About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Wearing clothes, doing work.

This week some parts of the internet have been getting hot and sweaty about what academics wear to work, particularly the difference between what men and women academics wear. Given everything else going on in the world, in universities and in gender relations this seems absurd, and it is a great personal disappointent that I have failed in my attempts to simply ignore it. By way of recap - in his regular column in the Guardian Jonathan Wolff wrote about why male academics are so scruffy, and then Francesca Stavrakopolou responded in a blog post that he had reinsated a 'masculine' dress code as normal for academics, which undermines women in universities.

My inability to simply ignore this ridiculousness stems from two personal issues. Firstly, I spend more time that I would like to worrying about what to wear to work and I think this has something to do with my gender. Secondly, I think that my worries about what I wear to work are also partly attributable to the constant reinscribing of 'masculinity' and 'feminity' in discussion about clothing and fashion. Some days I worry that my shirt is too tight or my skirt is too short and I might transgress the norms of feminine modesty. Other days I worry that my suit is too square and my shoes are too flat and I might transgress the boundaries into masculinity, abandoning the sisterhood and reinforcing the patriarchy. This is nuts.

I was happiest in my work clothes in the first job I had after leaving university. I worked at an aluminium smelter. We were supplied with a uniform. Thanks to carcinogenic raw materials that contributed to the dirt on our clothes, my uniform was even laundered for me. Oh how I long for those lost days when I could cycle in to work in my shorts, stop in at the changing room, pull on a uniform and get to work! The uniform was a light blue, long sleeved shirt and a dark blue pair of trousers, 100% cotton, minimal buttons. Was this masculine dress? No. It was safety clothing, appropriate for the working environment. In fact the reason why I was so happy when I was first allocated my uniform was that I was given women's trousers, rather than the standard cut men's work trousers that I had been forced to wear as a student. This was truly androgynous clothing, which someone else washed and ironed, in blue, which matches my eyes. Heavenly.

Ever since I abandoned that Nirvana of androgyny I have struggled to figure out what to wear to work. I don't want to dress like a man but I also don't want to be judged by my skirt length or breast size. From time to time I think I have found a personal dress code that I can consistently settle in to. Then the seasons change, fashion changes, and my body changes, and I have flipped again into a different zone of my wardrobe. In summer and when I am feeling fat, I tend to wear dresses, usually with leggings to cover up my saggy knees and bulging veins. In the winter and when I am feeling slimmer, I revert to trousers, shirt and jackets. My dress at work is often determined by what events I have planned in the evening - if I am giving a funny talk about sewers in a pub I wear jeans and a t-shirt, if it's a serious dinner with potential funders I opt for a smart dress and matching jacket, for meetings with community groups my dress is somewhere in between. I envy those men and women who have a consistent pattern of dress, and I enjoy having the choice, but mostly I wish I could just get dressed every day without having to worry about how I am constructing or transgressing socially determined gender norms.

Here's the thing. I have had enough of people scrutinising my body, including my clothing, for signs of my sexuality and gender when I am just trying to do my job. I am equally annoyed by claims that women who wear trousers or cut their hair are too 'masculine' as I am by ideas that women should completely hide their bodies at work. I have written before about trying to see the funny side of people who mistake me for a man because I have short hair and wear sneakers. Every time someone ascribes particular items of clothing or styles of hair as 'masculine' or 'feminine' I feel myself further torn between social norms, none of which have ever been kind to me.

Last week I went to buy hair product. The kind of product used to style short hair. In the eighties we used gel. In the nineties it was wax. Now its goop. I went to the 'hair products' aisle of the pharmacy, where I had last bought my 'goop' and couldn't find any. Hair shampoo, hair conditioner, hair mousse, hair spray, hair defrizzing lotion, hair colouring... no hair goop. Nothing for short hair. Then I realised I was in the 'ladies' hair products section. Off I went to the aisle with the blue razors and aftershave lotion and bought hair product in a grey container labelled 'for men'. The good news is that it works perfectly well in my womanly hair. The bad news is anyone who snoops around in my bathroom will now think I have a secret boyfriend. The product is actually for 'hair', but since every single bodily function apparently must be ascribed a gender, I am forced to buy 'men's' toiletries.

I wear size 41 shoes. That's a ladies nine and a half in Australia and a seven or eight in the UK. I am just on the right side of the limit to ladies shoes sizing, except when it comes to sneakers. Like 'hair product', sneakers were originally conceived as androgynous. Sneakers were for doing sports or casual dress. Now, we have men's and women's sneakers. Women's sneakers only go up to about a size 40, just too small for me. Sneaker manufacturers rightly judge that the number of sales they will lose from size 41 women who refuse to buy a 'man's' sneaker is small enough for them to risk compared to the cost of producing a whole extra size for a relatively small group of consumers. This is sensible. Sneakers are after all androgynous. Except to sneaker sales people. These people are trained to sell one line of sneakers to women, and one to men. When I walk into the sneaker shop and start browsing on the 'men's' wall, I am politely directed to the 'women's' area. When I protest that my feet are too big for women's sneakers, the sale assistant usually ignores me, and I submit, entertaining the possibility sneaker manufacturers have changed their strategy and started making bigger 'women's' sneakers since the last time I went through this gender-bending ritual. The sales person then brings me several of their biggest pairs of women's sneakers. I try them on, and we all agree that they are about half a size too small and I am allowed to start trying on the 'men's' sneakers. I have been wearing 'men's' sneakers for all of my adult life (when I was a kid, I think they were just 'sneakers'). Does this make me 'masculine'? No. It does not. It makes me a person who wears sneakers.

In case you had any doubt, my worries about what to wear to work are bordering on pathological. A few months ago I got dressed for work, looked in the mirror and thought 'oh God, I look like Mark Miodownik', a colleague at UCL Engineering (also on the tellie). I look like a man, but does that necessarily mean that I look 'masculine', and does it matter? Mark does not strike me as someone who is uncomfortable with his gender, and maybe his style is just a little bit 'feminine'? The Miodownik dress code is something like this - sneakers (neutral), jeans (neutral), flowery shirt (girly), jacket (blokey). Jeans and sneakers first entered mass fashion in the sixties and seventies, as androgynous items of clothing worn by women's libbers and sexual revolutionaries. Mark, like many men these days, wears shirts that my Dad would think too girly. Men's fashion might not have caught up to Grayson Perry yet, but it has become more feminine. And the suit jacket gives an air of respectability, which might have been masculine once, but that doesn't mean it is only accessible to those who are male. On balance, I think it a fairly gender neutral style of dress, one that works in the university workplace.

Most days I wear my 'men's' hair product to work. Some days I wear dresses and shoes with heels, other days I wear my 'men's' sneakers. When I put my sneakers together with a pair of jeans, a shirt and suit jacket according to some I am falling unwittingly into the 'masculine' uniform of academic work. I am not. I am a person wearing clothes, to do work.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Underdog Syndrome

Much has been written in recent years about Imposter Syndrome - the unfounded feeling that you don't belong and will one day be found out as a fraud by your peers, who you wrongly assume to be more qualified and confident than you. Being able to name those feelings and talk about them can be very reassuring to those who are new to positions of authority or who are outsiders to the usual power clubs.

Imposter Syndrome goes some way to explaining my own experiences, but it has never sat quite right. Firstly, there are a lot of very powerful people who actually are faking it most of the time, which I think is a big problem for the quality of decision making and leadership in modern society. Telling the difference between feeling fraudulent without grounds and actually being fraudulent is tricky. Secondly, it implies that we are actually all equal and that women and others just need more self-confidence in order to succeed on the usual terms. This overlooks real structural barriers to inclusion, including deficits in cultural and social capital that people from 'the right background' take for granted. Finally, I am left wondering why doesn't this feeling go away? Why am I always the outsider? This has led me to something I am calling the 'Underdog Syndrome' - the tendency to create situations where I am least likely to succeed on the usual terms, but I do it anyway.

I am not some baddass, anarchist, barrier-breaker. I am basically a good girl, but there is always some grit. My identity as an interdisciplinary researcher is a case in point. If you want to succeed as an academic, you choose a narrow field of research and mine it for funding and publications for the rest of your working life. I have wilfully ignored this advice. My work on public engagement, teaching and general service to the university also indicates resistance to the rules of the game of academic promotion. I know the rules, but I am reluctant to respect them. The rules were not written by or for people like me, so I am naturally suspicious. I could give in to the institutional norms, and play along, but I don't, and I am curious as to why.

Everyone loves the underdog. Malcolm Gladwell has just published a book about them (David and Goliath, Little, Brown and Co) . His point is that apparent strengths can be weaknesses, and an apparent weakness can be an unexpected source of strength. The shepherd David slayed the sick giant Goliath through superior skill and versatility, not simply divine authority. This is a nice idea, but what happens when the underdog succeeds?

David became King, but my theory is that many of us underdogs keep finding situations where we start from a position of weakness, because this is what we know. This might partly explain why women are found in unpopular and underfunded fields of research and why we do a disproportionate amount of the work that our institutions don't obviously reward. It is not that we don't want to succeed, it is that we realise that our chances of success on the usual terms are slim. There is also the more troubling recognition that the weak can't be seen to want success. Everyone loves the underdog because no-one expected them to succeed. No-one likes the ambitious upstart.

In my own way, I have slayed a few giants in my time. But the giants are still in charge. On behalf of the Israelites, David slayed just one giant to win the war, but in the intervening three thousand years the giants have multiplied and regrouped. Slaying giants is no longer the secret to success, and it is tiring. So then what? If I can't beat them, do I join them? Imposter Syndrome tells me that if I 'lean-in' with more self-confidence that I too can be a giant. But I don't know how to be a giant, I only know how to throw rocks at them. And I am not sure I want to join the giants, particularly those imposter giants who have systematically cleared away all the rocks from the steams and subject shepherds to x-ray body scans before entering the field of battle to detect any unauthorised slings.

I can't be the underdog forever. I don't want to be an imposter giant. Surely these aren't the only alternatives. What would our world look like if we stopped being scared by sick old giants, and let the shepherds guide us? Shepherds are carers and protectors, giants are blind destroyers. Maybe we should stop pretending to be giants, and figure out how to be shepherd-Kings (or Queens).

Friday, 20 June 2014

Practical Steps Men Can Take To Support Feminism at Work

Pamela Clark has helpfully written a list of 35 Practical Steps Men Can Take To Support Feminism. It is a nice list, but it struck me that only one of the 35 actions related to work (choose to work for a woman). I may be luckier than most in my personal life, but I need more feminist men at work rather than at home. Here are some thoughts about how men might be more 'feminist' in the workplace:

1) Read Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' or find another way to learn about how direct, indirect and unconscious bias impact on women in the workplace. Respect the evidence. We are not making this up.

2) Be aware of your own unconscious bias in your interactions with women and men at work. Does that bright young man really have the track record to back-up his self-confidence? Are you giving the woman chair the respect she deserves? We are all prone to this, men and women unconsciously judge women more harshly than men at work. Being conscious that we are doing it is a good starting point to overcome it.

4) Make sure maternity, paternity and carers leave are treated as normal costs of business and have well developed systems for implementing them. Do not make a big deal if someone needs time off to care for children or parents. If someone is worried about a sick kid and then you put them under extra pressure at work they are unlikely to perform at their best.

5) If you have children, take your full entitlement of paternity leave. Don't make a song and dance if you need to take time off work to pull your weight taking care of your kids. You are a parent, you are taking care of your children not giving CPR to the Prime Minister. On the rare occasions when childcare plans fall through and you need to bring the kids to the office, do not expect your subordinates to take care of them. That is just rude.

6) Always check that you haven't missed out any women when short listing for jobs, arranging speakers for conferences, pulling together a team for a high profile project or anything else you do at work. If you have less than 30% women on your list you have might have missed someone out. This is not because you are sexist, it is just how unconscious bias works. I have found myself in this position, and doing the quick check of 'are there any talented women I've forgotten' often reveals very important people who I have inadvertently overlooked. Putting aside debates about enforcing targets on committees and short lists, noticing that you don't have enough women on your list can be a good way to double check that your selection criteria are working properly.

7) Mentor a woman or, even better, sponsor one. Mentors are very important for women who might not naturally fit into the 'old boys network' and need extra support in learning how things really work in the workplace. Sponsors who take on particularly talented women and actively look to create opportunities for them to develop are even better.

8) Always provide a microphone for anyone giving a speech or presentation. Women's voices don't carry as well as men, which means we might literally be straining to be heard.

9) Don't be afraid of affirmative action. If you really are faced with two mythically equal candidates and one is a black woman and the other is a white man, the black woman will undoubtedly be the more talented and hard working of the two. The man will have benefited along the way from little boosts of positive unconscious bias and may be riding higher on self-confidence than track record. The woman has made it to that point despite the barriers of sexism and racism. Affirmative action is your friend.

10) Check your privilege. You have probably benefited along the way from being a man in a man's world. Of course you work hard but there are big and small benefits of being a man that have worked in your favour. At the very least you haven't wasted any of your energy dealing with the frustrations and real obstacles of sexism which you most certainly would have faced had you been born XX. Admit your 'luck', especially when you might be tempted to judge women at work for being a bit uptight, too bossy, or 'not quite the right fit' for the team. 

Monday, 5 May 2014

Demolished, or not.

I need a bigger blowtorch. I have cut my central heating pipes in preparation for knocking down the wall between the living room and the kitchen, and the dinky little DIY pressure-pack blowtorch is not strong enough to weld the new connection. If I don't fix this pipe I won't have any hot water. I need a shower. I need a plumber. I let out a primal roar, the kind we are meant to save for childbirth. I am not screaming at the pipe or the faltering blow torch or my stinking armpits. I am screaming at the universe. It has not been kind.

Earlier in the day, still cautiously confident in my amateur plumbing skills, I had set out to the local plumbing shop for a few spare parts. I ran into my neighbour on the landing.

'Have you seen Steve today?', Tom asked.*

'No, why?'. I wouldn't normally expect to run into the tenants' and residents' advisor before 10am on a Wednesday morning.

'The new regen plans are out. They are planning to knock this place down.'

'Really? Are you sure?' I am like one of those women in the movies when their best friend reveals that her husband is sleeping with the intern from marketing. 'Maybe it's just a rumour'.

I continue on my errands. The sun is shining. I have a pipe to weld and wall to knock down. I have an appointment with a structural surveyor, and a new kitchen arriving the next morning.

I get back to my flat and call the regeneration team at the council, to find out what's going on. A short conversation confirms that yes, the latest developer has put out their masterplan, and no, our block 'aint on it. There will be consultation and compensation, but Hatton Court will be no more. 

I had moved into Hatton Court on the Redtree Grove Estate six months earlier. Unfamiliar with the quagmire of broken promises, rejected planning applications, failed financing and general chaos that has characterised so many social housing regeneration projects, I naively believed reassurances that as I renovated the inside of my newly purchased flat the council would 'regenerate' the estate outside, and within five years this would be a nice place to live, not just the only place I could afford in London. I was wrong.

There I was, kneeling on the floor of my empty living room, in a flat without a kitchen or hot water, screaming. I wasn't only screaming at the council. The 'friend' from Australia who had been staying with me in exchange for helping with the work had just four days earlier decided that it was best that he continue on his overseas adventure alone. I called his mobile with the news of the demolition in the hope of some sympathy plumbing but he was steadfast in his denial of any skills in pipe welding and wished me well with the whole having my home demolished thing.

I called Sid the plumber from the shop where I had been for parts that morning. He fixed the pipe in seconds and very kindly assured me that I had been doing everything right. I really did just need a bigger blowtorch. He also told me that if I phoned the kitchen place right away I should be able to cancel my order and get a full refund. He was right, saving me thousands of pounds, the single most valuable piece of advice I have ever received. I also phoned Esther, the structural engineer at the council to cancel her visit. She laughed sympathetically when I told her that I no longer needed permission to knock down one wall in my flat, since the regeneration developers were now planning to knock them all down for me.      

Three weeks passed. I lived on beer and Cocoa Pops and watched the entire box set of 'Six Feet Under'. Then one day I crawled off the sofa and went to Ikea. I bought the cheapest standalone kitchen in their range, and found a cooker on ebay for £80. Over the next few months I installed the kitchen, tiled the floor with cheap chequer board lino tiles (which I have always loved), moved my bookshelves back into the living room, restored the one brick I had removed in exploring the structural status of the wall, painted and decorated, and got on with my life.

Consultations came and went, as did the latest developer. They couldn't make the funding model work. Towards the end of the Labour government legislation was eventualy changed so that the council didn't need a private developer to fund the regen scheme. Yet another masterplan appeared, this time with Hatton Court intact. My building was once again to be refurbished, not demolished.

Not long after that I took sabbatical in Australia and let my flat out to cover the mortgage while I was gone. Coming back I decided that I couldn't wait any longer for 'regeneration' to make the estate a nice place to live. I kept the flat rented out, and I have been renting privately in a Victorian conversion nearby ever since. The fact that the council now pay someone else housing benefit to live in a flat they once owned adds further indignity to this sorry story. I bought the flat to be part of a community, but when given the choice of reworking my finances to avoid the stress of living in a degraded environment under the uncertainty of regeneration I opted out. It is much easier to deal with regeneration as 'property' than 'home'. I am lucky to have the choice.

Then a few months ago UCL received a request from a couple of London community groups to review the evidence for refurbishment or demolition of social housing. A team of researchers from the Engineering Exchange and the Urban Lab has drafted a report reviewing the modelling, economics, energy, materials, health and other literature in this field. Our purpose is to help communities understand how these decisions are made, and to be in a better position to hold social housing providers and developers to account in their technical analysis.

Ours is a very modest contribution to the complex problem of social housing regeneration in London. We are under no delusions that technical evidence holds much sway in decisions to demolish or refurbish. I know that understanding life-cycle costing, energy efficiency or property financing does nothing to lessen the pain of the news that the home you worked hard for and the community you are part of are to be demolished. But we must be able to do better. In the politics of property in this city struggling first time buyers count for very little, social tenants even less. As researchers we can't do much to change that, but we have a democratic obligation to make sure our knowledge has a positive impact on UK society and that it is accessible to all those who need it. Decisions about housing are about more than concrete and capital. We don't make those decision, but as engineers we can help to make sure that technical evidence is sound and that it is not used to hide other agendas. Sometimes when it seems like your world is falling apart it helps to call an expert with a bigger blowtorch.

*All names, including places, have been changed.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Lost in translation

UCL brands itself ‘London’s Global University’. Our students come from all over the world, speaking many different languages, as well as English. We expect all of our students to have studied another language to at least GSCE level, either before entry or before they graduate by picking up language classes while they are studying with us. Embarrassingly, this is a standard that I have not met.

I am monolingual. Australian English is the only language I speak. I am ashamed of this. I grew up in rural Australia, where the dominant attitude is ‘you come to our country, you speak our language’, and I went to a school that didn't exactly share UCL's values for inter-cultural awareness and a well-rounded, global education. 

In our early years of high school we could choose between French and Italian. I had never met a French person, and ‘French kissing’ seemed to translate directly into the Australian ‘pashing’, so the romance was lost on me. French philosophy? Social theory? Literature? Art? Nope, French was pointless. I chose Italian, influenced by my grandmother who had picked up a few words whilst supervising prisoners of war on the family farm. She had been partly motivated by the need to wrest control of the dog from the sneaky POWs, who, no doubt bored by their Western Australian agrarian incarceration, had amused themselves by training the young fox terrier using Italian commands. In the years following the war a significant Italian community settled in our town and we had a priest who said mass in their language once a month, so at least I had heard the language spoken.

I studied Italian for three years, not quite to the equivalent of GCSE. Then we had to choose our final subjects for university entrance, and foreign languages were off the list. By that time there were no foreign language teachers in town. Our last Italian teacher was caught shoplifting in the discount department store where many of us worked part-time (she was busted on a Saturday, our shared day off school), and received a custodial sentence (she was busted with A LOT of stuff). They couldn’t replace her, and so languages were off the menu for the rest of my formal education.

Since starting at UCL I have tried to alleviate my embarrassment by enrolling in a few Spanish classes at our language school. I have been a very bad student, studying on and off over the last nine years, to reach at best an intermediate standard. It is not easy learning a foreign language for the first time as an adult. It is particularly difficult to find the discipline and time to study and practice in between everything else in my life. 

Which leads me once again to 'imposter syndrome', that feeling that I don't really belong here with all the clever people, and the fear that one day they'll find out that I'm a fraud. Imposter syndrome mostly goes away with experience and the realisation that almost everyone else is faking it too. Except when it comes to an actual skill, like speaking a foreign language. That's not something you can fake (unless you are very drunk, which I try to avoid).

On a day-to-day basis I only ever need to speak English. Being monolingual is not a direct barrier to career progression. Most people I work with don't know, and few would care, but it is something that makes me feel inferior. When people like  Miriam Gonz├ílez Dur├íntez use a lack of fluency in a foreign language as shorthand for stupid and lazy I blush. I could (and will) try harder with my Spanish classes, but this is the kind of extra work that my colleagues who went to better resourced schools in different parts of the world don't have to do, and don't even notice. Learning a language is the clearest example, but there are other things that colleagues from the 'right background' take for granted that country bumpkin 'imposters' like me need to pick up as adults. Things like literature, art, food, travel, nuanced political debate. I'm getting there, but part of me will always feel slightly awkward, constantly a step behind.

I am lucky to have been born in a time and place where everyone received a decent basic education and where it was possible for smart, hard-working kids to go on to university and to build interesting, international careers, despite significant cultural deficiencies such as monolingualism. I worry that opportunities for such mobility are declining, not only due to economic barriers such as high tuition fees, but also because of the strengthening of cultural barriers that comes from an over-emphasis on confidence as the foundation for success, ignoring the structural and practical obstacles of wealth, class, gender, race and disability.

Having more self-confidence might make me a better Spanish student, but it won't put the words in my mouth. It is my responsibility to put in the effort required to learn a foreign language, to meet the standards we expect of our students, but it was not my fault that Signorina Maestra got caught with her trolley full of stolen goods in Geraldton all those years ago. Life experience gives me the confidence to reveal and explain my inferiorities without fear of repercussions, but it doesn't lessen the work required to overcome them.        

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

How to fix a leaking toilet with a handful of pennies and a tablespoon of sunflower oil: confessions of a tinkerer

Last year my landlord very nicely paid for my bathroom to be completely renovated while I was away on holiday. The plan was for me to come home to a bright new bathroom, but it took several weeks of plumbing visitations after my return for everything to work properly, more or less. One minor issue that was never quite resolved was the tendency for the toilet flush mechanism to get stuck open. It was one of those problems that didn't occur if you knew how to flush 'just right', but invariably appeared when uninitiated visitors flushed any-old-how. My guests should not require a special induction to flush the loo, but it was relatively simple for me to 'unstick' each time and didn't seem worth the effort to call a plumber. Plumbers can be as unreliable as modern flush mechanisms. Eventually even a 'just right' flush stuck open and the valve became more difficult to 'unstick'. By yesterday morning the toilet was leaking constantly. Something had to be done.

This is the point at which I should have called the plumber, but that would require looking up the phone number, rearranging my diary to work from home for a day, and a few more days of a leaking toilet. The toilet was right there in front of me, leaking, tempting me to tinker. Why spend five minutes making a phone call and booking a day at home when I had a whole bank holiday ahead of me to spend pulling my toilet apart?

The flushing mechanism is very modern. It consists of a cylinder with a valve on the bottom that is pulled up by a cable, similar to a brake cable on a bike, when the flush handle is pressed. It should be released when the flush handle returns to the normal position, but the valve was sticking in the up position. The flush mechanism consists of two 'black-boxes' - the cylinder with the sticking valve and the housing for the cable attached to the back of the flush handle. Normal people avoid opening their toilet cisterns. Smart people avoid opening 'black-box' mechanisms inside their toilets. Sensible people spend bank holidays sunning themselves in the park. 

The toilet was still leaking. I had removed the cylinder, I had a little 'black-box' in my wet hands. A voice inside my head said 'put the toilet back together, call the plumber', but my eye had spied the means to lifting the lid off the cylinder and my hand was reaching for the nail scissors and tweezers on the shelf above the sink. The voice inside was discussing options for plumbers, while my fingers discovered how the cable mechanism slotted into the valve mechanism. My fingers unslotted the mechanism, and then played with the molded bits of plastic, trying to figure out how it worked and why it wasn't. The voice inside let out a little squeak, but my fingers calmly reminded it that this was just another puzzle, like the wooden cubes or metal rings on the kitchen shelf at Grandma's house. Nothing had snapped or been lost, it would all come back together.         

If you are a parent, grandparent, teacher or otherwise concerned about the future of one or more children please make sure that they are never exposed to those darstedly little puzzles. They should come with a warning label 'keep out of reach of children, may cause brain damage'. They lead to irreversible neural re-structuring that causes vast overestimation of spatial and physical problem solving abilities. If one of those puzzles ever defeated me as a child there was always the option of putting the pieces in a plastic bag and waiting for Grandma to come over and show me how it was done. The stakes were somewhat higher with the tiny plastic pieces of my toilet. Grandma lives in Geraldton, my toilet is in London, and at 93 she is possibly past her puzzle-solving prime. 

I tinkered with the parts, and managed to put them back together, hoping that this reboot would be enough to solve the problem. The valve still stuck. The second black-box tempted me. My inner voice of reason was now whimpering with fear. Cable mechanisms have gone horribly wrong in my hands, leaving me stranded on the pavement with an upturned, brake-less bike halfway to work. My hands marched confidently on, now reaching into the cupboard for the spanners and screw drivers. If nothing broke and nothing was lost and if I moved slowly, everything would be OK. I opened the box, and the inner mechanism proved remarkably simple. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that lubricating the cable would probably help, but I didn't have any mineral oil or lubricating spray. The voice of reason could barely say 'walk down the street and buy a can of WD40', before my hands had reached for the sunflower oil from the kitchen. The cable was drizzled with edible oil and reinstated, and both black boxes returned to their rightful places in the cistern. The cable moved more freely, but the valve still stuck.

I picked up my purse and took out four pennies. I put the pennies on the top of the valve shaft to provide extra weight to help it drop down once the cable was released. The valve still stuck. I then found my jar of foreign coins and picked out the US pennies, Mexican pesos, Euro cents and Danish half-Kroner. I piled a few of them on top of the shaft, and placed some of them under the cylinder on top of the valve itself. 

It worked. 

I turned the water back on, filled the cistern and flushed, and flushed again, any-old-how. Every time the valve opened and closed on demand. There was a sunflower oil slick in the toilet and a rattle like a pocket full of change, but the cistern no longer leaked. I put the lid back on, packed the tools away and my sensible legs took me out jogging before my tinkering fingers could deny me any more sunshine.

Tinkering feels like a mental disorder. It is state of mental and physical obsession, a compulsion. Engineers are often characterised as tinkerers. The classic boy-geek engineer tinkers with TVs, cars or computers. I have never taken a TV apart nor deliberately looked inside a computer. I thought I was a different kind of engineer, interested more in the big picture than the nerdy mechanical detail. I thought I was special. I am not. It pains me deeply to come out as a tinkerer. Worse yet, I am a tinkerer of toilets.

Of course this is not the first time I have tinkered with a toilet. I have a secret history of opening cisterns and fiddling with valves. I usually take care not to tinker too long, lest people start to wonder what I am up to, but alone in the privacy of my bathroom my tinkering takes its own course. 

I know that tinkering is no longer something to be ashamed of. The 'maker' movement, including UCL's Institute of Making, positively celebrates this kind of behaviour, creating spaces for people to tinker together. Apparently there is honour in engaging directly and purposely with the material world around us. Matthew Crawford in his book 'Shop Class as Soulcraft' claims that working with our hands in this way is fundamental to our humanity. I should embrace my tinkering, be proud of it. 

So here I am. I am an engineer, and I tinker. I can no longer hide.      

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Run for your life

Today is the London marathon. I am watching it on the tellie, dressed in my running gear having just come in from a short jog around Highbury Fields. I am not a natural runner. I have long gangly limbs and most of my 'muscle mass' is to be found on my arse. Theoretically I could be a cyclist or a rower, but I have tried both with uninspiring results. My body is best suited to lying on the couch watching others play sports. And yet I run. Slowly and inconsistently, I have run for most of my life.

In my youth my height meant that I was a reasonably valuable member of netball and basketball teams. Basketball training was where the running started. It was not a happy beginning. As a young basketballer any time spent training without a ball in my hand or an opponent in my sights was a drag. 'Fitness training' was my least favourite activity but if it was just a few sprints or sit ups on the court then it could be endured because real training wasn't too far away. Training outside the stadium, at the beach or the local football ground, was tedious, but with team mates to laugh at me when my legs collapsed after a sprint up a sand dune, and a coach yelling at me to go harder, it was bearable. There was nothing fun about the early mornings slowly jogging around the deserted roads of the suburban fringe, with my mother trailing behind on a bicycle. I hated running, but I did it for the team, or at least out of fear that I would be dropped if I didn't.

Then I went to university, stopped training, started drinking and got fat. I still hated running, but not as much as I hated being fat. So I put on my sneakers again and one foot in front of the other jogged around Kings Park and the Swan River near the University of Western Australia. I never ran more than 5km, and I ran slowly, but I began to notice other benefits. By my final year I realised that the day I could run an extra 100m was the day I could revise another few pages of my text book. Running was teaching me to push past my limits, and the fruits of discipline.

I left university for work in aluminium smelting and continued jogging slowly around the bushland, mangroves and beaches of Central Queensland, which was fine in the 'dry season' but awful in treacly air of 'the wet'. Back to university and back to Perth for my PhD and my midday run along the Indian Ocean coastline south of Fremantle was a brief moment of sanity in those lunatic days of write up. I entered my first 5km fun run around Freo. Across the continent again to the cold air of the New South Wales tablelands and my first academic job, where I ran in snow and sleet, losing feeling in my fingers and toes. I ran the 14km Sydney City to Surf. And still, if you'd asked me, I would have said that for the most part I hated running.

I am by nature very lazy. Given the choice I will always lie on the couch and read a book, watch TV, or, even better, sleep. I kept running to keep from getting fat. Running up a hill, alone, in the sub-zero sleet on the farm where I lived and worked teaching sustainable agriculture, I visualised carbon dioxide and water molecules coming out of my mouth, smoke from the fat burning off my bum. I also imagined my childhood nemesis, who I knew had been putting on the pounds, and was driven by the thought that if I achieved nothing else in my life at least I would be thinner than her when I went home. I would be a horrible person, but I would not be fat. My mantra was 'keep running you fat lazy cow' (polite version).

I moved to London, and jogged along the Thames and over Hampstead Heath. In a pub after the Great British 10K one year with my brother and a friend, we toyed with the idea of a marathon and dismissed it before the bottom of our second pint. Then one January, all in need of a resolution, five of us signed up for the Edinburgh marathon (which is easier to get into than London, is a lovely scenic course and a good excuse for a weekend in one of my favourite cities).

Marathon training was hard. It began 12 weeks before the race, required running or cross training most days of the week, and took over my weekends. Sundays I would run in the morning and then sleep in the afternoon, exhausted. Pretty soon I was running further than ever before, every week. This meant that every week I would feel a new level of pain, and every Monday I would be hobbling up the stairs at work. Men cat called, even whilst taking a Sunday stroll in the park with their girlfriends. I discovered whole new areas of London and got to know the Lea Valley more intimately than I ever imagined.    

Marathon training taught me some of my most important lessons. It taught me the power of negative thinking. 'Keep running you fat lazy cow' might have been enough to drag my sorry arse up a hill on a freezing 7km jog, but 27km into a long training session, far from home, it was a very dangerous thought. At that point my body believed whatever my mind told it. If I have told my body it was fat and lazy it would have stopped running and found the nearest chip shop. 'You are a big, strong girl, keep going', became my new mantra. Its purpose was to keep out negative thoughts, and it helped me keep my head up and keep putting one foot in front of the other until I got home, took a shower and fell asleep.

The marathon itself taught me to live for the moment. My companions had all run off ahead of me by the 2km mark and alone in the crowd I thought to myself 'this is probably the only marathon you will ever run, enjoy it'. And so I did. I kept slowly shuffling along, chatting to people who were at the same pace for short periods, listening out for all the cheers from the crowd along the way, laughing at the humiliation of being overtaken by Uncle Bulgaria, the Womble (who is considerably taller than he looks on TV). Around 30km, on my own, out along the coast, a lady standing in her front yard yelled 'I love seeing strong women achieving their goals', putting a smile on my face for the rest of the day. I 'ran' the whole way, without walking or stopping. When the 40km marker appeared I knew it was nearly over but I had no idea when. I was running so slowly that it seemed possible that I would be running for the rest of the afternoon, but I kept going. One foot in front of the other.

Then it was over. I couldn't lift my foot onto the step for the volunteer to take the chip off my ankle. Very kindly she bent over to the ground and my officially recorded time was 4:52. Later that year a woman won the gold medal in Beijing running the marathon in 2:26. I have never felt pain like I felt that day and for the following week, but I had 'run' a marathon.

I didn't run further than the bus stop for the next six months. I laid on the couch a lot. Eventually I put my sneakers back on and got back out onto the pavements and parks. I slid back into my inconsistent routine of jogging, mostly for fitness but also because sometimes as I close my eyes at night I dream that I am running on an empty street. In the last couple of years I have discovered that running is a good cure for jet lag, especially on work trips. In that hour that I usually get between being dropped at the hotel after a long haul flight and picked up for dinner or my first meeting, I head straight for the treadmill. It feels good to get the blood circulating. Running is a great way to discover a city, and on holidays I head out onto the streets and parks, but for work trips the treadmill is more reliable.

I go through phases, sometimes not running for months. This winter has been one of those phases, initially due to a chest infection, then simply inertia. I have also been suffering terribly with procrastination, noticing a lack of commitment to almost everything. This is not a co-incidence. And so, after many drafts of post-it notes, very tidy cupboards, many books and webpages on productivity, I simply put my sneakers on, and went jogging. I have now been jogging for 11 days in a row. Very slowly, no further than 5km. It is the one thing I know I can commit to, and the one thing I know brings the structure and discipline I need for the rest of my life. That extra 100m - another paragraph of a grant application, another essay marked.

I no longer hate running, but I will never be a runner. If I could take a pill that burned 350 calories instead of going for a half hour jog I probably would. I hope the drug companies never invent that pill. I also have a note in my diary for 22nd April, the day the ballot opens for next year's London marathon. I don't know if I'll apply or if I am prepared to hobble around for 12 weeks next winter, but I hope I will keep jogging, very slowly for as long as my legs can carry me. 

Friday, 7 March 2014


Today I made a short presentation about the MSc Environmental Systems Engineering as part of a lunch hour session at UCL on 'Gendered Innovations'. We have more than 50% women on our programme, compared to 27% on other MSc courses. It was an Athena Swan event to mark International Women's Day. As I left my office on my way to the lecture theatre I ran into a colleague in the corridor. I told him I was off to talk about gender and asked if he would like to come. Sensibly and politely he told me he had other things to do, like research. 

So I find myself waiting for my turn to speak, once more seeing the graphs of UCL staff showing that there are more women than men at the level of research assistant, but only 21% women professsors. I am spending my lunch hour talking about gender innovation in teaching and my sensible male colleague is back in the office doing research. Who do you think is the bookies' favourite in the race to promotion? It's not the one rushing out the door with the USB stick. 

I work in a research intensive university. There are occasional rumblings about paths to promotion based on teaching or enterprise, but when it comes down to it research, and research income in particular, is what gets you promoted. I get it. Those are the rules. I knew the rules when I joined the game. I am research active and I haven't given up on the ambition to one day 'win' and be promoted to the next level, but I live with the possibility that I might not. 

I do things like give talks on gender innovation in engineering education because I think they are important. My colleague is spending his lunch hour doing what he thinks is important*. Research is important. Research is rewarded. Gender innovation in teaching is not. The reward system of my university tells me that research is more important to the institution than gender innovation in teaching. Fair enough. I am not about to argue. I have more important things to do.

If what was most important to me was being promoted then I would make different decisions about how I spend my time. I initially ignored the invitation to speak at today's event because I know that I need to spend more time on my research. I need to minimise distractions. Speaking about gender as a professor of engineering would be more powerful than speaking as as yet another woman who is stalled mid-career. But the work of our Athena Swan team is important and so when the invitation came back a second time I said yes. It was only a short presentation. It only took an hour or two to prepare and the event only lasted 90 minutes. I could have defined the objectives for my next grant application in that time, but then again I have spent a lot of time lately catching up on 'The Good Wife' (Alicia Florrick's career is doing much better than mine). 

Other colleagues make different decisions. For some of them research itself really is the most important thing. These people are inspiring to be around. It would never occur to them to give a lunchtime talk on gender in engineering, and they are never asked. For others, research is the means to promotion and recognition, and they are ruthless in their abdication of any obligations that get in the way. This is the ugliest side of universities. If I am resentful of our promotions system it is not because people are promoted for their research, but because some people are promoted who, in pursuing research as the sole means to promotion, have willfully ignored their basic obligations to students and colleagues. Administrative chaos, failed students and overburdened colleagues become collatoral damage from personal ambition. This is unfair, but all reward schemes have perverse outcomes and I don't have any propositions for a better system. I have more important things to do.

I have research grants applications and papers to write. I have teaching to prepare and student emails to respond to. I have forms to fill in to make changes to improve the structure and content of our innovative MSc programme. I have a pile of small grant applications to review. I have a major public engagement project to plan. I have literature to summarise for community groups who need technical information to help them negotiate with developers and governments. This is all important work for me, but only the research grants will be rewarded, and I am certainly not the bookies' favourite when it comes to research funding success (I exaggerate, but not by much - UCL expects a 'balance' of performance measures for promotion, but research grant income tips the balance strongly in favour of success).  

I live with the possibility that I might never have enough research grant income to get promoted. I know that this is partly because I choose to spend my time giving lunch hour talks on gender, improving my teaching, working with communities, writing this blog and watching TV, rather than devoting all my time to research. I choose to do the things that are important to me rather than only what my university rewards. I do this consciously. I don't do it to be a martyr and I don't want to spend the next 25 years sliding into bitterness and resentment. If my career progression stalls here, and I hope it won't, then I need to know that it was because I was doing more important things. External recognition is important but, for those of us lucky enough to earn a decent and secure living, the work itself has to be its own reward.

*Apparently 'lunch' isn't important at UCL, but that's another story.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Advice to the young

To mark the occasion of my 40th birthday I have one piece of advice for younger women – keep getting older.

In my first four decades I was given all sorts of advice for life from all sorts of people. The nature of advice giving is that it tends to pass from the old to the young. Some advice is helpful, but most of the things that old people really want the young to know can only be learned through lived experience. It is also the case that a lot of what people tried to tell me when I was young I already knew or knew to be wrong. If I was ever bold enough to point this out I was condescended to even further. One of the great advantages of getting older is that there are fewer people who are older than you. You don’t have to put up with other people sharing their pearls of wisdom as often, not because you are necessarily wiser, but because there is a bigger pool of targets who are younger than you, and the purveyors of wise pearls prefer youth.

I kept a diary, on and off, through my twenties and early thirties. I had a lot going on. I lived in two cities, three country towns and two countries. I studied, worked and travelled, sometimes simultaneously. I fell in love and had my heart broken several times. I made many good friends, and lost some. Last year I pulled out the box of old diaries and spent an afternoon reading them. The thing that struck me was how ‘wise’ I was for one so ‘young’. The most important things I know now, I already knew back then. This made me feel proud of my younger self, but also a bit angry. I remember really struggling with people who tried to convince me I was wrong, and I remember them pulling the ‘you’ll realise I am right when you get to my age’ trump if ever I tried to talk back. They were being lazy and disrespectful, but they were older and so were able to pretend that I was the one who was foolish.

And now I am that age. I still have basically the same set of beliefs as I did back then, but because of my age fewer people bother trying to convince me that I should think differently. When they do, I know to simply ignore them. Whilst it is tempting to supplement my one piece of advice with ‘ignore all other advice’, the ability to discern who to ignore and who to listen to is one of those things that can only be learned through experience.

The most important things that I have needed to know about how to live my life this far fall into two categories: the things I have always known and the things that I learned by living, not listening. Along the way I have benefited from the insights of science, religion, art, scholarship, family, community, sport and friendship. Maybe engineering even helped. But my ability to synthesise these different teachings and makes sense of them in my own life is something that couldn’t be taught. Today, I am older, and I intend to get older still. I wish you all the same privilege.    

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Will the real imposter please stand up

Imposter Syndrome is the latest disorder of choice for those of us lucky enough not to have anything seriously wrong with us, but unlucky enough to be afflicted with a persistent sense of being out of our depth, standing on the outside looking in on all our competent and confident peers. It is a mild strain of inferiority complex. It is the feeling that we don't really deserve to be in the position we find ourselves, and one day those who know better will find us out and send us back to where we belong.

Everyone has Imposter Syndrome these days, particularly academics and particularly women. Sheryl Sandberg had a bout of it early in her career, Professor Stephen Curry recently outed himself as a sufferer on his blog, and Ruth Barcan wrote about it in the Times Higher Education magazine. The occasional speaker at our graduation ceremony last year called the women graduates out on it, saying they all looked more timid than the men crossing the stage (personally, I blame their shoes). Imposter Syndrome is a bit like thrush – it is an annoying discomfort that gets better or worse from time to time but never seems to properly go away, we all have it, we all know we all have it, but it still feels weird when an older woman stands up in academic dress and says it out loud.

The point of most of this sharing is to help us all to realise that even people who look successful and confident on the outside might be feeling just as uncertain as you are, particularly early in your career. If you have the same qualifications and experience as everyone else in the room, then you are no more faking it than they are. This problem can’t be necessarily be solved by more hard work, it just takes time and that magic ingredient ‘confidence’. As they say in AA, ‘fake it until you make it’.

Barcan’s THE article has a slightly different take. Her point is that that Imposter Syndrome is a more recent scourge of academia, brought on by unrealistic expectations from universities, students,  government and the public. We can’t all be ground breaking researchers, inspiring teachers, brilliant public speakers and social networkers, entrepreneurs, administrators and colleagues all of the time. But this is what the job demands, and so we pretend. We don’t have the time or energy to do anything as well as we would like to and we end up feeling like imposters. As Stephen Curry wrote in his blog, interdisciplinary research brings its own sense of inadequacy, always in between established points of knowledge, acutely aware of everything you don’t know. What this implies is that on some level, we actually are imposters. This is important in distinction from the version of the syndrome described by Sandberg and other boardroom feminists.

I have reached a point in my career where I am reasonably happy with my capabilities and I hope that I have a fairly balanced view of my limitations. I have been in academia long enough to know that I have as much right to be here as any of my colleagues. It was not always like this. For many years I was actually pretending. I was an imposter.

I am the first generation of my family to go to university and the only person in my extended family to have a PhD. My mother and grandmother had barely set foot on a university campus before they dropped me off for O-Week. At every stage of my career, from that very first day as a fresher right through my early years as an academic, I had to learn everything myself, from scratch. I am reasonably bright, and I learned quickly, but for much of that time I was one small step behind my colleagues from more academic families. When I was a kid hanging around listening to my Dad negotiate car deals, some of my colleagues were playing quietly down the back of the seminar room or doing their homework in proper, grownup libraries. I will bet my left foot that I could sell a car faster than most of them, but when it comes to knowing how to negotiate the nuances of academic life, they had a head start. They already knew a lot about how to be an academic, I was just pretending. But I learned. And so now, for the most part, I feel like I know what I am doing, and I have probably benefited from learning it all first hand.

There is a more dangerous strain of the syndrome that I now worry about. It is asymptomatic and often undiagnosed. This is the version of the illness that causes academics who are well recognised for their expertise in one specialist field start to pretend that they can speak or write knowledgably about others. I am highly susceptible to this. When my instinct says that I should decline an invitation to contribute to project or event on the basis of limited knowledge, it is tempting to tell myself that I am just suffering from Imposter Syndrome. Everyone is faking it, the devilish voice says, so I shouldn’t let my lack of confidence stop me from contributing and taking my 15 minutes at the podium. This is a very hard balance to strike, particularly when others seem willing to pretend to knowledge outside their narrow field. Interdisciplinary work means that, like Stephen Curry, I feel insecure in my own expertise most of the time, but this insecurity keeps researchers like us honest. It shows respect for colleagues in other fields of study and for the basic principles of academic work.

If you feel like an imposter, you probably are. If you are early in your career, keep working, keep growing older, and it should go away. If you are later in your career, stop, listen, and remember to show respect to your colleagues and the standards of knowledge we are paid to uphold. It is not necessarily a reason to hold back from contributing, but it can be a warning that you still have a lot to learn.

Sunday, 19 January 2014


Self-confidence, self-esteem, self-regard, self-image are all important in underpinning a sense of well-being and happiness. Meaningful work and loving relationships are also part of the equation for a successful life. Very few people ‘have it all’. The rest of us blunder along from one day to the next, through life’s ups and downs, trying to muster the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and can’t change to improve ourselves and our situation. In this struggle we look to other people – family and friends, colleagues and mentors, counsellors, priests, coaches, authors of memoirs and self-help books – for guidance and advice. We have much to learn and teach each other. But sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes what seems like the deepest of insights is simply bullshit.

The most harmful self-improvement truisms that I have learned to ignore are the career and relationship twins ‘you need more confidence’ and ‘you need to love yourself first’. Young women hear this A LOT. We ask our confidants ‘why is it so hard?’. We have done everything right – we are well qualified, we work hard, we keep in shape, we network, we date, we are friendly and funny, we read the right books and see the right films. Why are we still single? Why haven’t we been promoted? When there is no obvious answer, ‘confidence’ seems to be the only thing missing, and so we are told that we should learn to love ourselves, learn to believe in our own abilities. This is not only wrong, it is pernicious.

Both love and confidence are fundamentally relational experiences. An imaginary baby locked in a cupboard and fed protein pills from birth is not going to develop a positive self-regard by looking in the mirror and chanting affirmations. The idea that we must regard ourselves highly and then go out and succeed in life is completely arse-about. Love and confidence come from positive experience of other people, not the other way around. Of course there is a virtuous circle of positive self-regard and success in career and relationships, but the idea that you must, or even that you can, love yourself and be confident before anything good can happen in your life is absurd.
Life is not fair, especially for women, most especially for women who think they may have more to contribute to society than looking pretty and breeding. If women lack confidence at work compared to their male counterparts, then it may be because they are being more harshly judged by others because of their gender. There are many, many studies that confirm this. I have written before about my own experience of ‘little sexism’. As women we put up with it and get on with our work, while our male counterparts are boosted by ‘little affirmations’ (if you think I am making this up I can send you the reading list). Then we hit the next milestone in our careers and are told that it is our fault we aren’t succeeding at the same rate as the men because we lack their confidence. Seriously.

Relationships fail and careers stall for lots of reasons, some of them structural. The spinster aunts left behind by the world wars weren’t single because they didn’t love themselves enough. They were single because thousands of men of their generation were killed in their prime. There hasn’t been a world war for a while now, but there have been some pretty serious changes to the structure of society and gender relationships in recent decades, which might have something to do with why I am not alone in being single for no apparent reason. Partners in most marriages these days claim equality, but heterosexual marriages also reflect wider social norms. In some cases the woman is better qualified and earns more than her male partner, but these are rare. In the incomplete revolution in gender equality, life has changed faster in public than in private. Women have moved up in the world of work, and yet still largely expect to marry a man who is their equal or older, taller and wealthier, and most men expect to marry equal or down in height, age, qualifications and income. This leaves a generation of unemployed and working class single men at the ‘bottom’ of the socio-economic ladder, and me and my single friends struggling within sight of the top. I have met many of these men over the years and we have lots in common. Though I am unlikely to marry an unemployed truck driver it would be nice to live in a world where being tall, good at my job and earning a decent salary made me attractive as a partner, regardless of the other person’s statistics.  We are not there yet.

It’s just a theory. I am sure there are demographers out there who could disprove my hypothesis. My point is that sometimes when there aren’t any obvious personal reasons why someone is single or struggling with their career, it might be that there are actually bigger forces at play than just their own self-esteem. Expecting someone to overcome persistent social structures and cultural norms with their own self-regard is like hiding their keys and expecting them to open the front door using positive visualisation.

Worst of all, the surest way to destroy someone’s confidence is to tell them that they need more, and the fastest way to make someone feel unlovable is to tell them they need to love themselves. As a graduate engineer in the pub one Friday afternoon a colleague recounted her appraisal where she was told she just needed more confidence. Her response was ‘not only do I feel completely unqualified for this role and the operators don’t take me seriously, but now my boss thinks I don’t even have any confidence’. I lost nearly a decade of my life listening to people who told me I just needed to learn to love myself. It had never occurred to me that I didn’t love myself, and taking this advice led down a horrible spiral that concludes with ‘if I can’t even love myself then why would anyone else?’ I spent many years and thousands of pounds in therapy deconstructing my childhood and thought patterns to find out why I didn’t love myself, when the truth was that I didn’t love myself because I had started listening to people who couldn’t come up with a better reason for why I didn’t have a boyfriend.

Confidence and love are not things we should be expected to take individual responsibility for. We can’t do it on our own. Trying to do so becomes its own negative, self-fulfilling prophesy. Pulling together a positive self-image for a date who walks away because I am an inch taller than him doesn’t help me to feel the love. Doing my best to present myself as a serious professional and then being introduced to a meeting as ‘young lady’ doesn’t fill me with the sense that I really belong at the tables of power. If we are trying our hardest to take personal responsibility for our own self-esteem and the world doesn’t seem to agree with us then we risk undermining whatever shred of positive self-regard we started with.

Now whenever I hear people tell me I need to love myself and have more confidence, I know it is short hand for ‘you are OK, I have no idea why you are on your own or struggling with your career, the world is unfair’. Confidence and love are outcomes, not prerequisites, of positive experiences of the world. We can give and receive both, but we can’t make it up all on our own, and it is dangerous to try.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

It's not you

As a straight, single, fortyish, academic woman I know a thing or two about rejection. I have lost count of the number of grant applications that have failed and men who have come and gone. I may not have learned much of substance from these experiences, but I am most definitely an expert when it comes to dealing with rejection. It is easy to look at my stalled career and comical lovelife and feel depressed, and from time to time I am struck down by hopeless self-pity. But when I look closer at this history of failure I find a strange sense of satisfaction, a kind of self-acceptance that can only be discovered through the experience of being unacceptable to the outside world.

Here is what I have learned:

1) Rules, schmules.
There are a lot of rules about how to write a successful research grant and how to find a mate. You should contact the funding body before starting your application and pay close attention to their assessment criteria. You should wait for him to call you and you should not have sex on the first date. I know of multi-million pound research grants that were funded on the basis of a drawing on the back of a napkin. Some of the strongest marriages I know started out as casual sex. Over the years I have both followed and broken all the rules, and I am still single and without major funding for my research. Follow the rules, or don't. It doesn't make much difference. What matters is how you feel in the morning. Do what you know to be right for you at the time. Personally, I sometimes regret sticking by the rules but I never regret breaking them. If I am going to fail I want it to be on my own terms. Likewise, true success does not come from merely following instructions.

2) Feedback is rarely helpful and often painful.
Like many young fools, in the past I tortured myself and former lovers with cringeing questions like 'why won't you love me?', 'how can I change?', 'what does she have that I don't?'. Similarly I have wasted many cups of coffee and pints of beer with colleagues asking 'why don't the reviewers get the point?', 'why can't the research councils deal with interdisciplinarity?', 'what is so special about her research area?'. Feedback is only ever useful if it helps you to learn what to do differently next time. I am keen for feedback on my writing, supervision, teaching, cooking, gardening, baby-sitting and other things that I do repeatedly for a more or less similar purpose. By contrast my research grant applications are usually so specific, and the reviewers and funding decisions so particular, that feedback is rarely useful the next time around. It is either pointlessly generic, 'the standard of applications was very high', or completely specific, 'the applicant should have referred to my paper in this arcane journal', and more often feeds a sense of injustice than provides useful ideas for future improvement. When the latest relationship fails to launch I have learned better than to try to figure out what I did wrong. There is usually no rational explanation. He just didn't like me or was otherwise unavailable. They just didn't like my research idea or didn't have enough funds. The morbid search for reasons has often kept me stuck in the past and has rarely led to insights for postive changes in the future.

3) Stop doing things you know don't work (or at least take a break).
Internet dating works for some people, but not for me. Many of my colleagues have been successful with the research councils, I haven't. There are plenty of other places to meet men and other sources of funding. There are plenty of other ways to have a happy personal life and do good work.

4) Keep trying.
In the past I have been very resentful of my own optimism. 'Why did you think this time would be any different?', 'can't you see that your ideas will never be funded?', 'when will you learn?'. The easiest way to deal with rejection is to avoid it. Unfortunately I have been cursed with irrepressible optimism. I am always convinced that this research idea really will change the world, is completely aligned with the funder's priorities and will be my big breakthrough. I always imagine that the latest beau will be 'the one'. I have always been wrong, but that is not to say I always will be.

5) So what?
I have a great job, lots of friends, a nice flat, a funny cat and am on good terms with my family (not to mention running water, the NHS, a stable government...). My successes outweigh my failures. The failures are significant - I won't be promoted to professor without a series of big research grants; being single and childless at forty is not how I imagined my life. But the space left open by these gaps in my life and career makes it easier to see the many things I have to be thankful for. Failure on external measures of success has helped me to avoid taking the things that really matter in my life and work for granted.

6) Find humility in humiliation.
Being married and having children does not make you a good person. Having a big research grant does not make you a good researcher. Neither of them makes you happy. This is easy to forget. Those smug couples and puffed-up professors who are full of advice for failures like me are not necessarily better partners or scholars. It is well known that people tend to attribute their own success to competence and hard work and their failure to bad luck or other people's incompetence. Luck, hard work, competence, confidence, good character, support from others and many more factors are at play in any form of success. That is more obvious to me when I fail than when I succeed. Every time a grant is rejected or a bloke disappears a part of me is grateful that my ego is being kept in check. I am not so special. It is good to be reminded.

7) Celebrate your niche.
At least part of the reason I have been rejected is because I am different. I don't have a standard academic discipline. I am three inches taller than the average British man, I have a PhD and short hair, and I like watching basketball on the internet. Normal people get married. Normal engineering professors have big research grants. I have worked very hard not to be normal. I have spent a lot of my life-force breaking out of categories that other people tried to put me in. I am niche. This is a good thing. If the consequence of living my life as I think best and pursuing research questions that I think really matter, rather than striving to fit a social or intellectual norm, is that the normal men and normal research funders reject me, then perhaps failure is really success. Groucho Marx said it first.