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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.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Rewards

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.

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