Current Affairs Blog 

Smash the Partiality Tuesday, Jan 9 2018 

Photocredit: Helen Zaltzman (with permission, @helenzaltzman)

The front page of Ms. Magazine this quarter sends a clear message.  I saw it thanks to a tweet by Helen Zaltzman (picture).  It is a message that the feminist movement, and particularly its hard-line wing, have been issuing for a long time.  It indicates a long-standing problem.

It was interesting for another reason, too.  The tweet was prescient as it came in the same week as Carrie Gracie’s resignation as the BBC’s China editor.  A number of sources have quoted her as saying words to the effect that she did not want to collude in a system that paid women less than their male counterparts for the same work.  Ms Gracie has made an extraordinary and commendable move.  It’s also a disappointment, though.  Why does someone senior have to resign to blow the whistle about activity that is, at least in legal theory, outlawed?  It’s 2017.  The equal pay act received Royal assent in 1970.

What’s also disappointing is how the self-sacrifice and the illegal nature of this are lost.  Yes, the issue has been raised and yes it remains annoying even for male feminists like me who want to see a meritocracy.  But it doesn’t stop there.  What about the problems that don’t have the opportunity for leverage like a high profile resignation and an open letter?   How can those problems be understood, and solved?

One of those problems comes from comparisons made in the pay gaps in different companies.  One that has been quoted is a pay gap between women and men at a budget airline.  I’ll call it SqueezyJet.  Sources differ on the percentage, but all quotes are well into double figures for the difference between men’s pay and women’s at SqueezyJet.  A bit of digging shows that the men and the women in the company are being compared to each other.  This seems reasonable you may say, but then we find out that the cockpit crew are (surprisingly) overwhelmingly male and the cabin crew are majority female.  Is it really a surprise that pilots and the people charged with passenger loading and unloading and schilling sandwiches are paid the same?  I don’t think so.  For me it is self-evident that women can be just as good at flying an aircraft as men.  The fact that piloting is male-dominated hints at a problem with skills or training or recruitment, not pay.  The real problem there has not only been missed but also conflated with something rather different. 

Another exaple involves a job where a pay difference is as good as impossible.  It is that of minimum wage jobs.  In the late 90s I was doing my A-levels.  I had a part time job, as did most of my friends.  We wanted to feel grown up and independent but also we wanted a few quid for alcohol, sweets, books, condoms and even petrol.  Two of my female friends worked at a local supermarket.  I’ll call it Osda to hide its identity.  Osda paid all its junior staff the minimum wage.  The minimum wage had just arrived in Britain and so this was seen as basically fine.  It seemed fair.  However, it quickly became apparent that the work they were doing was not quite so fair. 

The company would gather in enough junior staff or as many as they could and then apportion the jobs as they needed to on the day.  My 17-18 year old female contemporaries were put on the tills.  They didn’t really mind this to begin with—easy enough job, get to sit down, not cold in the winter, etc.  However, they never got to drive the fork lift when the new stock arrived.  That job always went to the same one or two people. The same one or two hairy, tubby, smelly men.  But why?  My friends had passed their driving test.  They were qualified.  They drove to work.  Why weren’t they driving the forklift once in a while?

These examples—and I have no doubt there are countless other specific examples that you’d never see reflected in pay statistics—show that the ‘wage gap’ is being used to refer to a multitude of problems, not just one in which the salary two people are paid for the same job.  It’s becoming a rather glib term. 

That’s not to say the problems are glib or unworthy of our attention.  They are not short-lived either.  A slightly reluctant Mariella Frostrup said on the Today programme that the same things were happening in the 1970s.  So these hidden problems are not even a new thing.  This suggests to me that the current tactics and approach we are using to tackle these iniquities—anger and protest—are not working.  The solution is partly a need for clarity about what the problems are, a need to inspire confidence and ambition, but also to focus on the intellectual case, and not anger.

Brexit, mijnheer? Sunday, Feb 14 2016 

At least one senior tory has been accused of calling UKIP members ‘swivel-eyed loons’. It’s the sort of report I don’t want to follow up because it can only spoil the entertaining rudeness, but I definitely haven’t detected a massive backlash of denying that it was said, and furthermore, no one has said that it isn’t true. This suggests simultaneously that UKIPers are swivel-eyed loons and that everyone thinks they are.

If they are, by Jove there are a lot of them. They polled over 3m votes in the European elections in the UK in 2014, putting them in first place. They doubled their number of seats. Something like 4m people voted for them at the 2015 general election—about the same number as the Liberal Democrats and the SNP put together. They won one and came second in 120 seats. This odd result is probably inexperience at running a national campaign: they are a new party and so are not (yet) very co-ordinated.

But no amount of co-ordination can give a political party a win or even be noticed without solid underlying support. With the conservative party trying to unite and move more towards the centre ground, there has been less obvious Euro-scepticism from them. Support for the BNP has all but vanished. The support UKIP are enjoying is doubtless the result of a shift from both of these.

And they have a real chance of getting what they want. There is going to be a referendum on our relationship with Europe. UKIP, many conservative and ex-conservative MPs, and labour and ex-labour MPs, are calling for Britain’s Exit, known as Brexit. Britain’s age-old antipathy to Europe may yet be expressed by us leaving the EU in the next year or two. It probably requires co-ordination not just of UKIP but a lot of other, rather odd bedfellows, if they are to be sure of winning. But with that variety of political colours, there’s a good chance there is enough support for the No campaign and thus that we will leave the EU.

I feel slightly guilty about saying ‘we’ there. I am British and I remain proud of so being, however, I haven’t lived in Britain for nearly three years now and I don’t plan to move back for another two-and-a-half at least. I lived and worked the Netherlands from 2013-2015 and then in the autumn of 2015, started living and working in Norway. This gives me the lofty feeling that my opinion about EU stuff is informed; I have recent experience of one country at the heart of the EU and another that is not really involved but is also geographically near. In fairness, what it does amount to is one person’s experience of living in a proper EU country and (another) one that sort-of is.

In taking a point of view, I have tried to stack up what I see of the choices the governmental and corporate institutions have made, and use this as a way of measuring what being in the EU and nearly being in it means. In the Netherlands, the income tax is about 42% for everyone, and you have to buy private health insurance on top of that and are charged it backdated to the moment you arrive. The trains are cheaper than the UK, but not more numerous or more on time. All of the supermarkets have the same bland food, poor baking and limited range of fresh or cooked meat. One of the first things I saw of my local supermarket was a roll-up sign outside proudly announcing that it was going to begin opening on Sundays. They don’t yet accept internationally-recognised credit cards, though local debit cards are accepted (welcome to 1992). There are no parliamentary constituencies, so there is no being bothered by political campaigning but the government is typically a coalition. The current one is between their equivalent of Conservative and Labour parties, called VVD and PvdA respectively. They have a staggering number of bike lanes that I love to pieces, and meant I cycled something like 26,000 Km over the 29 months I lived there. Maybe the scandalous income tax pays for that, but somehow I doubt it.

Norway is an EEA country, by contrast, so ‘nearly’ EU. I have heard Norwegians described as social democratic politically, and this seems a fair representation. Another one is that they like consensus, which they do, not unlike the Dutch. Income tax for me here is 35%. Healthcare bills are also on top of income tax though there is no legal obligation to buy health insurance. The costs of healthcare are gnatty, just raising an invoice for a visit to the GP costs kr. 55 (about €5·50 or £4·50). And, as we have found, the trip may be wasted anyway as their reputation for under-medicating is well-founded. The importation of wine is state owned and controlled, and subject to monstrous import tariffs. At any rate, a bottle of Chablis costs about 50% more than it would do anywhere else in Europe and you can’t even buy the bloody thing in a supermarket. You can only buy it 1000-1700 Monday-Saturday from one or perhaps two places in the whole of the city in which I live. Beer and a few types of cider are available more readily, and from one of the limited range of dreary supermarkets and there are ones from other countries, but even a can (yup, a can) of cheap cider will cost about three quid. I’ve no idea where the tax is going; the roads are not good here, potholes you could buckle a wheel in or be thrown off entirely by, and the existence of bike lanes is often debateable at best. Roads do get salted and gritted, though, as everything would stop if they didn’t. Perhaps the fiscal income is low—Sunday opening exists only in the run up to Christmas here and you can’t buy alcohol after 2000 or at all on Sundays.

This rather depressing catalogue makes me think that things are actually managed rather well in Britain, or London at least, and that being in Europe or nearly out of it is no help to us. If income tax that is 50% or more higher than in Britain without much tangible benefit is what the consensus politics of closer ties to the EU means, then frankly it’s hard to come to the conclusion that it’s good for us. And it’s a pity they’ve failed on such big things, because the smaller successes—like how easy it is to start working in the EU as a British person (or having a British passport anyway), are a definite plus. But even the most avid pro-European can’t claim that the £87bn that the EU has cost over the last four years is really good value for money if the best it can do is lighten the admin load.

So, although I have enjoyed living in Europe, the fiscal structure in both the Netherlands and Norway means I can’t tell you that I have fallen in love with either the European dream or the nearly-European dream. But that’s just it, I am arguing for leaving the EU altogether on economic and statutory grounds. I wonder if someone who has never left Romford, Barnsley or Exeter, and who does vote for UKIP, uses the same arguments to justify their position.

The fact is that Brexit may happen, and if my experience is not way off, probably should. It would give us power over our own destiny, more cash that could be soent on something useful like scientific research, and no greater admin burden. But, if Brexit does come to pass, it will probably be thanks in no small part to the votes of swivel-eyed loons and their thinly-veiled racism. I’m in the peculiar position of agreeing with the expected vote of a lot of confirmed ‘no-to-the-EU’ types, a lot of whom are people I’d cross the street to avoid. Little surprise then, that the No campaign and not just the loons themselves, are uncoordinated. Let’s hope the UK won’t be after a ‘no’ win. At least at the moment we are united by all disliking the EU.

Citation Karma Tuesday, Feb 9 2016 

I love being cited.  The leap of excitement when I get an alert e-mail from google scholar telling me that someone has not only found and read my work, but decided to refer to it in theirs, has a long tail.  I feel chipper all day.  It doesn’t really matter to me whether it forms part of their argument for conducting their work, or informs their analysis, it’s all good as far as I am concerned.  I feel rewarded and motivated to work harder.

It’s a nice upside to publishing.  Getting the same sort of alert from a slower system and finding out it was a self-citation to paper published a year ago, doesn’t have the same effect.  Neither does realising that a paper or review that’s been out for six months has not yet been cited.  But these are both simple, if not slightly gloomy reflections.  The ones that can really play with your mind, and make you write blog posts, are when it’s a bit more complicated.

A year or two ago, I got around to publishing some data that had been lying about for a while and was just too big a pile to ignore.  Despite its size, I felt the paper came together well, and we gave it a clear title and got it into a respectable journal.  I was tickled pink that it was cited within about three months of publication.  But, curious type that I am, I wanted to see how they’d used it.  I supposed that their research was potentially as relevant to me as mine was to them (or so I told myself).  What I found was a surprised me.  They’d misread my paper.  My paper shouldn’t really have been cited at all.  What they needed instead was a reference to a slightly different lipid.

I felt a bit guilty, if I am honest.  It was a bit like the time I was given too much change in a busy shop on payday—I didn’t feel like I needed the cash, but somehow there was no opportunity to give it back.  Unlike that situation, with the mis-referencing, I then felt a pang of annoyance.  How could they get it wrong?  After all effort I have made and bollockings I have had about correct referencing, I was reading an article in which they hadn’t bothered to read the title of the paper they were referring to.

What I have been telling myself since is that this is Taoist karma.  Obviously in reality this is as much hogwash as the next thing, but hear me out.  I regularly tweet about lipid research (I’ve run out of jokes that fit into <140 characters and had no desire to shut up altogether, clearly) and so I see the new literature that comes up in the general field concerning amphiphilic biomolecules.  Importantly for this anecdote, this is also the area in which I publish.

Can you feel what’s coming?  Yes, that’s right: the new literature I see includes the papers that could or should have cited my work, but didn’t.  There was a particularly fine example this morning.

It gave me a similarly powerless feeling to the one of being given a citation which I felt I didn’t deserved. The only difference was that I had a greater sense of injustice about not getting a citation rather than getting one incorrectly.  But, the net result in my citation count is the same.  So should I mind?



From Tim Hunt to Witch Hunt in 37 words Sunday, Sep 13 2015 

They say good reputations take a life time to build and a second to destroy. Never has that been made clearer than in June of this year, when a British Nobel laureate was reported as having made openly and viciously sexist comments about female scientists.

A social media storm ensued, and although the facts and independent evidence have only come to light recently—including a partial recording of the event, that shows the tone and reception of Sir Tim’s speech with what seems insightful clarity—the damage done to him has not been undone.

You can judge the evidence about what actually happened for yourself. I am not going to tell you what to think. So I have nothing to add to the reporting work done by Louise Mensch or Jonathan Foreman, or the opinions given by others, for or against, like Prof David Colquhoun and Prof Athene Donald.

What I am more interested in is what was behind what happened. Was Connie St Louis seeking to advance the cause of women in science? I think she probably wanted to, however ham-fistedly it came out. In fairness to her, the fact that what she wrote was retweeted 600 times was probably not something she planned maliciously or made happen. I imagine she planned for what she said to stand out, but I would also argue that is as far as it is reasonable to assume it went. What she said was calculated to get attention, which it did.

Her writing and comments since the affair suggest that she thinks what she did was right, in fighting for her views to be heard. The question it leaves me with is whether the cause of women in science, as the political phrase has it, is any better off now than it was.

The point that the cause of women in science is aiming at is, as I understand it, a meritocracy. It is what I, as someone who has gone on record in The Guardian as being a feminist, also seek. Almost every scientist I have ever met feels the same. I cannot speak for St Louis, and would not dare, but I have never heard she or any other feminist say that they seek a situation where women dominate over men. So, a system based on intellectual merit it is, then.

There is a good intellectual case for a meritocracy, or at least as close as it is practically possible to get to one. A meritocracy means that intellect is well used, that good brains are not wasted and thus do not go untrained or unused—or, at least not for their trifling associations. A merit-based system means we can focus on progress and creative invention. On forging understanding in scientific research. On making things better.

The best bit is that on paper, this intellectual utopia is not that far off. Women of my age have all sorts of choices that my grandparents’ generation did not. Women can choose whether and when to have children, whom they want to marry, what they want to study at school and university. They have female role models at school, in important positions and in the media. There was a female prime minister from my birth to virtually when I entered puberty. Furthermore, the law now ensures that they have the same pay as men.  The issue I have heard complained about in person now, and one that is inconsistent between European countries is the parental leave system.  It’s hardly the same barrier as once it was.

I can feel the hackles of radical or militant (depending on your perspective) feminists rising at my pointing out the statutory equal pay between men and women. The existence of the law on this point is a fact though, even if it is argued that it does not happen in practice. And it is argued that it does not happen in practice, but only with one piece of evidence. A pay survey by the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

The response to this ONS survey is in itself a fascinating case-study of how some non-scientists respond to evidence, and how scientists do. This also has a resonance in how social media handled the Tim Hunt affair—but more of that later. First, scientists regard the ONS study as data, that may or may not constitute evidence of something. Others regard it as proof of a particular conclusion. Scientists avoid terminology like ‘proof’ because it is an absolute, something that does not really exist in science. The reality of a situation tends to be rather more nuanced than a yes or a no.

Second, to a scientist, it is not clear what the limits of the ONS study are. For example, it is not clear what account has been taken of the difference in pay between black employees and white. There are plenty of people who will argue vociferously that blacks are still routinely paid less than whites. It is part of the argument about the existence of institutional racism.

What about ethnicity? Polish immigrants are still white, but are they paid the same as British ones in jobs in the UK? It is doubtful. Certainly traditionally, some ethnicities have been at a disadvantage in Britain. Just ask an Irish person who lived in London in the 60s and 70s. And what about age? Is someone of 40 paid the same as someone of 60 who has the equivalent experience? That is again not clear, nor is it clear how it affects these figures. One last one, and the slipperiest of the lot, is personal relationships. A simple example is: person A wants to impress person B. Person B has a spouse, child or protégé who wants a job. Does person A factor that into the equation about whether to give person C the job?  What about in considering , or remunerate them handsomely to make the point?  In other words, nepotism.

These are important questions that need to be answered about the ONS study. However, the same evidence-based logic applies, or should apply, to handling of news stories. Did all those hundreds of retweeters of what Connie St Louis wrote, check the story? Did they read about Tim Hunt’s record on promoting women in science, or whether he had employed women and how they had done, and what they thought? It seems doubtful. What is more likely is that they retweeted it because it confirmed their convictions; it was what they wanted to believe (and why they won’t be retweeting about this article, except in white-hot rage).

However such questions about the ONS data and the retweeters, are only questions. They do not necessarily kill the data or the original wording stone dead. Something else does that. What kills the ONS data stone dead for the purposes of proving gender pay divide beyond reasonable doubt, is the lack of specific evidence. If there were a systematic pay gap between men and women it should be straightforward to prove.   There would be case study after case study that showed it. Furthermore, there are a large group of people who would love to prove it, as it would confirm their convictions.  As far as I am aware, there is no such proof. This just does not square with the notion that women are paid less than men. There was a time when there were paid less. Back in the bad old days of the 1970s, it was very clear that women were being paid less because they were women.  There is clear evidence of that. But those times have passed. The world has moved on. The crisis as once it was is largely, if not completely, over.

The same is apparently true of Tim Hunt’s career. This is despite his record, and the support he has received consistently from his wife, a senior broadcaster and several of his former, female, students. The evidence has not been weighed up and a balanced decision made.

That is not to say that it has all been achieved and that we should not worry about being complacent. Gender should not be a more important criterion than intellect for filling an academic position. However, if meritocratic principles are applied, there is no reason to expect that we will become complacent on this point. We do not need to be frightened that it will all fall apart.

The current competition for grant money, jobs and studentships in science makes this unlikely, at least in the short term. I can speak from experience on this. Recently I was involved in the selection process for a PhD studentship. There were 47 applicants from around the world. There were a considerable number of factors involved in telling candidates apart—it would have been near impossible to make any coherent distinction based on gender, if we had wanted to.  Needless to say, there was no question of choosing on the basis of gender, and doing so would have felt very wrong.

That is a feeling I have a lot. Perhaps that is my flaw—it simply does not occur to me to be sexist. I am an intellectual, so why would any other criterion for making such a decision enter my head? I am convinced that I am like that, others are too. I am sure I am not unique in taking the view that intellect is paramount.

Does Connie St Louis take the same view? I hope so, but the evidence does not really square with that conclusion. She argues constantly and in what is described as a rambling way that ‘Women have had enough!’ (A piece in The Guardian on 23rd June 2015). That is not really the same as ‘All should be treated equally and equitably, based on intellect’, it is more akin to a mob shouting ‘Action Action’.

Perhaps I am being naïve. Perhaps she does agree with me but has translated her words into a sort of politicalese, in order to accelerate affecting the change she desires. It would be understandable. Many people take their causes into the political arena to effect a change and need to adapt to that environment. The evidence for this being a good way to change intellectual things is not universal though. In other words, politics is a blunt instrument. It is good at wider things in which it has an interest, like the economy. It is not a way of making nuanced changes to culture and fashion.

The real danger is that the use of politics to solve social problems has been tried before and with disastrous consequences. French revolutionaries, after they had killed off their aristocracy, started guillotining each other. Anyone who did not expound the most vociferous revolutionary views was regarded as a danger and was put to death. Robespeirre is a good example.  It was a panicky response in a tense atmosphere and has proved far from stable (France was on its fifth republic less than 200 years after the revolution, where Britain has had a continuous monarchy since the interregnum). No one is expecting the Tim Hunt affair to turn into state-sponsored death, but ostracising someone from the scientific establishment is about the closest thing.

I am not really sure when feminism stopped being a poltico-social movement and started becoming a party political one, but there is no doubt that it has. It is not a move that fills me with hope, when evidence is mishandled, misreported and when lies take over from the truth. It is not helping the cause, it is taking it away from the place moderate feminists seek to arrive at.

Sexism as once it was, is dead and buried—and good riddance.  So what sort of sexism is there to fight against now? The evidence is that in science women were employed 2:1 over men for first-run-on-the-ladder lectureship positions. But no one is going dare to support that view, despite the evidence of sexism. It looks worryingly like a meritocracy is not the desired outcome after all, but something else. Something more short-termist and probably egotistical. Feminism is needs a careful rethink on where it is going if it is not to be accused of being a lot of silly, head strong complainants who are wailing jealously for the sake of doing so.