Gosh, it’s been a while. The reason why I’m back is that I found a couple of bad feelings festering on my mind, again, and I think they need purging.

The first is a strong negative reaction I experienced when I considered applying to the UK Royal Society’s Dorothy Hodgkin’s Fellowship Scheme – a scheme specifically aimed at early-career scientists with a need for flexible support. Now, I agree with the principle that scientists with caring responsibilities, or those who have otherwise had their academic career affected by external factors, must have access to some way of leveling the playing field. This is simply because scientific excellence – or potential for excellence – is judged on the basis of productivity, or impact. We may argue endlessly about how to judge excellence, but I think it’s fair to say that, to first order, the development or manifestation of excellence is favoured by the passage of time. Thereby, those scientists who simply have had less time to devote to their scientific interests than what can be naively inferred from their C.V. should, absolutely, have the cause for such taken into consideration when applying for jobs, fellowships, prizes, etc. I also believe that any worker with an established need for flexible support and working patterns should never be denied it.

It seems to me however that, in separating their fellowship schemes the way it currently does (the other is the University Research Fellowship), the RS fails to level the field for those who need it, and seems to award flexible fellowships only to those who have a demonstrable need for such support at the time of application. The application process for the two schemes are in every way identical, with only a single exception – a statement, in the case of the DHF, that demonstrates the candidate’s need for flexible support at the time of application. Based on this, their application continues down the assessment route or not. The scheme notes state that this statement is only read by the Grant’s Office to establish eligibility – the assessment panel will assess each individual based on scientific merit only*.  Thereby, a candidate such as myself – expecting a child and wishing that working part-time for a couple of years was a viable option – will be judged alongside someone who, for example, has cared for a relative throughout their adult life. The playing field, I would argue, is far from being leveled. Furthermore, does this distinction mean that, if I were awarded a URF fellowship and, during the term of my fellowship I developed a need for flexible support, that I would be denied it? I.e., is flexible support exclusive to the DHF? And, if not, what is the point other than reducing the pool of candidates to a randomised and mostly female minority?

It would be a lot simpler (and more fair) for the RS, in a single fellowship scheme, to offer flexible support to all fellows as they develop this need , and to level the playing field amongst candidates by some other method (the European Research Council, for example, simply normalises one’s “career age” by taking into account caring commitments or illnesses). The current separation screams out the wrong message. From my personal perspective, it read: watch out – if you have children and start sharing your science time with these children you’ll put yourself at such a disadvantage that you’ll need to apply to these special schemes if you want to get anywhere. I was so overwhelmed by my negative reaction to this scheme  that I simply didn’t apply – generating some heated discussions with senior academics who saw me as being foolish. Apparently, I should be playing the game – it’s hard getting ahead for everyone, we should take what we get. No. Just no. I want to be judged against the complete pool of scientists out there, and I want to have access to flexible support when I need it, because I need it – not because I pass some eligibility criteria on a certain day of the year.

[BTW, I am very much open to the idea that I’m simply missing the point – I mean, there are very clever people who sit on RS committees who at some point decided this was the way forward. But so far nobody has successfully convinced me that this is the right way to support early-career scientists with special needs. As always, I would love to see my mind changed!]

My negative reaction to this – undoubtedly well-meaning! – scheme can be traced back to my aversion of repeatedly being told that I’m at a disadvantage because I’m a woman. And now doubly so that I’m expecting a child (I may actually snap at the next person who points out to me all the things I won’t be able to do once my baby is born). This brings me to the second event that ticked me off recently. I was sitting through a (again, well-meaning) talk that summarised  the Athena Swan initiative, in particular the needs that motivate it. I don’t know enough about the initiative and hold no strong opinion either way. What stroke me was the endless series of statistics that was thrown at me and at an audience of aspiring women in science that demonstrated our disadvantage in the academic world. It’s a fact, look. You, and you, and you – things WILL be harder for you because you have a vagina. And that, I’m afraid, is a fact (was the claim).

I mean – honestly – does anyone really think this is a good thing to drill on my mind? This brings me to the blogpost that prompted my own. Athene Donald today, although writing within a slightly different context, points out the following:

Telling girls explicitly that maths is meant to be hard appears to be exactly the worst kind of advice to give, as it will simply reinforce stereotype threat; this is that anxiety provoked by being asked to do something where there is a negative stereotype associated with your identity. Tell girls they can’t do maths and they will underperform in maths tests; tell white boys that Afro-Caribbean’s can run faster than them, and their time over 100m will be less than if they hadn’t been told.

And here it is – a term that expresses what I quite couldn’t when I first wrote about it two years ago: stereotype threat. And, two years on, let me make this once again absolutely clear: the only time I feel at a disadvantage is when I’m told that I am. There are many things that I believe do affect one’s career’s prospects: lack of self-confidence, lack of initiative or ‘networking skills’, different sets of priorities, etc. And we may argue, demonstrate even, that some of these personal attributes correlate with gender – but (let’s all say it as one) correlation is not causality. I can change my attitude, I can work hard at turning around my self-confidence, I can beat most of these statistics because I can change those things. But I can’t change the fact I’m a woman. The emphasis on so many of these talks/schemes is on the effect, not on the cause, and that’s what sits so uncomfortably with me. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I can only think of one potential cause for the increased gender gap with academic seniority that is potentially genuinely caused by gender, and that is gender bias. But the extent of this bias, in practice, is unknown – and I find it difficult to imagine it constitutes the main cause for the statistics that get thrown at me at every opportunity.

So let’s focus on the causes, not the effects. Don’t tell me that I’m less likely to land a job because I’m a woman, or that choices I may make with respect to caring responsibilities put me in a disadvantaged minority. Do tell me how to develop personal and professional skills that will enhance my chances of a successful academic career. Do tell me, if you must, that there is an increased probability that I may have to work harder at developing these skills because I’m a woman. And, by all means, please do support and lobby for flexible support in fellowships/postdocs/academic positions, and do find a way – start a debate – on how best to assess academic excellence in a way that is independent of caring responsibilities and other commitments.

But, for my own sake and yours – do not tell me I’m at a disadvantage because I was born a woman. I might never end writing these extremely long posts if you do….

* The exception, it seems, is in the case where two candidates are judged to be equal in scientific merit, but I presume this is very much the exception rather than the rule.

the road to somewhere better

I find myself with a quiet moment, with all my MacBook’s 4 cores purring away and a whole bunch of drafts submitted. This brings a sense of accomplishment that puts me in the right frame of mind to return to the issue of impostors syndrome.

First let me start by saying that I wasn’t expecting the response I got. The number of hits went through the roof and, through coincidence or not, a series of posts from fellow bloggers on the same issue rapidly followed, leading to a wider discussion of the subject than I’d ever anticipated. If I’m honest it scared me, and I stopped reading and replying to blog comments and posts. It seemed like everyone I knew was pulling me to the side, calling or emailing me, comforting me and sharing similar feelings to those I had shared online. There were good and bad things about it. The good is that I did feel comforted. The bad is that I felt truly exposed, and I simply wanted no more part of the public debate. In time that feeling subsided somewhat, and as I promised an update – here I am.

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the impostors amongst us

I’ve been debating about whether or not to write this post. It’s about the so called Impostor’s Syndrome. If you’re an academic, especially a PhD student, you’ve probably heard of it. It’s not something that happens only in academia, but something which I think academia exacerbates.

I’m not an expert, but I would describe it as a state of mind in which one does not attribute their own success to their own ability, but rather to luck, chance or clever trickery. It can result in severe feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, stemming from a constant fear of being ‘found out’ and it can lead to more serious clinical conditions, such as depression. After all, luck never lasts, and there’s only so much we can do to fool our peers into thinking we know what we’re talking about.

The reason why I’m bringing this up is because I identify with these symptoms, and they have recently become so severe I’ve actively started pursuing a career outside of academic research. Because I love research so much, being driven out by these feelings only increased my anxiety to the point I could no longer function as a normal person.

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a woman in science != women in science

I’ve been wanting to put my thoughts down on this matter for a while, so here goes. First, a little background: I’m a woman in science, but I hardly ever feel like I’m part of this Women in Science collective that is – rightly so – gaining weight (or at least has been given a voice) amongst the community. It’s an awkward position to be in, and this post is about just that.

The internet is awash with informative discussions and insights on gender biases and women issues within the academic world. If you take the time to read them you’ll find this is a serious issue, that this is driving many women away from an academic career, and that this is ultimately affecting the progress of science – not to mention these women’s lives! I feel sympathetic about this issue in principle, because I feel that everyone who is good at science should be able to pursue it as a career. But it’s a sort of distant sympathy, like that I feel for social mobility issues, or matters of social benefits.

I’ve never had to claim benefits (nor loose them), and I’ve never had to struggle with social mobility. Similarly, I’ve never had any hint, any smallest, tiniest affliction for being a woman in science. Never. The difference, of course, is that I am a woman, and I am a scientist.

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a different note of thanks

Today the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of Simon Singh, with respect to his now long-standing battle with the British Chiropractic Association (you can read the ruling here, and you know where to go on the t’interweb for lots of blogging and twittering about this).

I just wanted to write a public thank you note that is longer than 140 characters. The perseverance needed to battle this case for two years is not common-place. Simon didn’t have to fight this battle, but him doing so – at his own financial and personal expense – has resulted in great things for all of us. Not just the result today, but a Libel Reform campaign and a higher awareness of scientific issues in politics and in parliament can all be directly linked to Simon Singh’s courageous actions. It’s not over, but we wouldn’t be here if the man didn’t have some guts. So thanks Simon – we most definitely owe you one.

i’m with Sam

Before I start let me say a few words of caution. Firstly, I’m not in any way qualified to critic anyone on philosophical arguments. This means that if you’re undecided about this matter I would not recommend you seek enlightenment in this post – for the same reason as to why I wouldn’t recommend you read a lay person’s essay on galaxy evolution in order to decide between hierarchical and monolithic collapse theories . I’m also not here to defend Sam Harrisviews in light of other people’s criticisms – you should read those posts for that, plus Sam Harris’ reply. I’m writing this because I saw myself profoundly changing my mind about something that is important to me, and publicly exposing an argument is still the best way to find flaws in it. A test, if you will. To put it in other words, I’m writing this for my own benefit, not anyone else’s.

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I generally have little time to indulge too much in learning things which are not work related. I spend a lot of time not working (well, just enough!), but I spend only a small fraction of that time intellectually engaged in new ideas. This is not necessarily something I’m sad about – note that I’m excluding music, fiction, friends and general travel from this. That’s what takes up most of my free time – but I do find it harder and harder to sit down and actively learn. Again, note that I spend a lot of time reading about things and consuming information, but I’m generally happy to take other people’s opinions on most issues. Sure, I make an educated guess on who to trust (and that on itself takes some effort), but by large I don’t have the time to do the necessary research to (semi-)seriously challenge many of these opinions. It’s worth making the distinction between active and passive learning and, outside of work, my learning is decidedly dominated by the latter.

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