Friday, 15 January 2016

Why so many?

Reflections on a life in science: #6 gender balance in the research team

I am acutely aware of the sensitivities surrounding gender balance in the sciences, and this post makes absolutely no attempt to define or to solve anything. It is a brief reflection from one retired scientist, in one corner of the academic world, of a few decades in which some wonderfully creative and talented people joined, and then moved on from, one particular research team; it’s nothing more than that.

In one of her many excellent posts, entitled ‘Why so few (still)’, Professor Athene Donald offered a handful of survey-derived statistics which made for depressing reading, and in the process defined for me the title to this post. One of these survey results suggested that two thirds of Europeans “think that women do not possess the required skill set in order to achieve high-level scientific positions”; the proportion is roughly the same for the UK alone. Initially, I found this difficult to take on board in the sense that I have always found it hard to ‘get my head around’ such a stance. The University I recently retired from is led by a woman of considerable talent, Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow, herself a scientist, and the department I was in (here) has a healthy gender balance in its staff complement and has been awarded an Athena-Swan Bronze Medal. Women of seniority are not a rarity on campus, even in the sciences/technology areas (e.g. here). Further afield, I have worked with staggeringly talented people of both sexes to whom I, and those around me, would freely offer professional praise. Having said that, a few seconds thinking through some of the decisions I’d witnessed and the comments I’d heard from colleagues in the earlier years of my career (and a few which, although often implied rather than overt, were still in play more recently) changed the mental image a little. In his novel ‘The Go-Between’, published in the year of my birth, L.P. Hartley coined the phrase “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”. Maybe they do, but that alone is insufficient as a justification for anything. As a historical example, I recall a male scientist prone to declare that women simply didn’t have the sort of brain required to study Physics (- I got into trouble for openly challenging this view by the way). One is significantly less likely to hear those kinds of views expressed overtly these days – at least, I’d hope that is the case – but there evidently remains a problem. The stereotype regarding how men’s and women’s brain are put together, sometimes associated with the title of the book ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’, holds no water (see here for example, or here). However, the effects of ‘unconscious bias’ persist; thankfully, there is a growing awareness of the need to counteract its effects (see here and also here).

Athene Donald has written and spoken often on matters of equality in the sciences (e.g. here for another recent article), and I applaud her tireless efforts: I am most definitely a ‘fan’. Having said that, it was the direct challenge posed to me by two fellow scientists via Twitter that inspired this particular themed post in my ‘career reflections’ series: Dr. Emma Barney and Professor Jenny Martin, who also writes and speaks on matters of equality/diversity in the sciences.
The Twitter exchange behind this post was brief, but to the point. Note the time delay between their questions and this attempt at a response: whoever says there’s plenty of ‘free time’ in retirement! (On that particular aside, I did squeeze out an update on my new season of busy-ness: here.)

Until I read Jenny Martin’s original tweet I’d never thought of calculating the end-of-career summative proportions of women and men in my former research team. Her follow-on comment was entirely reasonable: on the surface, the figures do seem to label my team as an ‘outlier’ in the physical sciences. From my own – necessarily limited – observations over the years, the ratio of women to men at the levels relevant to us here is more typically closer to 1 in 3 or 4. (The ratio appears to vary widely between disciplines, with Physics suffering far more than Chemistry for example, and all the ratios seem to worsen as one progresses from an initial undergraduate degree through the PhD phase and into postdoctoral research and beyond. My research team principally comprised PhD research students and post-doctoral research fellows/associates; with its roots in materials physics/chemistry, the team members were drawn from both Chemistry and Physics backgrounds. I’ve alluded to this background fact before, e.g. here and here). The additional questions then set my thoughts into a chase for rational answers: was it a conscious decision on my part to aim for this, are there any ‘secrets’ behind the evident gender balance, and given the fact that all involved were in relatively junior fixed-term posts whilst in my team, what could I say in terms of the longer-term situation regarding ‘seniority’ attained after they had moved on?

I’d love to be able to set out a cogent set of pithy reflections at this point, but the honest answer is that I don’t know why my team ended up with this balance; I have no crystal-clear explanation; I have no great secrets to share.

Apart from the naïve effects of ‘busy-ness’, the other reason why there is such a gap between accepting the need to try to address the questions posed to me and posting this piece was the need to do a little research. The obvious first port-of-call had to be via e-mails to all the women who had worked within the team during my time as an academic and with whom I’m still in touch (- thankfully, quite a few). I asked them to look back and to try to sum up what had drawn them to the team in the first place, what their experience had been whilst a part of it and what impact this had had on their subsequent lives. Interestingly, they didn’t fully explain the unusual gender balance either. What they did offer has led me to a few generic conclusions, none of which is in any sense new or ground-breaking – unless I have missed something. The thought of quoting their words directly did cross my mind, and for the most part they seemed fairly relaxed about me using the material, but for one reason or another I decided against this approach. The single most significant point that shines through is that their choice to join my team was influenced by exactly the same sort of factors I’d expect to hear listed by the men who joined the team: the topic was of interest, there was evidence of sufficient research opportunities/funding and of prior published output, and that, for the aspiring PhD students, there was cash available to cover a studentship. There was a hint that the existing presence of women in the team offered some sort of positive advertisement, but this hinted point was not stressed. It’s a rather similar gender-independent picture when it comes to their time within the team. In one way or another, they all commented on the benefits of a friendly and professional working environment and the availability of opportunities to broaden their experience through working with collaborating teams at other universities and research facilities. (The latter, by the way, involved working away from home-base doing our experiments: we travelled hundreds of miles, stayed in hostels and hotels, worked ridiculously long hours and all-too-often eat the wrong foods – an excellent arena for getting to know people; for more, see here.) Guidance and support – both for the duration of the PhD or postdoctoral contract and at key career development stages thereafter – also featured as being important.

There was, however, one key comment which did seem to resonate with what I’d like to believe: “you could not have cared less if I was male, female, … it was all about the joy of the shared intellectual challenge”. When I read this I was immediately reminded, albeit whimsically, of the ongoing #LetToysBeToys campaign, which has spawned some great material on Twitter (see also here). Perhaps we ought simply to #LetPeopleBePeople in this context – a sentiment which emerged within an exchange of thoughts with another of my correspondents I might add.

The final challenge initiated by Jenny Martin’s tweet concerned destinations. This is not an easy question to address, in part because my information is incomplete but also because the associated time-periods are so variable: the first woman to join my team, as a PhD student, graduated in 1989 whilst the last woman in the team is still getting to grips with her first job after she got her PhD as recently as 2012. We are therefore not comparing like with like. However, I am encouraged by the fact that, as far as I am aware, the next step for all but one was into an area of their own choosing – a statistic strikingly similar to what I know of the men when they too moved on. Some have stayed in science, or a cognate field, whilst others have chosen alternate pathways; this is eminently understandable, irrespective of gender. After all, why not try to do what one is good at and enjoys, and celebrate serendipity (as I have done throughout my own career, e.g. here). For some people, men as well as women, training and working as a scientist is but one phase in their lives. Undergraduate and then postgraduate qualifications, and the fixed-term postdoctoral research contracts that may follow, can represent entirely sensible steps on a winding pathway that eventually leads away from a career in science altogether. The value of those steps is not diminished by subsequent choices, but the quality of that later life may nevertheless be greatly enhanced by what went before. As examples, I can cite career destinations for these talented women scientists which include voluntary work as a tax advisor, senior school science and mathematics teachers, a university professor, a laser specialist in a national laboratory, a university science outreach officer, a senior company executive*, … An important caveat I must add here is that a person’s life surely ought not be defined on the basis of work or career alone, or perhaps even primarily on that basis (speaking as one now ‘retired’): we are all worth more than that.

And finally, for something incompletely different (noting the abuse of a much-loved Monty Python phrase) take a look at this post on a vaguely topical subject: ‘Girls Explain Star Wars To You’ – however, be warned, it contains spoilers for the new film ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’.

* see here – which, amongst other things, is currently engaged on a project for CERN building the machines that will be used to build the next generation ALICE detector. This respondent, who graduated with a richly-deserved PhD in 1993, also recommended some pertinent reading, which I here forward: ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman. 

Earlier posts in this particular series:
1) The Girt Pike – beginnings and transitions.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences.
3) Nomadic Research: random walk or purposeful journey? – a timeline in research.
4) Tools of the Trade – instruments and gadgets.
5) Suitcase Science: travelling in hope – tales from a travelling scientist.