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.

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.