As you may have noticed, this blog hasn’t had many posts for a long time. In 2019 I left my academic post at the University of Reading in order to pursue new challenges. I now run my own businesses, Equasense (a diversity and inclusion consultancy) and SendThemSoaring (where I coach academics, researchers and scientists on career and personal development). Mostly I write blogs over on those sites these days, but I am keeping this one alive because: a) it’s got my crochet global warming blanket on it, b) it’s good to remember my former career of which I am very proud, and c) I may come back to writing more about general reflections here one day.
Life may not be a box of chocolates, but could it be a cup of tea?
The term “work-life” balance is much used and much-discussed. Many surveys and magazine articles discuss whether your “work-life balance” is as you want it to be. In our Athena SWAN applications (gender charter mark run by the Equality Challenge Unit) we are asked to discuss how the University is supporting “work-life balance”. Typically we talk about core hours, nursery care, and any family friendly policies we have.
However, many people object to the term “work-life balance” itself, and I can see why. Balance implies the two things are playing against each other… increase attention on one and the other must pay. How meaningful is it to imply that we are only alive outside of work? Many people are at least partially defined by the work that they do, or by their actions at work. Others are predominantly driven by the work that they do… and the term work-life balance somehow suggests that these people should “get a life”.
The alternative term work-life blend has been around for a while. The thinking behind the term is that in the modern world, with new technology etc, then for many people it is entirely possible to take care of some work things from home and some home things from work. Of course this isn’t possible for all roles… particularly those in the front line service industries, and manufacturing. The other reason for adopting this term is also that it removes the negative connotations of “balance”. With a “work-life blend” a much more diverse set of existences seems possible, all equally valid, and things are not in tension with one another in the same way (there are however only a limited number of hours in the day and therefore there must remain some tension!).
I have previously been rather resistant to the word “blend”. Perhaps it’s because I was thinking about it in terms of paint… if you mix lots of different paint colours together you inevitably end up with a murky mess that isn’t particularly enticing. I also worry that it means never being “off duty” from work, and I at least need to give my mind and body a change of scenery sometimes and find it hard enough to be properly “present” at times outside work as it is.
However, I might be changing my mind. Last night was our Edith Morley lecture given by Karen Blackett, OBE, CEO of media.com. She spoke about having “banned” the term “work-life balance” in her company, using instead, “work-life blend”. Uh-oh, I thought. I’m not sure I can buy that. But then Karen talked about having 6 well defined and non-negotiable strands to your blend, for example fulfilment at work, effective parenting, and such like, and using this to discuss your working practices with managers etc.
And this morning I thought of a new description for “blend” – a careful combination of different ingredients that are not subsumed by each other but together make up something delicious and supporting. In other words… my favorite English Breakfast tea!
This week my job share in the role of Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, Simon Chandler-Wilde, and I have been doing the first of several discussion sessions for staff at University of Reading. We are presenting our initial plans for making our University more diverse and inclusive and asking for feedback on proposed actions to get towards the Diversity and Inclusion targets recently agreed by our University Executive Board (such as increase in women in professorial roles and better representation of women and BAME staff on strategic decision making committees).
One question we got asked was… “you obviously chose to apply for these roles, so what got you into it?”. Here is the answer I gave, the first parts of which I have said before, but the final part I only realised when answering the question!
One of my core values is enabling people to reach their full potential. I have always mentored formally and informally and I love teaching. As a Head of Department I was responsible for career and personal development of academic and research staff. The most joyful parts of my job have been hearing that people have got the degree, new job, promotion or publication that they really deserved. I have literally jumped up and down in my office on several occasions. So a role in promoting and driving diversity and inclusion is very closely aligned to my core values.
I also have a sort of history of challenging gender stereotypes albeit in a parochial way:
When I was 7 I asked my Dad why only boys were allowed to sing in the church choir (he was in it himself). He told me to ask the vicar, who didn’t have a defensible answer (arguments are sometimes made about the different tonal quality of boys voices compared to girls but this was not a high cathedral choir). So two of us joined and pretty soon the number of junior choristers soared now that they could access the talent of the girls.
When I was 12 my male physics teacher told me that girls didn’t do physics. When people tell me I can’t do something, that tends to motivate me to do exactly that (within the confines of socially acceptable behaviour and without breaking laws obviously). Later on, when I told the careers advisor that I wanted to do physics at university, he said “well I suppose you could be a teacher”. I AM a teacher of sorts but I don’t think this is what he had in mind!
My first (and possibly only) bit of direct campaigning so far concerned the fact that at the boys school in our town they were allowed to study for 10 GCSEs whilst us girls were only allowed to do 8 subjects. To their credit, the school arranged for our Head mistress to teach a class of 6 of us French every morning before school so that we could do 9 subjects, which was a big commitment, but I was never given a satisfactory answer as to why we couldn’t do the same number in the first place.
I have told those stories before. But yesterday it also struck me that there has been another driver in recent years. Having children exposes you to all sorts of gender stereotypes about working parents, mothers versus fathers etc. However, it’s when my children started school, in a primary school that serves a catchment area with great diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, socio-economic background and relationship with education, that I really became aware of some of my own biases. Not only that, but I realised that many of my children’s friends will not have the opportunities that they should have because of various biases, be that relating to gender, race or socio-economic background. Of course at University we see the product of these biases in that students from different backgrounds face additional challenges in applying to, being accepted at and progressing through their courses.
So I took this job in the hope that I can do something, in a small way, to ensure that all my children’s classmates get the opportunities they deserve. The University is my home environment so I start here, but I am now starting to be able to use the learning from this role to challenge my own biases and the behaviour in the School too.
There is one thing that never fails to raise my work mood – taking a coffee or lunch break with my colleagues. Sometimes the talk is about work, and sometimes not. It usually involves laughter – which is of course a powerful mood elevator. Occasionally there is a mutual rant about something which is cathartic. After these breaks I am often overwhelmed with gratitude for the presence of my colleagues – it’s one reason why I could never work totally from home. However, I don’t take these breaks as often as I should and whilst digging around in the files on my laptop I found something I wrote along similar lines following a work visit to Stockholm in September, but never got around to posting. Having just had a mood-enhancing coffee break, now seems like a good time.
“Fika” is a very important event in the Swedish day, and means “to take a coffee break, usually with something sweet like a cinnamon bun, with your colleagues, friends, family or date”. At my research panel meetings in Stockholm this week, we have had fika at 10am and 3 pm. My Swedish colleagues started getting twitchy around 9.45 and were noticeably watching the clock obsessively to see where to stop the discussion in order to have fika – there was no question of missing it! Our fika had small bread rolls with cheese or turkey and salad in them alongside the strong coffee. I have absolutely no idea how most of the Swedes I have met seem to be so slim and healthy looking given this fika habit, but I suspect the nature of the food has something to do with it. The combination of protein and carbohydrate in the morning meant that I didn’t get the usual sugar rollercoaster from having sweet biscuits. Although cake was available at the afternoon “fika”, this was alongside little pots of fresh fruit salad, which were really refreshing. It was also noticeable that largely the conversations had during fika were little to do with our meeting. It seems that fika is truly a coffee “break”. I think we returned to work 15 minutes later, benefiting from having had a break from the business at hand. Swedish colleagues described it as crucial for building and maintaining relationships with their teams at work by having a short but regular opportunity to get to know what else is going on in people’s lives.
Back in the UK, our coffee area is in an open plan area next to the desks of our PhD students. When we moved over here 2 years ago (good grief), we discussed how to manage this and effectively designated “fika” times when it was acceptable to have some chat over coffee or food, giving the PhD students the freedom to object to noise outside those times. So in theory we have the opportunity to do “fika” in the same way. However, only a few people are there every day and if I’m honest I rarely make it. Perhaps this is because our time is 11am and I am usually hungry and desperate for caffeine by 10 so I have mine at my desk early and then don’t feel like stopping again until lunch time. But, after this week I am more convinced of the wider benefit of a shared and regular “fika” so I think I will try to encourage it and attend it more. Especially as we have new folks on the upper floor of our building and it would be good to get together often. Now, who can I persuade to make some tasty treats?
Clearly I haven’t yet managed to achieve a regular “fika” here, but perhaps it’s time to try again.
Did you know that eating 135g of brazil nuts gives you the same dose of radiation as one dental x-ray? Nope, me neither. Clearly this is an example of good science communication because it has stuck with me long after I heard it in a conference session this morning.
I have spent the day at the Science Communication Conference 2014 of the British Science Association. It’s my first time at this meeting, and I’m really enjoying thinking about this aspect of my role. The key note presentation by Mat Lock (@matlock) of storythings.com described the world of digital attention, and discussed the importance of trying to relax about transgression – the lack of control that you have when and how other people share your tweets or blog posts. He emphasised that in fact, we need transgression to get our stories told to a wide audience, and that what we need to do is to develop new skill akin to comedians dealing with hecklers. Relevant to my aspirations concerning science writing, he also emphasised that the only way to be successful in the digital world is to put lots of things out there.
The importance of getting on and doing it was also emphasised in the science writing workshop by Jon Tennant (@protohedgehog), who pointed out that the only way to learn is to write, and to see what feedback you get. In that workshop we got to consider which stories might be most attractive to different audiences, and to practice converting an article abstract to a summary for the general public. We also then critiqued someone else’s attempt and got feedback on our efforts. The session on “communicating risk” was full of examples directly relevant to my research – climate change, floods and even black carbon made an appearance. I was reminded of the importance of understanding when framing is being used to present numbers ( the difference between saying “it could be as high as” compared to “it is very unlikely to be more than”. The difference between relative and absolute risk was brought home by Gerry Thomas in the context of radiation exposure. David Speigelhalter (@d_spiegel) introduced me to the idea of using frequency trees to express risk and demonstrated the importance of using metaphors and analogies to relate outcomes to things people understand – normalising the risk. I finished the day hearing about Zombies and robot safaris and participating in a hive mind experiment where tens of us” independently worked together” to stabilise a tightrope walker being pelted by tomatoes via hand-held clicker devices. Although I don’t plan to be organising one myself anytime soon, I now know a lot more about science festivals, as well as psychology!
It’s also been an interesting experience to attend a conference where I know no-one. Most of the attendees are professional science communicators working on a variety of outreach or engagement projects. There are only a few academic research scientists here (question: what is the difference between a researcher and a scientist? Answer: A scientist is a researcher with added importance). This has felt like a far more interactive experience than the usual conferences I go to. I think this is probably down to three things: 1) it’s a communication conference so people communicate for the love of communicating, 2) there is a “do it” strand of workshops including the science writing one I went to and a speed-networking event; 3) there is no comfort blanket of known collaborators to wrap myself up in. I have been motivated to talk to new people, and indeed been actively encouraged (i.e. forced) to do so. Not usually the most confident networker, I’ve felt curiously at ease here. Perhaps it is because I have nothing to lose – there are no expectations of me and my research reputation is not on the line. Tomorrow brings sessions on representing women, informal science education and working as a freelance science communicator. And maybe more about nuts – who knows!
This post was originally an article written for the online Newsletter of theWeather Club of the Royal Meteorological Society and is reproduced here with their permission)
I spend a lot of time reading scientific papers. They are one of the main ways in which science is communicated within the academic discipline, and also one of the ways in which academics productivity is measured. Away from work therefore, I generally find it hard to summon enthusiasm for reading anything vaguely science related. However, for Christmas this year I asked for 3 of the books on the shortlist for the Royal Society’s Winton Prize for Science Books prize. I looked forward to reading these initially because of my interest in science writing, but somewhat to my surprise I quickly found myself intrigued by the science within the first one.
“Bird Sense” by Tim Birkhead discusses the evidence that birds use each of seven senses; seeing, hearing, touch, taste, smell, magnetic sense, and emotion. It is hard to say why such a topic captured my imagination but its considerable distance from my own research area certainly contributed. Imagine my surprise then to find the familiar topic of dimethyl sulphide (DMS) and even a familiar name within such a book.
DMS is a gas that is most well known as a component of the smell produced when cooking cabbage or beetroot. It is also produced at sea when phytoplankton are eaten by zooplankton (e.g. krill), the gas being first dissolved in seawater and then released to the atmosphere. Once oxidised in the marine atmosphere it is a major natural source of sulphate aerosol in the marine atmosphere and may go on to affect clouds and have a significant impact on the Earth’s climate (therein lies the link to my research area). Oceanic DMS emissions account for something like 15% of the global sulphur emissions to the atmosphere and are a significant fraction of the sulphur emissions particularly in the southern hemisphere mid-latitudes. These emissions are a major player in the supposed CLAW feedback loop between atmosphere and ocean whereby climate change leads to changes in DMS emissions which then alter climate themselves, although the magnitude and even the sign of this feedback is the subject of much debate.
Thus DMS is an important component of the marine atmosphere, but what does it have to do with bird senses? Seabirds in particular travel over very long distances to search for food, but many unerringly navigate safely back to their breeding grounds. Well, it could be that DMS is in fact providing a smell map by which seabirds can find their way home. Even more fascinating is the fact that this link was made via a chance encounter of biologist Gaby Nevitt with an atmospheric scientist, Tim Bates. Following an injury on a research cruise, Nevitt stayed on the ship whilst it was being prepared for a DMS transect cruise and saw the measurements of DMS across the ocean by Tim’s group. Subsequently, Nevitt and colleagues measured elevated heartbeats in birds exposed to air containing DMS and noted that the flight patterns of albatrosses were consistent with birds attempting to locate a breeding ground by smell, i.e. zigzagging across a plume rather than flying in a straight line (which would be more consistent with navigating by sight). So, far from escaping from work, I found aerosols deep in the depths of a book about bird behaviour, and a story of two science worlds colliding to produce a step change in understanding. I wonder what I will find in the other two books?
Bird Sense What it’s like to be a bird by Tim Birkhead, Bloomsbury Press 2013
Bonadonna et al (2006) Journal of Experimental Biology, 209, 2165-9
I’m off sick. Last week I had a conversation with a member of my staff about prioritising their health over work since in the long term this is the most important thing. I also stuck up a cartoon in our office; a flow chart telling sick graduate students to go home rather than come in. When I say or do these things to people I really believe what I am telling them. So why, when I have been kyboshed by a very bad cold which has attacked my sinuses leaving me dizzy, weak and partially deaf, was it so hard for me to phone in sick this morning? It took a fairly forceful statement from my other half along the lines of “you can’t bang on about work-life balance and be too scared to take a day’s sick leave”. He has a point. But why is it so hard for me (and probably many other academics) to take sick leave?
Obviously others may have their own reasons, but here are mine:
- I know that when I’m off sick, I am getting behind on my endless to-do lists, including 4 major projects that I’m really keen on developing and have deadlines in May and.June. I’ll have to find the time from somewhere else… I don’t know where… .
- As Head of Academic Staff, I also tend to know when others are overworked or overwhelmed, and last week I said I would cover for two such individuals temporarily but now I can’t
- It’s hard to stop thinking about work, and for me that tends to be thinking about the negative and worrying parts rather than anything more constructive
- If I have meetings arranged, I don’t like letting people down and there will be a knock on effect later in the week/month
- Admitting I’m sick is admitting I cannot control everything… (loads in that one….)
- Our family life is generally so finely balanced, that someone being ill can throw everything out
- If I’m sick, then there is a chance that one of the small people will get sick too… which will mean more time off… (go to 1 above)
Of course if I was looking at this list presented to me by other people, I would be saying that:
- The worst thing that can happen for you, work and your family is for you to get properly sick because you have pushed it too far. Get better now, and you’ll achieve more in the long run
- No-one will thank you for being in and spreading germs around the office, especially in those meetings!
- Nothing disastrous is likely to happen in the course of 2 days, and if it does, there are people who will cover for you because that is what this department is like.
- If you absolutely must, you can read email from home to reassure yourself that nothing disastrous is happening (this probably would only be said to people with leadership roles who I know would recover better for 30 mins spent dealing with emails compared to fretting about stuff)
- Everyone gets sick at some point – we are all human. Yes. Even you. We like humans.
- Perhaps you’ve got too much on your plate at the moment… is there something that can be put on the shelf for the time being so that you can give yourself some recovery time?
This year I even identified the need for building in some resilience into all areas of my life. 3 months in to “Project Resilience” I think I still have a way to go to accepting and achieving this at least in terms of my working life and style. (And yes, I know that writing this while off sick is a bit questionable too…)
In honour of World Book Day and International Women’s Day both occurring this week, here is the list of books that I have either about women scientists or written by women about science, scientists or academia (or any combination of the above). This is not to say I don’t have many excellent books written by men or about male scientists (well actually I don’t have too many of the latter type to be honest but I’m sure they exist).
About Female Scientists
“Dorothy Hodgkin A Life” by Georgina Ferry (I have read and reread this one)
“Mary Somerville, Science, Illumination and the Female Mind” by Kathyrn A. Neeley
“Pythagoras’ Trousers (God, Physics, and the Gender Wars)” by Margaret Werthem
“Rosalind Franklin and DNA” by Anne Sayre
“The Bride of Science (Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter)” by Benjamin Woolley
“Nobel Prize Women in Science (Their lives, struggles and momentous discoveries)” by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
“Rosalyn Yalow Her Life and Work in Medicine” by Eugene Straus, M.D.
“Rosalind Franklin The Dark Lady of DNA” by Brenda Maddox
“Out of the Shadows; Contributions of twentieth century women to physics” Edited by Nina Byers and Gary Williams
“Lisa Meitner A life in physics” by Ruth Lewin Sime
Women writing about science, scientists and explorers (see also some of the above!)
“The Secret Life of Dust” by Hannah Holmes (the book I wish I’d written)
“The Northern Lights” by Lucy Jago
“Galileos’s Daughter A drama of science, faith and love” by Dava Sobel (also wrote “Longitude”)
“Ice Bound One woman’s incredible battle for survival at the South Pole” by Jerri Nielsen
“Mrs P’s Journey” by Sarah Hartley
“The Coldest March” by Susan Solomon
Women in academia
“Negotiating the Glass Ceiling. Careers of Senior Women in the Academic World” Edited by Miriam David and Diana Woodward
“Surviving the academy Feminist Perspectives” Edited by Danusia Malina and Sian Maslin-Prothero
In honour of National Poetry Day and inspired by the Royal Society meeting on “Next Steps in Climate” here is my rather un-sophisticated summary of the meeting in poem form.
The climate is a-changing
We observe that it is so
Surface temperatures are rising
AND there is less of ice and snow
We climate scientist are (95%) confident
That human emissions are involved
But there is still room for further study
Some puzzles remain unsolved
Aerosols and fluffy cloud
Deep ocean heat uptake too
Need more obs and better models
I accept the challenge. Do you?
Very excited that my first invited blog is now live. This is in the Guardian HE Lives Series
and discusses the pressures to work 24/7 in academia and whether this is the only way to be successful.