Sunday, 22 April 2012

Should women fail?

It seems that we are all imposters. Judging by the comments on Athene Donald’s excellent blog on the subject, it appears that many of us feel, not so secretly, like fakes in our professional lives. Scicurious also argues that it might be welcome if senior scholars, especially women, felt able to admit to their failures and didn't seem to need always to look like perfect, successful academic exemplars. Her argument, which is a convincing one, is that if those in senior positions could be seen to have feet of clay, then it would make them seem more real, and as a result easier to emulate for those earlier in their careers. This makes a lot of sense, after all, which of us, really, is perfect? We all fail; we all doubt ourselves and feel that we are not doing as well as we ought to be. Some of us feel that most of the time, however it might look on the outside, it's just that in academia we don't like to admit it. The projects that go sideways are the ones about which we publish little or nothing, thus the illusion remains in place.

However, much as I'd like to follow her recommendations and go round admitting to everyone about how useless at my job I regard myself as being, I think that there is a real problem about this for women in senior, or leadership positions. The sad fact is that numerous studies have suggested that women actually do have to be better at a given task than men before most people will regard their efforts as equal (the multipliers vary according to studies, but it seems to be about three times) When women scientists, for example, apply for jobs or promotion they need more publications than men for their CVs to be rated equally, but often actually publish less, for various perfectly legitimate reasons. When letters of reference are written men tend to be described in more positive terms, and more active, assertive descriptions are given of their virtues. Even if a woman, trying, perhaps unconsiously to make up for these disadvantages, is assertive in a job interview, she is likely to be perceived negatively compared to a man. If a woman and a man in a leadership position act in the same way, one is likely to be perceived as decisive, positive and acting as a leader: the other tends to be regarded as a bossy, bitchy termagant. Guess which gender tends to get the negative reviews. This is horrifying, but it seems that studies are well founded and can be replicated. I’ve only linked to a selection- sadly there are plenty more, and the more you read, the grimmer the picture gets.

How could this happen? Well, it is a truism that the most effective espionage works by convincing people of something that they were already disposed to believe. Thus, in World War II it was possible for the allies to convince the Germans that the D-Day landings would happen in the Pas de Calais, because this seemed the most obvious location. I fear, therefore, that there is a deeply-rooted belief in our society, on the part or many women as well as men, that women simply are less good at things, especially being leaders or being truly excellent in their chosen career or craft, than men. Even most women want to work for a male boss, after all.

As a result therefore I am very chary, as a senior woman in a leadership position, of admitting in public to any failures, doubts or weaknesses. It seems to me that what follows from the findings of such studies is that if a senior male admits to doubts or failures, he will be regarded as charmingly modest- a trait of which I actually do approve. But if a woman in the same position says the same things, I fear that most people will believe her simply because she is female. There are also very few people of either gender who are so successful that there is nobody left to impress- university senior management, research funders, academic peers etc. Thus we still need to big ourselves up to create a good impression, however distasteful an activity we may find this.

Also, and admitting this may make me sound unutterably sad, I have always rather liked the people I work for, and my academic heroes to be just that: people I admire, look up to, and actually regard as slightly super-human, rather that rubbish like me. If someone who is managing me admits to doubt, failure or weakness it tends to make me feel a bit anxious- after all, if they don't feel they are in charge, then who is? If someone who is very successful, can't do something, what hope have I of managing it? Also, as I have written elsewhere, I am rather wedded to the ideal of being a swan: grace under pressure is always more impressive, in my opinion, than loud, panicky splashing.

I am aware however this does not help the next generation of academic women to progress in their careers or to feel that they do not have to emulate what is an unrealistic standard. After all, the studies I've referred to above suggest that we are all doing that already- trying to be three times better than men, just to be regarded as equal. What therefore can be done? Given the societal prejudices that appear to exist I think it's too early for women to go round admitting loudly and publicly to doubts and failure. Such things are, perhaps, better dealt with between consenting adults in private; with close colleagues, academic friends, between mentor and mentee. It follows, therefore, that if you are an early career woman, and you want to know what it really takes to climb that proverbial greasy pole, and how we really feel about doing so, you may just have to make friends with someone more senior than you, be they male or female. In doing so you might just gain a powerful ally and mentor with whom to share the successes as well as the tougher times.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Encomium modestiae: or big up dissed

Someone asked me recently what I admire in people senior to me.I barely had to think about it: I admire people who work hard, are very successful at what they do, but are also modest about it. There is nothing more becoming in an academic with a global reputation than being understated about their achievements. When I think back to the people I respected as a student or early career scholar, people with that attitude were the ones I wanted to emulate. They were the people who you wanted to be taught by, whose books you read, who you wanted to become: everyone knew how good they were- the last thing they had to do was say so themselves. I still feel that way, really.

The problem is that understated modesty is out of fashion in the university of today. We are forever having to write things about how wonderful we are at this, world-leading at that, excellent at another thing. If I'm not doing that for my department or for UCLDH, as HoD I am writing recommendations, references, nominations or reading drafts of such things for others. The aim appears to be for the subject to big themselves up until they sound like a the most remarkable academic paragon of recent history. It gets extremely wearing, all this big up.

It's even worse when I have to do it for myself. Writing about my own career for my application for a chair really was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do, even if that other unpleasant ritual of professorial big up, the inaugural, comes a close second; but I have written far too much about that already. In comparison, writing grant applications, articles for top journals, proposals for conferences that reject 2/3rd of papers were as nothing. The whole process took months, and numerous rewrites in response to the criticism from almost everyone who read it, that I had been too modest. Not enough big up in other words.

Is it just me, or does anyone else long for the end of big up? It's an ugly phrase and, I think, an unlovely concept. It's symptomatic of a culture, if one can call it that, in which currencies keep being inflated because nobody can bear the idea that some universities might be more equal than others. The government thought that only the top Russell Group universities would charge £9,000 fees, but almost everyone has, for fear of being thought a lesser institution than their rivals. The Roberts report that first proposed the new RAE/REF quality profiles suggested that 4* would be exceedingly rare. The idea was that such a grade indicated a truly world leading scholar, and, logically it follows that not every university would have one in each unit of assessment- the world leader in that discipline might not work in the UK, and thus nobody would be given that grade at all. This now seems laughable: at UCL, as at other top research universities, the expectation is that every member of staff must produce outputs at 3* or, better, 4*. Even if only half of us manage it, that still implies that we have 2000 genuinely world leading scholars here, some of us working in the same fields. It is, of course, a logical impossibility according to the original intention but it all comes from this big up culture where nobody is allowed just to be good at what they do any more: even excellent is a little disappointing.

The problem is money of course. The reason we have to write all these things is promotion, prizes, grants, REF (and thus research funding), in which we are competing with others, or at least matching ourselves against criteria. Thus being modest and claiming simply to do a good job will not work if our competitors choose to, as it were, exaggerate a little. How else is money, or preferment to be handed out? I suppose in the old days the way to decide such things was by patronage; knowing the right people, being a good chap, being one of us. As a woman from a very ordinary background I can hardly feel confident that I would have achieved what I have under that kind of arrangement. Thus, perhaps big up is not the worst option.

Becoming as it is for people to be charmingly self-deprecating, it's also a very good way to do themselves down. I've recently been in a couple of situations where someone's reluctance to big themselves up has harmed their prospects. It's rather
like examining a PhD: if the candidate doesn't demonstrate that they know the literature, you can't assume that they do, even though it's probably the case. At least in that situation there is a viva in which such doubts can be answered. There are no second chances in a lot of the cases where big up is called for. If you are part of a large competition people assessing your case may not know you or be from an entirely different field, and thus not understand what you do. You have, therefore, to explain why what you have done, or intend to do, is important, excellent, worthy of their notice. Once you find yourself on the other side of the divide, where you are the one assessing, not just writing or supporting the applications, you begin to realise that what, to the individual making the case, feels like boasting, reads to the assessor simply as explanation.

It appears, therefore, that in the university world big up may be a necessary evil; perhaps the age of modesty, like that of miracles, is past. It may be that it's ugly but necessary. Nothing, though, will ever make me like it.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

J'ai deux amours

On Monday evening I was in one of my favourite bistros in Paris and suddenly I found myself thinking 'My father would have liked this.' Maybe he would have done: according to what I have been told he was a francophone, francophile, foodie, before he latter term had been invented. But that's the thing; I have to go by what I have been told, because my father died when I was nine, having had a serious illness that changed his personality for two years before that. So in effect I have a seven year old's view of him. Those of you who have or have had seven year old children, or can remember what it was like to be one, may see the problem with this. How much can someone of that age really understand what an adult is like?

The odd thing is that I know nobody else whose parent died when they were a child: it must be very rare these days, or maybe everyone feels the same strange sense of shame as I do, so doesn't want to discuss it. When you're a child people talk in hushed tones about how you 'lost' your father: I wonder whether, as a result, I learned to feel ashamed of having been so careless. But, for whatever reason, there are not many of us about, it seems, so I don't know whether my experience is at all typical. But it came to me that I would sell my soul just to have one adult conversation with my father. Perhaps others of the early-bereft may feel the same.

There are so many things I long to know: whether he really did love the same wine as me (or whether I've made myself do so, having heard of his preferences); whether I like Stolychnaya because as a teenager I found a long-extinct bottle of his at the back of a cupboard. I'd love to know whether he, like me, would revel in the ambiance of a genuine Art Deco bistro, and what kind of food he'd like to eat there. I'd like to hear what kind of actresses he fancied, be told a slightly off-colour joke, bitchy story, salacious bit of gossip. I'd like to know about his mentors and the people he admired, and hear some stories about his career, how he grew up and his heroes. I'd like to know whether we'd disagree about politics, music, art: I think we would about religion. I'd like know what he was like when he'd drunk a little too much, to see him slightly the worse for wear the next morning, and threaten him with a fried breakfast, or find out whether he'd already have done the same to me. I'd like to talk about books and disagree about Dickens (I hear he loved him) I'd like to know what he thought about my life and what I have done with it, even if that caused a blazing row.

All of these things probably sound normal to grown-up people who managed not to mislay a parent in the process. But it's impossible for me to know what just one go at such normality might feel like, so I can't tell. I think, though, that it would be pretty good. Josephine Baker once sang 'J'ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris.' I agree, and I think my father probably would have too. But, in the end, there is no way of knowing.