Monday, September 2, 2013

Blazing the Trail 1 - Perseverance

I am currently reading Blazingthe Trail: Essays by Leading Women in Science edited by Emma Ideal and Rhiannon Meharchand. The inspiration for this book came at the Fourth IUPAP International Conference on Women in Physics in South Africa in April 2011. At that conference there was a presentation about the book  Lilivati’s Daughters: the Women Scientists of India, which is a collection of essays about female physicists in India. Ideal and Meharchand decided to produce a similar book about women physicists in the United States. Blazing the Trail consists of thirty-five short essays by women working in physics or related areas. Rather than try to review the whole book I am going to record my thoughts as I read.

The first thought to strike me was the importance of perseverance. The author of the first essay, Christine Aidala, describes how she started graduate school immediately after finishing her bachelor’s degree but dropped out quite quickly and travelled for a while. Eventually she decided she wanted to get back into research. She tried to find a suitable position using her contacts from her undergraduate days without any luck but eventually found a suitable research position, completed a Ph.D. and is now in a tenure-track position in a university. There are two points here. First, you do not have to follow one route into research. You can recover from apparent disasters. Second, when you are looking for a position the chances are that most of the opportunities you pursue will not work out. Keep trying. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

All it takes is hard work?

Recently I had an interesting juxtaposition  of experiences.

The first was attending a meeting at which some women scientists, all in academia, spoke. They all agreed that hard work, being passionate about what you do and following your dream were the keys to success. I felt a bit uncomfortable with that as I know many women who worked hard, were passionate about what they did and followed their dream and are no longer scientists, at least in the sense of being actively engaged in research. During questions at the end they were asked if women are at a disadvantage when it comes to careers in science. 'No, no' they all agreed, ignoring the accumulated data. In fact, they unanimously claimed, if anything being a woman was an advantage, since women are more visible.

The other was reading Claude Steele's book WhistlingVivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. (The title comes from the experience of a young black man. He found that people often reacted to him with fear until he started whistling classical music. The act of whistling classical music was enough to replace the stereotype 'violent young black man' with the stereotype 'educated individual'.) Claude Steele is the discoverer of the phenomenon of stereotype threat, in which being a member of a group that is stereotypically thought to be worse at some task can reduce performance on that task. One of the phenomena he describes in Whistling Vivaldi is what he calls 'over-efforting'. Essentially this describes students who fail to use effective strategies, presumably from a desire to prove themselves as individuals. One example he discusses is a notoriously difficult course that was required for entry into medical school. Many students would audit the course in one year and take if for credit the next or find ways of substituting a different course. However, while white and Asian students were happy to use these strategies, many black students would insist on taking on the course for credit even when, from the point of view of getting into medical school, it would have been strategically better to withdraw and either take it for credit the following year or substitute a different course. This led Steele, who is black, to question the advice he received from his parents that the key to success was hard work. He goes on to discuss an interesting experiment performed by O'Brien and Crandall ( A standard way of testing for stereotype threat is to have two groups sit a test. For one group membership of a particular group is made relevant; for the other, membership of that group is minimised. For example, if a group for which gender has been made relevant sit a maths test then the women tend to do worse that the men whereas if the group has been told that gender is not relevant then men and women perform the same. What O'Brien and Crandall did was have the groups do an easy maths test and a difficult maths test. Making gender relevant actually improved women's performance relative to men on the easy maths test but made women's performance worse on the difficult maths test. Steele suggests that responding to challenges by working hard is a successful strategy up to a point but fails when the challenges become more difficult.

The question this juxtaposition of experiences raised in my mind was: what should the message we give young women be? Should it be 'Work hard and you can achieve anything'? Or, should it be 'These are the potential difficulties and here are some strategies to get round them'?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Evaluating Women in STEM Interventions

When I started working for WiSETI in Cambridge in 2003 I was employed to work on a project specifically aimed at increasing the number of women applying for positions in science and engineering. At that time I thought that evaluating such a project would be easy. We knew what the proportion of applicants for lecturing positions who were female was before the project started. All we would need to do would be to monitor the proportion of applicants who were female during and after the project and see if it increased. As the project progressed I came to see this expectation as being very naïve.

The problems are:
  1. Small numbers. How do you know whether an observed increase is due to the intervention or just a random fluctuation?
  2. If you aggregate data from different departments are you doing it in a meaningful way? You expect more applications from women for a position in Botany than for one in Computer Science. It could even be that some areas within a subject have more women than others.
  3. Measures are not evenly applied across departments. Some departments are enthusiastic and follow advice, some are enthusiastic but do their own thing, some are not enthusiastic but go through the motions and some are not enthusiastic and ignore advice. (And these descriptions are points along a continuum, not categories.)
  4. Other relevant variables change during the course of the project – legislation changes, policies change, heads of department and departmental administrators retire and are replaced, and new nurseries open. It is impossible to be sure that you are comparing apples with apples.
  5. Is the proportion of job applicants who are female even the right quantity to monitor? What matters in the end is how many women are appointed. Does increasing the number of female applicants from say 5 out of 35 to say 10 out of 40 actually increase the likelihood that a woman is appointed? Or does it just mean that five extra women have devoted a considerable amount of their precious time to writing a job application and another group of people have had to spend their time reading them? If relatively few women are applying for lecturing positions in STEM does this mean that women are establishing themselves as independent researchers and then not applying for academic positions or does it mean that they are not establishing themselves as independent researchers and hence qualifying for the academic positions in the first place? Is it that women lack confidence and hence don’t apply for positions? Or is it that women tend to be time poor and therefore less likely to spend some of that precious time applying for a job unless they think they have a reasonable chance of success? If women are less likely to apply for a job for which they are qualified than men are, is the solution necessarily to persuade women to behave more like men?

So, even a project with relatively well-defined objectives is not necessarily straightforward to evaluate.

If you are trying to decide how to most effectively deploy available resources to achieve the best effect then you also need to take into account what resources were devoted to the project. When you are estimating the resources used by a project do you take into account time effectively donated to the project? How do you compare a project that has a positive effect on a small fraction of participants but can be delivered to a large number of people with a project that makes a difference to most of its participants but can be delivered to only a few people?

There are a lot of questions here. I would really like to see some rigorous discussion of how interventions are evaluated, provided, of course, that this is not at the expense of actually doing something.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Motherhood and Career

Over Christmas, one of the books I read was ‘Reading Women: how the great books of feminism changed my life’ by Stephanie Staal. Staal grew up taking it for granted that women could have professional careers. She went to college, worked and then did a Masters degree in journalism before working as a reporter and writing a book. The she got married and had a baby. She took a pragmatic decision to switch to freelance work, taking into account her working hours as a journalist and the costs of childcare. Eventually as she struggled to find the time and the energy to work she started to feel that she was losing her identity as a professional with a career. Then one day she was in a book shop and picked-up Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’, which was published in 1963 and helped spark the feminist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. She found that she now understood what Friedan was writing about in a way that she did not when she read the book an undergraduate. Eventually she decided to repeat ‘Feminist Texts’, an introductory survey of the major feminist works, at her alma mater, Barnard College, in New York, in order to see whether  they would help her find a way forward.

The book interweaves her thoughts as she reads through and discusses the texts with her own experiences and, if nothing else, provides a quick introduction to feminist thought over the centuries.

A passage that particularly caught my attention was in a discussion of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Virginia Woolf famously proposed that in order to engage in creative activities like writing a woman needs a room of her own and a personal income of £500 a year. Staal writes:

Crowded into an urban apartment, working to regain my professional footing, keeping watch of a young child, I thought about Virginia Woolf’s conditions for female creativity. If I had the money – five hundred pounds converted into U.S. currency and adjusted for inflation, of course – and a room of my own, which I sort of had here by the kitchen, was that really all it would take? My daughter pounded on the door of my home office. “Mommy? Mommy? Mommy?” I stopped typing. The words of the sentence I had been writing scattered, the muse frightened away. I swung open the door in a motion of irritation. And there stood my daughter, holding out to me a piece of paper with a poem she had written, her expression serious and proud.“Mommy,” she said, “I wrote this for you.”

That seemed to me to sum up the dilemma that women face one we have children. Yes, we want to use our intelligence and education but we also want to have time to spend with our children. I do not believe that there is a universal right answer. It depends on your health, the health of your children, the support available from family or networks of friends, cultural and religious background, how much you earn, how much your partner earns, whether childcare is available and many other things. But, if organisations seriously want to retain women then they need to support whatever works for individual women, whether it is working full time (depends on access to childcare, school holiday programmes, after-school programmes), working part time (without prejudice to career prospects) or taking a career break (depends on support for returners). This should not be seen as a luxury but as essential for retaining the best people.

I also think we who have experience of combining career and children also need to be more willing to talk about what it is really like. Not just the constantly feeling that whatever it is you are doing you ought to be doing something else but the feeling that an identity that has been important to you as a professional is becoming submerged.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Guide and Inspire

I am back blogging again after a break.

Last week I arrived back from a trip to the UK and in the pack of held mail left by the Post Office I found my November Toastmasters magazine. In it was an article called ‘Dare to Delegate’ by Judith E. Pearson. The first thing that struck me in this article was the sentence

‘Since Toastmasters leaders cannot hire or fire, they must instead guide and inspire.’

Toastmasters is a voluntary organisation so indeed leaders cannot hire and fire but many universities are in a similar position in that it is difficult to compel academics to do anything.

The second is the importance of appealing to people’s needs and values.

Some academics may see gender equality as an important value in itself, consistent with a commitment to fairness, others may see it as benefitting their institution, and there are some for whom the only effective appeal is to self-interest, for example, not following the rules can lead to wasting time, energy and money in sorting out the consequent mess.

You do not have to be in a recognised leadership position to promote gender equality but if you want to be effective then “guide and inspire” and tailor your message to the recipients actual needs and values and not to what you think they ought to be.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Transforming Organizations

In a previous post I wrote about Teresa Rees’s description of three approaches to gender equality: tinkering, tailoring and transforming. Transforming is the process of modifying structures and processes to embrace diversity. Embedding change frequently requires us to address the unspoken assumptions and beliefs that underlay previous behaviour. This process is sometimes called ‘culture change’. There are layers of culture (see, for example, Cathy Trower’s presentation at the Third Annual Georgia Tech NSF ADVANCE Conference 2004:
-        Structures and processes, with the additional complication that what actually happens may differ from what is laid down in an organisation’s policies and procedures.
-        Rhetoric – what people say.
-        Underlying assumptions and beliefs.

The first step in transforming an organisation is to reflect on what sort of organisation you have. An initiative that may have been very successful in one organisation may be a complete flop in another. In Understanding Organizations Charles Handy identifies four cultures: power, role, task and people oriented. This is not a unique way of classifying organizations but it has the merit of being simple and easy to relate to personal experience. Each culture has its strengths and weaknesses. Whether a culture is appropriate or not depends on the environment the organisation is in.

The power culture depends on a small group or a single person who controls a central source of power.  Organizations with this culture can react quickly but may move in the wrong direction. They are often vulnerable to the loss of a key individual. These organisations tend to have few rules and procedures. According to Handy an organisation of this type ‘depends on trust and empathy for its effectiveness and on telepathy and personal conversation for communication.’

The role culture is more commonly referred to as a bureaucracy. Bureaucracy has negative connotations. As Handy notes: “No one, it seems, approves of bureaucracy except, interestingly, lots of people in organisations who like to know where they stand, what they have to do, who is in charge and what the rules are.” Role cultures are characterized by procedures, e.g. job descriptions and procedures for communications, and rules. Such organizations do well in stable environments but are slow to react to change. They tend to value roles and processes over the individuals who perform them but do offer security and predictability.

The task culture is focussed on completing a particular job or task. The strategy is to bring together teams of people with appropriate expertise and resources to accomplish a specific task. Individuals have control over their work and are judged by results. Overall control largely lies in allocating projects and resources as day-to day decisions have to be made by the individuals concerned. Organisations of this type tend to be flexible.

In the person culture the individual is central, as Handy puts it: “If there is a structure or an organization it exists only to serve and assist the individuals within it.” Handy’s metaphor for its structure is “a galaxy of individual stars”. Although few organizations retain such a culture since organizational goals are eventually imposed on individuals, there are individual people with this orientation, usually people with highly specialised expertise. Handy notes that such people “often feel little allegiance to the organization but regard it rather as a place to do their thing with some accruing benefit to the main employer.” Managing such individuals is not easy as many of the sources of power are ineffective.

The point of looking at a classification such as this is not to shoehorn any particular organisation into one particular category but to provide a basis for understanding what ways of influencing people are likely to be effective. To people in a role culture the fact that someone perceived to be in authority has made up a rule that something should be done is seen as sufficient reason for doing it. To someone who is oriented towards a person culture the fact that someone generally perceived to be in authority has made up a rule that something should be done may be seen as irrelevant. What are the preferred means of communication? There is little point in sending out a memo if people prefer personal communication.

Tensions can arise within organizations such as universities when different groups have different cultures. University bureaucracies (e.g. finance, human resources) inevitably tend to be bureaucratic while many academics incline to the person or ‘galaxy of individual stars’ culture. Individual research groups may have a power culture with the PI who brings in the money exercising the power. Each of these cultures has their own, usually unspoken, underlying beliefs. Efforts to bring about change in the way a university handles diversity fail if they do not take these differing beliefs into account.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Inappropriate Behaviour

Recently Athene Donald blogged about two situations: a male colleague speaking to her on the phone told her that he could hear she was getting emotional and her experience at a reception after an event when a complete stranger put his arm around her waist when a photographer appeared. FemaleScienceProfessor also blogged about her experience as the only female member of a working group when a senior professor in the group mentioned, twice, that she was only included in the group as a gesture to diversity. FemaleScienceProfessor described her response, which was to ignore the remark and move the business of the group forward. There were a range of responses to these posts, many offering suggestions for ripostes in these situations, ranging from the manipulative to 'forgive and forget'.

I am from a cultural background that does not encourage physical contact. I think my own reaction to arm-draping behaviour would have depended on the stage of my career. As a very early career scientist I think my reaction would have been 'So this is what people do at this type of event'. That may also have been the conclusion drawn by my male collaegues. Later on, pre-assertiveness training, I think I would have thought something along the lines of 'I am not comfortable with this but I'll probably never see the guy again so why make a fuss'. After five years exhorting other people to use assertive responses I hope my response would be to move away, saying something like 'I would prefer you didn't do that. It makes me feel uncomfortable'. Assertive responses are not always appropriate. They rely on the person you are interacting with reacting rationally. If they are focussed on 'winning' the encounter this may not be the case. (The Harvard Business Review, May 2008, has an interesting study by Deepak Malhotr, Gillian Ku and J.Keith Murnighan on how competitive arousal leads to poor decision making.)

In general, how you respond to instances of remarks along the lines of 'you are getting emotional' or 'you are only on this committee because we needed a woman' depends on the context. If you suspect that the speaker is trying to provoke a reaction then it may well be the best strategy to ignore his remarks. A humorous remark, if you can think of one, may well be a good response if you think the speaker is just being thoughtless. 'I'll ignore that remark' may be a way of taking control without making too much fuss. Clearly, no one should be expected to object to every single belittling remark. There are circumstances in which it is better to stay focussed on the matter in hand.

In a comment on Athene's post, Dorothy Bishop mentioned 'an incident where everything hinged on whether or not a male academic had sleazy intent in an interaction with a female colleague', (more information on her blog).Here is a definition of inappropriate behaviour taken from the dignity@work policy of the University of Cambridge:
...behaviour is defined as inappropriate if it is:
Unwanted by the recipient.
Perceived by the recipient as violating his or her dignity and/or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
Having regard to all the circumstances, including the recipient's perception, the behaviour could reasonably be considered as having that effect.
There is nothing in this definition about the intentions of the person whose behaviour is in question. The focus is entirely on its effect on the recipient. Of course, the intentions of the person accused of inappropriate behaviour are relevant to what actions are taken to resolve the issue but they are not relevant to the question of whether inappropriate behaviour has, in fact, occurred. What sort of behaviour might be regarded as inappropriate? One scenario, from diversity awareness training material, involves a group of three people, two men and one woman. One of the men tells a joke that hinges on a comparison between a woman with pre-menstrual tension and a terrorist.(I don't remember the joke. It wasn't particularly funny, though I didn't think it was offensive either.) One of the implications of this definition of inappropriate behaviour is that there are bound to be grey areas where some people see behaviour as violating someone's dignity and others do not. This is why people should be encouraged to be able to say when someone's behaviour makes them feel uncomfortable and people who find they have inadvertently given offence to apologise and stop doing it rather than become defensive. No one wants to invoke their institution's formal dignity@work process every time someone makes an unfortunate remark.

What can institutions do to help? We should not be relying on the recipients of inappropriate behaviour or the efforts of a few individuals to address this issue. A common intervention is compulsory training. The problem with this option is that it can end up being counter-productive leading to a culture in which treating people with respect is perceived as enforced political correctness and making inappropriate behaviour more likely and harder for the recipients to deal with as they have to transgress group norms to do so. Macho 'zero tolerance' policies have the disadvantage that often no one is clear what it is that is not tolerated. Also, the problem tends to be framed  as identifying and punishing offenders, which can be a barrier to people seeking help with a difficult situation if what they want to achieve is a resolution that is acceptable to everyone.

Institutions should recognize that staff and students come from a variety of different backgrounds and encourage departments to find ways of promoting appropriate behaviour. It could be as simple as the PI of a group sitting down at morning tea and saying 'I heard about this incident' (making sure it is fictional or anonymised), asking for suggestions on how to deal with it and making sure people understand why someone might find a particular behaviour inappropriate in a professional context, what they should do if they are the recipient of inappropriate behaviour, what they should do if someone suggests their behaviour is inappropriate, and why it is important. Apart from the fact that most of us would prefer workplaces in which people are treated with respect, tolerating inappropriate behaviour leads to lost productivity, attrition of good staff and students, and, if allowed to escalate, to the loss of large amounts of time and energy in pursuing formal complaints procedures.

Finally, do professional bodies have a role in promoting appropriate behaviour and appropriate responses to inappropriate behaviour? Following two high profile cases of data fabrication in 2002, the American Physical Society surveyed (Physics Today, November 2004) its members to find out the state of ethics education and how ethical issues were addressed in practice within physics. A clear majority of members who had held a Ph.D. for less than three years felt that American Physical Society ethics statements should be broadened to include treatment of subordinates. In response the American Physical Society added a statement to its Code of Ethics that subordinates should be treated with respect and with concern for their well−being. This includes the responsibility of supervisors to mentor students, postdoctoral researchers, and employees with respect to intellectual development, professional and ethical standards, and career guidance. Could other professional bodies do more to promote high standards of behaviour in the workplace?