Tuesday, 28 August 2012

On a personal note... the voice in my head


There’s a little voice that sometimes creeps into the back of my head. It’s the anti-academic-career voice. Perhaps it’s common to lots of people embarking on research careers, or maybe it’s just me.

Either way, I thought I’d share with you all some of the things that niggling little voice says to me and how I battle with these thoughts every day.

Most days the voice says: “Why do you spend every day feeling like you’re getting nowhere?” which then resorts to “Why are you struggling with this career?”

On a bad day when things aren’t going well it sometimes creeps up and whispers You’re so dumb, everyone else around you thinks so and thinks your research is rubbish and they could do it in about a week if they tried.”

Which leaves me having the occasional breakdown and my partner having to pick up the pieces and pep me up and tell me that I am interested, I do want to do this research, I will get there, eventually…

I sometimes come across articles about women in science, about the leaky pipeline of academia, about ‘impostor syndrome’, and about how no-one really knows why some women leave science.

Some of these articles are really uplifting… but it only makes a momentary difference. Then the voice in my head says “You don’t have impostor syndrome, you really are an impostor, there’s a difference!

Why don’t you quit and do something else, something easy…"

You’re smart, you could make loads of money doing just about anything else… Why not have a look online for a different job?

You want to have children, your partner earns a decent salary, your career will probably falter when you have kids so why bother waiting until it all crumbles, why not just give up now? You’ve done well. You can pat yourself on the back. If you time it right people might just think it’s because you had kids and chose a different path…

I know why they leave. It’s the voice in the back of their heads. I battle with it every day.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Frustrated: I have no way to make my data open access!

Open access in science publishing is a big deal nowdays. I recently discovered a new RCUK policy which says that I must make my data publically accessible, or freely accessible on request. The only problem is; I can't.

If I told you exactly where I work, it should lead you to being able to find out all sorts of things about me, my research, my colleagues and my published papers. But it won't let you find any of my data or experiments that those papers are based on.

I recently enquired about this. First it involved me informing people of the RCUK policy above, as they weren't aware. I've asked for personal webspace where I might be able to setup a URL for each paper I publish that contains the data used in the paper. Or where I can put some talks that are too big to email. The outcome? I was told I can't have personal webspace, or at least I couldn't have any webspace which I had any kind of control over.

On digging deeper and explaining the issue I was told I could have access to an FTP server in a different department to my own. But when I said 'OK' it went no further. I still don't have credentials.

My workplace has to comply with all kinds of government guidelines, which includes encrypting laptops and so on. This seems to mean that the computing is run perfectly for administrators, but far-from-perfect for scientists like myself. It means that the IT group don't support me if I choose to use Linux or Mac systems, although I don't know of many scientists who use Windows for anything other that documents and spreadsheets. This means my computing is almost entirely unsupported. It also means that when it comes to things like data sharing, there are seemingly impassable boundaries.

In fact I'm not even sure the 'administrators' have any idea what kind of 'data' I'm talking about.

Here are the provisions I'm told are in place for me to share my data:
Now, unless my data is in the form of a Microsoft document it isn't going to work on Sharepoint, and my guess is it's probably not accessible to 'outsiders' anyway.
  • Upload it to my website profile as a link. 
For this to work the current system requires it to be in PDF or jpeg format and it has to be checked at a number of different levels to make sure it meets the 'style guide'. Trust me, it's not going to meet your damn 'style guide'.
  • There 'used to be' an ftp server. 
...No-one quite knows what happened to it though. It doesn't seem to exist anymore.

That's it. Those are the only ways I've discovered that I could share my data. Not to beat around the bush here, but that's f*ing useless to me. I can't even share the slides I give at a conference with the world because they are too big to email and again, I can't upload them anywhere. This is simply not acceptable and I'm not sure how I can be expected to function efficiently as a scientist under these conditions.

Perhaps there is a fear that I shouldn't share my data without someone 'checking it' because that might lead me to missing out on a piece of 'Intellectual Property' which could have been packaged up and sold to someone. I did point out to them that as an independently funded research fellow [at the time of this post] they actually have no right to my IP. Never mind the fact that the work is already published so simply providing the background data doesn't change anything. Based on the facts, I think I can ignore this point for now.

This has turned into rather a big rant, but this seems ludicrous to me. I'll happily be corrected if my assumptions are wrong, or if the answers I've repeated to questions I've asked above are wrong. I've simply written this because I want the situation to be improved and I have no way of improving it within the organisation. 

By the way, I don't want to be told to use Dropbox or Google Docs or any other number of filesharing web apps which I'm already using. I want the organisation who are meant to provision this facility as part of agreeing to host my research to actually do it. That is the only outcome I will be happy with. 

It looks like only 1 in 10 people who publish in open access journals actually make their data accessible anyway. With barriers like the one I've come up against, I'm hardly surprised!

Does your workplace have a policy that you must be able to share data, but give you no way to do it?
Do you think the provisions I've been given are acceptable?


UPDATE 6/9/2012:
Today I met with a member of the Scientific Computing department who picked up on this post, thought they could help us and set up a meeting to discuss. I'm pleased to report that I think we're going to move forward and try to implement something for our group which will rectify this issue and hopefully provide a better data management and sharing system going into the future. I'm very grateful to them for their response and quick action to try to help with this situation, and kind-of glad I wrote this post after all! Next steps are to discuss with my group exactly what we need and how it should function, and we should see some progress and hopefully implementation after that. Win for the blogosphere!

UPDATE 10/12/2013:
This post has been slightly edited from it's original format. While we still don't have a solution in place, at least this post has led to some discussion and offers from a number of quarters to help solve it. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Working in a male-dominated field: learning to see the positives


I’m a woman and I’m a scientist. I don’t identify with the words ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ because I think they have negative connotations of social awkwardness. I am feminine. I might not wear pink, but I read InStyle magazine, watch Great British Bake Off and paint my toenails. But this post isn’t about reclaiming words like ‘geek’ or removing negative connotations though, far from it. It’s about everyday life as a ‘feminine’ woman in a very male-dominated area of science.

In my research group I’m the only woman. I’ve been to workshops and conferences where I’m the only female scientist attending. I’ve been mistaken for a secretary and asked whose wife/girlfriend I was at social events more times than I care to remember. But I enjoy smashing the stereotype when I point out that I’m a scientist. They always apologise profusely. I understand why they’d assume I wasn’t one, as statistically speaking it’s quite a likely hypothesis.

Sometimes though, people do say inappropriate things. At a recent event one attendee actually used the words “You don’t see many women like you around here, I mean, with such perfect eyelashes and a dress”. Umm… what? I felt so uncomfortable. Up until that point we’d been talking about physics and entrepreneurship. I was wearing a striped Breton knit dress from Jaeger which had ¾ length sleeves and went past the knee – with a very low heel. I don’t expect to have my looks commented on in a professional situation. I made him uncomfortable by staring at him for a second or two. He realized he’d said something inappropriate, started to make apologetic noises, then I let him off the hook and made a joke about it. After all, I can take a complement.

Anyone who knows me can tell you I have no problem holding my own. I usually just give them some feisty banter or a joke straight back. They don’t intimidate me and I don’t sweat the small stuff**. I don’t even notice any more if there aren’t any other women around. I do try to feel flattered if someone complements me on my looks, but there have been situations where I’ve been prevented from effective networking by virtue of being the only ‘skirt’ in the room.

Naturally, I’ve developed techniques to extricate myself from boring men at conference drinks whose only reason for approaching me is that they’ve had a few. Here are a few pointers for the less experienced.
  • Technique 1 (if you respect the guy and think you ought to stay in his good books): shrug off any compliments and talk about science. If it becomes obvious that you have nothing to talk about, mention that you had to meet so-and-so as you’re interested in collaborating on an experiment/paper whatever. If you can, use him for networking – basically, turn the situation to your advantage.
  • Technique 2 (if you just want to get away): say you need to use the bathroom. It’s not like he can follow you. Whatever you do don’t say you need another drink – as he’ll likely get you one and then you’ll be beholden to him for the rest of the evening. (Yeah, I learned that one first hand).

Ladies, we do what we can to get by - I’m sure that men in very female-dominated work environments could tell you of similar experiences. It can be tiring and frustrating and perhaps one day when there are more women in my field it will become less of an issue.

But sometimes we have to see the positives in these situations. For example, as one of the only women in my field just about everyone knows who I am and what I’m working on – it actually does wonders to raise my profile without me even trying.

I know that not everyone has such a ‘thick skin’ as I do, but I’ve learned to enjoy the company of the (often socially awkward) men with whom I share my chosen career. I’ve made peace with being different from them because of my gender. I’ve learned to embrace the differences and celebrate the fact that I approach a research problem differently. In the long run, ‘standing out’ in a good way can only serve to help both my research and my career.

Have you ever had similar experiences? How did you react? 
Do you think my approach works? What do you think I could do differently?

**Of course, you should never, ever let someone’s sexist or inappropriate behaviour go unreported if it’s a problem for you

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Why do women undermine themselves? (The invisible bike helmet video)

So you might have seen this video about the "Invisible Bicycle Helmet" current doing the rounds.


Don't get me wrong, I think the invention is great even if a few issues such as landing on your face aren't quite sorted out. What I want to discuss is the video. I was enjoying it until they started saying things like 'no-one expected girls to be able to do this'. Total face-palm. Way to promote the stereotype. 

But there is a broader issue here. Being female has nothing to do with it and they are unknowingly reinforcing the idea that a woman has to be somehow 'special' to achieve something like this. The message definitely got confused for me, especially when they started showing images of the shoes they were wearing. I mean... what!?

I'd like to know who these mysterious people are who think women can't do things... because as far as I can tell they don't exist. As far as I can tell it's only ever women who say 'no-one expected us to do this because we're women'. This is my whole problem with a lot of 'women in science/engineering' stuff. By making out like there's something special about your achievements because of your gender, you're undermining the whole achievement. 

This attitude of 'well obviously, if I were a man this would have been easy, but because I'm a woman, it was hard' is not OK in situations where gender makes no difference - like doing technical work, designing new products, running a business etc... 

Making out like this is gender-related also belittles discussions about things which really do make a difference to careers that really are different for men and women. Things like having to bear children in your womb, for instance.

A decent idea... with strange marketing.