented on a previous post that she thought there was a difference in writing style between men and women. I am not sure how true that is in the standard style of science journals, but what about essays in arts subjects? If girls are told they write less well in boys, does that translate into weaker exam performance?  Unfortunately there are indications that sometimes students are told precisely this: ‘write more like men’ is the message  – what an unhelpful piece of advice! I have no idea what it means, and probably the students don’t either.   If a teacher wants to recommend a change in style, they need to be able to state precisely what it is they are looking for.  For years, within my university as I believe in many, the percentage of women getting firsts in subjects such as History and English is smaller than men. Is there any connection? It is something that is clearly worth pursuing, because these are subjects where there is not an initial shortage of bright women entering the university and yet they appear not to thrive.

Since I started writing this (it’s been long in gestation), Imran Khan has written a stimulating and provocative piece about the whiteness of science in the UK.  He says

‘Thousands of people are being deterred from careers they would excel in, which is a loss to those individuals. But it also means a loss to society, and the economy. We’re talking about thousands of people who could be making advances, and might be excelling in their field, if it wasn’t due to the discrimination which seems to be built-in to our science and engineering establishment.’

Given that much of the evidence Steele cites in his book deals with young blacks in high schools and colleges in the US, one must wonder if stereotype threat is contributing to the paucity of young blacks entering higher education, and science in particular here. A number small, this approach would suggest, not just because of familial expectations and socioeconomic factors, but because they feel additionally challenged by the perceived stereotypical labels such as ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’. Again, it would be very interesting to see this issue pursued as people try to disentangle the multiple factors which contribute to the comparative under-performance – and consequent under-representation – of certain groups of people.  I am no psychologist or sociologist, so I do not know if much research is being done in the UK on these topics, but it seems to me it could be important to check how relevant this phenomenon is on this side of the Atlantic. The more so as the evidence from Steele and colleagues is that quite simple steps can drastically improve the situation.  It is intriguing because, both the original threat leading to the under-performance, and the counter steps which seem to work, seem so slight it is hard to see that their impact can be as great as the evidence presented suggests it is.


Posted in Education, Equality, Teaching, Women in Science | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

Educational Breadth

Posted by Athene Donald on November 14, 2010

I am now off to Paris for a 2 day meeting of the ESPCI International Advisory Committee. ESPCI Paris Tech (the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris, one of a group of institutions which comprise an overarching but recently constructed entity known as Paris Tech) is one of the so-called Grandes Écoles in Paris, and as such is one of the elite and provides for the ‘elite’ student. The Parisian universities have very complex inter-relationships and funding mechanisms – which involve some direct oversight by the Mayor, though for ESPCI less so than in the past – which, even after 4 years on this committee, remain a mystery to me. I won’t be talking about that aspect here, but I do want to raise the issue of how broad the education is within ESPCI, and how it compares with many courses here.

The first thing to note is that students enter the Grandes Écoles after 2 years of intensive ‘cramming’ post Baccalaureate, courses which particularly cover rigorous mathematical training. They are a highly competitive bunch of students who attend, who see education at one of the Grandes Écoles, probably correctly, as a passport to a future high level job amongst the great and good. Their professional aspirations would include politics and the upper rungs of the civil service but, for ESPCI in particular, also a future in industrial management and research.  The link to industry is highly valued by both the students and the academic staff, and all students will do a substantial placement in some external laboratory, possibly abroad.

That the students can readily do such an international assignment reflects the first aspect of the ESPCI education that I want to stress. The students do a huge amount of mandatory language learning.  They are expected to become fluent in English, with 170 hours of classes during each of the first 3 years (of the 4 year course). For instance, in their second year much of the emphasis is on American movies and media, presumably because all the students are bombarded with these. Doing a third language is no longer mandatory, as I believe it used to be, but is clearly encouraged.  So these science and engineering students have already a significant additional teaching load beyond anything a UK university might expect.

During the first two years the main emphasis is on giving all students a strong base across the sciences, so that they all do the trio of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, with specialization only later. This is seen as the necessary groundwork although many of the students would see themselves as future engineers; there is also a strong emphasis on experimental work including workshop design and practice. It is hard to think of comparable courses within the UK.  I think the closest would be the Natural Sciences Tripos in Cambridge, where 1st year students choose 3 out of 8 experimental subjects plus maths.

Looking at what is expected of the students at ESPCI, I do wonder if we aim high enough here. Firstly, we assume that it is not necessary for UK students to speak any language other than English. The numbers of UK students doing Erasmus years abroad from any discipline is small (in comparison with the numbers coming here from Europe), the number of scientists in particular is tiny.  Even if we assume that English  – well, OK, American – is the international language of science, there is more to life than the day job.

(As an aside, I have previously pointed out how my own linguistic shortcomings have caught up with me recently , my German O Level being inadequate to enable me to follow talks in German at a recent meeting. My French – despite the attempts of my French teacher and also stopping at O Level – is slightly better, to the extent that when I was involved with the appointment interviews for the ESPCI Director a few years back I could cope. Although I was ‘allowed’ to ask my questions of the candidates in English, I could follow the presentations and submitted material well enough.  This I should stress was all inadvertent: I had only agreed to be involved when invited by the then Director Pierre-Gilles de Gennes because he assured me the whole process would be in English – ‘d’accord’ as he said.)

In the UK, the early specialization at school is reinforced by most degrees.  That is why I find the Natural Sciences Tripos at Cambridge so attractive; I believe Nottingham University has recently created something somewhat similar, also called Natural Sciences. It means that just because you thought Physics, for instance, was what you wanted to do at school you are not stuck if you find University Physics not to your taste or what you expected.  It means that students who had never heard of Materials Science or Earth Sciences before, have the opportunity to sample them in the first year, and thereafter move completely into these fields if it takes their fancy. For students who want to be more broadly interdisciplinary that option is also there. And for those who come up uncertain whether to do physical or biological sciences, there are a wide range of possible combinations during the first year to help them make up their mind while keeping their options pretty open.

Of course, I didn’t appreciate biology when I did the course, as I’ve said before, and didn’t avail myself of the opportunities to study any of the biological options, including the very popular Biology of Cells course. This course would have been ideal for my current interests but held no attractions for my 18 year old self.  ESPCI only introduced biology into their compulsory first year course relatively recently (it is an institution, after all, designed to specialize in Physics and Chemistry, as the English translation of its name – Industrial Physics and Chemistry  Higher Educational Institution – makes clear), and is definitely a minor component, but there is a strong push to give breadth in their education, and recently research in biology has started to be built up at ESPCI too.  Breadth is also demonstrated by the introduction of  some elements of law and management into the curriculum, again as part of the compulsory elements.  There is a very clear ethos that this training is to enable the student to have a well-rounded professional attitude to their anticipated future life in an industrial setting.

There is, I fear, too little of this breadth and well-roundedness in many British science degrees. From what I can judge, engineering degrees – because of the need for professional accreditation – in the UK are more likely to contain some of the more managerial and legal aspects than pure science degrees. It is of course possible that a knock-on effect of the Browne review will be to encourage departments to introduce more of this. For instance, as David Docherty of the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CHIE) has written,  after Browne the question is

“How do businesses and universities partner more inventively in the interests of the country and develop high-quality graduates who have learned how to innovate?”

This statement resonates with the impact agenda, which is finding currency at all political levels with regard to the research portfolio. So such a changing climate post-Browne may in itself drive some changes in the content of many courses, and it could be argued that the structure of the course at ESPCI would be a good model which can be seen to work. It doesn’t compromise the quality of the education for their exceptional students and the principles could be extended to a much broader range of courses for students of varying academic abilities. But leaving that factor aside, simply in terms of breadth for educating those with either an indecisive mind, or an early identified penchant to work at the boundaries between disciplines, ESPCI also offers very attractive opportunities.

Posted in Biological Physics, Education, Interdisciplinary Science, Teaching | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

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 »

Teachers, Careers and Chance

Posted by Athene Donald on November 4, 2010

What gets one into working in an interdisciplinary field and what form does it take?  A researcher starts off trained in one field but then moves into interdisciplinary working via various routes. One can stay in one’s original field/department but collaborate to introduce the necessary new discipline(s);  one might be assimilated into a new one which is inherently interdisciplinary, such as systems biology; or possibly one could simply jump ship, say, from physics to biology. Is there something about people who take one route or the other that is inherent in their personality, or does it all depend on one’s training/background?

I have just been chairing one of the BBSRC’s grant-giving committees, and this particular one is inherently interdisciplinary, with most people having a foot in both camps of the physical-biological sciences divide. Over dinner we were discussing the benefits for this sort of working when it comes to taking talks into schools and trying to inspire future generations, and my mind went back to why I didn’t do biology even at O Level.  In part, as ever, this was down to the teachers: my physics teacher was on top of her subject and approachable; my biology teacher was on top of her subject and totally scary. She was very much of the ‘old school’ even in the 1960’s and I found her very intimidating. (Just for the record I should state my history teacher was on top of her subject and restless. She would pace up and down the classroom covering a fantastic distance each lesson, which in itself retained my attention. She was also the mother of the Milliband brothers; needless to say it was a state school.)

I have previously written about my work on starch, but at school it was tests on starch and sugars that were one of the things that ultimately sent me scurrying away from biology (the other thing was the test to work out which side of a leaf gave out more water vapour, a question I thought was profoundly boring, so it is ironic that this too is a topic related to recent research of mine in which we watched leaf stomata close in response to stress in the environmental scanning electron microscope).  The standard test for starch is iodine, and I seem to recall experiments involving iodine and potatoes that I successfully negotiated. However, the other test involving starch/sugars was that based around Fehling’s Solutions I and II. For those of you not familiar with this classic test, it consists of taking two solutions – that is Fehling’s Solutions I and II which Wikipedia tells me are respectively copper sulphate (I certainly recall the blue colour) and potassium sodium tartrate – and adding them to the substance under investigation in a test tube and then heating it up.  My vivid memory of the experiment is the sight of the plug of reactant that formed being expelled from the test tube at great velocity and flying across the room. The distaste and disapproval this act of incompetence evinced from said scary biology teacher remains clearly in my mind. OK, I thought, I’m not a biologist, and when O Level choices were to be made that was an easy decision.  There is no doubt that teachers can make all the difference, and on such little matters can so much hang. (It is equally the case that I much preferred French to German because at the end of my first year of French my teacher told me my accent was awful, so I stopped trying.).  Much has been written about the importance of having well qualified science teachers in primary schools, and specialists in the sciences in every secondary school.  However, even good teachers can be a deterrent if their frankness equates to destruction of confidence.

Research careers have a way of taking on a life of their own, and decisions taken at 15 are not necessarily irrevocable unless one is determined they should be. Chance, fate, call it what you will, plays a surprisingly strong part in shaping where one ends up.  Early career researchers reading this, please don’t believe we all had a life-plan when we set out: a certain extremely well-known colleague of mine once admitted his choice of PhD was determined by the supervisor who smiled at him, and from that simple action much has subsequently flowed.

I would imagine most interdisciplinary researchers have learnt that the discipline and topics which excited them in teenage years turn out not to be sufficient to maintain excitement as research evolves.  New skills, ideas and possibly even language (at least jargon) are required to enable the full story to be teased out. It requires an openness of mind so that the fixed views of a teenager don’t spill over into adult life, and sufficient motivation to overcome the hurdles that crossing boundaries into another discipline inevitably throws up.  However, perhaps the person who completely jumps ship to a different discipline – such as I mentioned at the beginning – does differ from the one who is comfortable sitting at an interface. Maybe the ship-jumper wants to commit to something new, but also in some senses to walk away from the old, in essence rejecting their earlier persona.  In contrast the person who is content to stay put but collaborate is keeping their options open, so that in the future other collaborations can take them in a different direction. The positive spin on this would be they are flexible, the negative that they can’t commit and, as I’ve said before, I obviously fall into the group who have commitment problems.  Chance, teachers, people one bumps into or deliberately set out to meet, all will determine one’s research path in ways impossible to predict when making those early decisions about exam choices.  Decisions are not in general immutable and taking risks is often the best way to progress.

The conversation with my BBSRC committee colleagues clearly did not cover all this ground, though it sparked this train of thought. We had a convivial evening despite the austerity measures the current financial situation impose. We had a truly dreadful meal, which could best be described as school-dinner-with-pretensions. In tune with my long involvement with starch, I think I can safely say the best parts of the meal were the roll and potatoes, the rest was barely edible.  The BBSRC staff member who sat at our table was rehearsing the long list of complaints she had for the hotel management (there was rather too much drilling and hammering going on for comfort for instance), and thereby she hoped to get even better value for money for the research council.  The taxpayer should be reassured.

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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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