Balance or blend?

Life may not be a box of chocolates, but could it be a cup of tea?


The term “work-life” balance is much used and much-discussed. Many surveys and magazine articles discuss whether your “work-life balance” is as you want it to be. In our Athena SWAN applications (gender charter mark run by the Equality Challenge Unit) we are asked to discuss how the University is supporting “work-life balance”. Typically we talk about core hours, nursery care, and any family friendly policies we have.

However, many people object to the term “work-life balance” itself, and I can see why. Balance implies the two things are playing against each other… increase attention on one and the other must pay. How meaningful is it to imply that we are only alive outside of work? Many people are at least partially defined by the work that they do, or by their actions at work. Others are predominantly driven by the work that they do… and the term work-life balance somehow suggests that these people should “get a life”.

The alternative term work-life blend has been around for a while. The thinking behind the term is that in the modern world, with new technology etc, then for many people it is entirely possible to take care of some work things from home and some home things from work. Of course this isn’t possible for all roles… particularly those in the front line service industries, and manufacturing. The other reason for adopting this term is also that it removes the negative connotations of “balance”. With a “work-life blend” a much more diverse set of existences seems possible, all equally valid, and things are not in tension with one another in the same way (there are however only a limited number of hours in the day and therefore there must remain some tension!).

I have previously been rather resistant to the word “blend”. Perhaps it’s because I was thinking about it in terms of paint… if you mix lots of different paint colours together you inevitably end up with a murky mess that isn’t particularly enticing. I also worry that it means never being “off duty” from work, and I at least need to give my mind and body a change of scenery sometimes and find it hard enough to be properly “present” at times outside work as it is.

However, I might be changing my mind. Last night was our Edith Morley lecture given by Karen Blackett, OBE, CEO of She spoke about having “banned” the term “work-life balance” in her company, using instead, “work-life blend”. Uh-oh, I thought. I’m not sure I can buy that. But then Karen talked about having 6 well defined and non-negotiable strands to your blend, for example fulfilment at work, effective parenting, and such like, and using this to discuss your working practices with managers etc.

And this morning I thought of a new description for “blend”  – a careful combination of different ingredients that are not subsumed by each other but together make up something delicious and supporting. In other words… tea! (and of course single varieties are also acceptable).








Why do I “do” diversity and inclusion?

This week my job share in the role of Dean for Diversity and Inclusion,  Simon Chandler-Wilde,  and I have been doing the first of several discussion sessions for staff at University of Reading. We are presenting our initial plans for making our University more diverse and inclusive and asking for feedback on proposed actions to get towards the Diversity and Inclusion targets recently agreed by our University Executive Board (such as increase in women in professorial roles and better representation of women and BAME staff on strategic decision making committees).

One question we got asked was… “you obviously chose to apply for these roles, so what got you into it?”. Here is the answer I gave, the first parts of which I have said before, but the final part I only realised when answering the question!

One of my core values is enabling people to reach their full potential. I have always mentored formally and informally and I love teaching. As a Head of Department I was responsible for career and personal development of academic and research staff. The most joyful parts of my job have been hearing that people have got the degree, new job, promotion or publication that they really deserved. I have literally jumped up and down in my office on several occasions. So a role in promoting and driving diversity and inclusion is very closely aligned to my core values.

I also have a sort of history of challenging gender stereotypes albeit in a parochial way:

When I was 7 I asked my Dad why only boys were allowed to sing in the church choir (he was in it himself). He told me to ask the vicar, who didn’t have a defensible answer (arguments are sometimes made about the different tonal quality of boys voices compared to girls but this was not a high cathedral choir). So two of us joined and pretty soon the number of junior choristers soared now that they could access the talent of the girls.

When I was 12 my male physics teacher told me that girls didn’t do physics. When people tell me I can’t do something, that tends to motivate me to do exactly that (within the confines of socially acceptable behaviour and without breaking laws obviously). Later on, when I told the careers advisor that I wanted to do physics at university, he said “well I suppose you could be a teacher”. I AM a teacher of sorts but I don’t think this is what he had in  mind!

My first (and possibly only) bit of direct campaigning so far concerned the fact that at the boys school in our town they were allowed to study for 10 GCSEs whilst us girls were only allowed to do 8 subjects. To their credit, the school arranged for our Head mistress to teach a class of 6 of us French every morning before school so that we could do 9 subjects, which was a big commitment, but I was never given a satisfactory answer as to why we couldn’t do the same number in the first place.

I have told those stories before. But yesterday it also struck me that there has been another driver in recent years. Having children exposes you to all sorts of gender stereotypes about working parents, mothers versus fathers etc. However, it’s when my children started school, in a primary school that serves a catchment area with great diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, socio-economic background and relationship with education, that I really became aware of some of my own biases. Not only that, but I realised that many of my children’s friends will not have the opportunities that they should have because of various biases, be that relating to gender, race or socio-economic background. Of course at University we see the product of these biases in that students from different backgrounds face additional challenges in applying to, being accepted at and progressing through their courses.

So I took this job in the hope that I can do something, in a small way, to ensure that all my children’s classmates get the opportunities they deserve. The University is my home environment so I start here, but I am now starting to be able to use the learning from this role to challenge my own biases and the behaviour in the School too.




Getting engaged via a diverse curriculum

“The one thing we all want to do is to engage our students”.

So began the Teaching and Learning Showcase on Diversifying the Curriculum that I attended at Reading yesterday. If my experience of this showcase of 5 different curriculum development projects across campus is anything to go by, the speakers know a lot about engaging students. Personal experience tells us that we learn more when we are engaged, and we engage when we can identify with what we are seeing, hearing and reading. Thus the recognition that diversifying our curriculum in terms of race and ethnicity is a natural conclusion in the light of the much publicised BME attainment gap in HE  and the increasing diversity of the students in our global university.

Dr Rebecca Harris from the Institute of Education kicked off the session relating their personal experience teaching secondary school teachers to deliver a diverse syllabus in their schools.  The issues raised by trainee teachers such as fear of offending no doubt also ring true for many of us, but can lead to “colour-blind” curricula which merely avoid the issue – often not successfully. Dr Harris also considered the concept of a “balanced” syllabus. As a climate scientist, I am used to talking, or indeed ranting, about the importance of a balanced approach in dissemination, but as was pointed out yesterday, even balance is a relative term and depends on the individual.

Dr Nicola Abram and Dr Nicole King from the School of Literature and Languages also talked about the importance of starting with a key part 1 module, in their case “Research and Critical methods”, so that students learn to challenge the classical canons of English Literature from the very start of their university career. This was achieved by adding new texts, for example essays by Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As this module involves around 200 students and therefore lots of staff, a happy by-product is that this redesign has also influenced other staff across the School.

Did you know that, as far as we are aware, Reading was the first UK University Department to hire a specialist lecturer in non-Western Philosophy? Nope, me neither. Dr Shalini Sinha now offers lectures and modules on Indian Buddhist and non-Buddhist Philosophy at a variety of levels, and crucially, includes 3 lectures on non-Western Philosophy in the first year module Human Nature. Western Philosophy has traditionally been very white male dominated and highly theoretical, but the non-Western view offers students the chance to consider the big questions such as who we are, how we should live, what it is to suffer, from very different perspectives. Again, the approach is to introduce a diversity of views early on in the programme, to contemporise the issues, link to students values and embed throughout lectures, seminars, essays and exams.

The sole STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) offering was from Mrs Cristina Duckett from Construction Management (note to self… talk to STEM schools!) who neatly demonstrated that even the (ahem) driest of subjects, building regulations, can be a vehicle for diversifying the curriculum. Design and construction of buildings with ostensibly similar functions in different societies will reflect differing history, values, religious practices, climate and customs. Asking students to compare, for example, two house designs or two buildings for worship in different countries can bring in many aspects of diversity.

The final project returned to the importance of diverse curricula for prompting students to question their own sense of identity and values. Dr Julia Waters from Modern Languages and European Studies runs a Part 3 module on French Caribbean Literature which attracts a high proportion of BME students, including overseas and visiting students. French Caribbean literature is a relatively young literature and students have to confront assumptions not only about identity, European supremacy, language politics, post-colonial theory and black consciousness movements. Dr Waters finished with some very valuable reflections on her experiences, including her honesty about her own discomfort teaching this subject as a “white, middle-class woman” and incorrect assumptions that Black and Caribbean students would have insider knowledge about slavery, colonisation and contemporary world politics.

From history and education, English and French Caribbean literature, philosophy and construction, the common thread yesterday was that diversifying the curricula we teach begins with reflecting on our own practice, experiences and values, and how these colour (word chosen deliberately) our teaching. Finding ways to engage students with this thought process for themselves needs to  be embedded throughout our programmes, not just in a “Diversity silo”, and to start in Part 1, so that it carries through the rest of a student’s learning experiences.  This is a prime example of exploiting the so called “habit discontinuity hypothesis” which  states that when a context change disrupts individuals’ habits, a window opens in which behavior is more likely to be deliberately considered. Going to University is a major context change – giving us an exciting opportunity for all our diversity and inclusion work.

Working year: 2015

2015 was a year of big change for me. I stepped down as Head of Department of Meteorology, and took on the role of Dean for Diversity and Inclusion (role shared with my former Head of School, Prof. Simon Chandler-Wilde), thereby moving away a little from atmospheric research and more towards University leadership. Perhaps appropriately therefore, my year of work has been in itself diverse. Here are some images that capture the general idea.

  1. My changing career

2. Life on campus as a Dean for Diversity and Inclusion

3. And life off campus getting out and about….

4. Some light reading…

5. Teaching my favorite module – Arran field course

6. Research trip to China – first visit there, and first long haul travelling in 9 years!

7. Traditional end of year Christmas Carols in Meteorology

2015-12-11 13.05.40

I wonder what 2016 will look like?

Ada Lovelace Day 2015

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, created as an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Two years ago I wrote a blog listing women in science that had inspired me, and invited colleagues to provide their female inspirations from the STEM world. You can see the original blog here .

Since then, there has been much attention on women in STEM, from government reports, the recent People Like Me campaign from WISE, and the infamous cases of “that” shirt and Tim Hunt’s remarks, about which debate still rages.

Athene Donald posted a blog yesterday encouraging us to examine our own biases and question whether we are doing our bit to supporting the next “Ada”. Interestingly, she mentions the implicit bias tests that many of us have been prompted to take, revealing a stronger association of men with science than women. I was shocked when I found a similar result for myself last year – I had a strong implicit bias for men and career vs women and home. The exact opposite of everything that I outwardly advocate and support. Since then I have been doing much exploring about bias and irrational thinking and can recommend “Irrationality: The enemy within” by Ben Goldacre (Foreword) and Stuart Sutherland (Author). There is no easy answer as to how to guard against these biases but I am starting to understand how and when they are most likely to come into play.

Undoubtedly exposure to diverse voices and personality could play a major role in challenging our biases. Over the past 2 years, Twitter has been a key part of broadening the diversity of my network and experience. I can engage in debates, discussions and everyday life with people across the world and across disciplines in a way that would have been a challenge before social media. Today then, for Ada Lovelace Day 2015, I offer you the social media version of my inspiration list. These people have opened my eyes wider, and for that, I thank them.

  • Jedidah Isler @JedidahIslerPhD Astrophysicist and 2015 TED Fellow
  • Mika McKinnon @mikamckinnon Field geophysicist and scifi consultant amongst many others
  • Sam Cristoforetti @astrosamantha    ISS astronaut
  • Nathalie Pettorelli @Petorelli     Ecologist, @SoapboxScience co-founder – Nathalie gave me the opportunity to stand on the South Bank in London and talk about aerosols, which re-ignited my love of science communication.
  • Ruth Mottram @ruth_mottram  climate scientist and glaciologist
  • Kate Marvel @DrKateMarvel climate scientist and science writer. Ex-cosmologist
  • Raychelle Burks  @DrRubidium Analytical chemist
  • Melissa Wilson Sayres @mwilsonsayres Sex chromosomes, populations and evolution. Brilliant posts on starting/running a lab
  • Jenny Martin @JennyMartin_UQ Crystallographer
  • Emma Johnston @DrEmmaLJohnston Professor of Marine Ecology and Ecotoxicology
  • Dr Heather Williams @alrightPET Senior Medical Physicist and @SCience_Grrl Director
 And if you are looking for something to do to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day 2015, why not do one of the things on the “Just one action for women in science” list, also started by Athene.

Dean for Diversity and Inclusion

In August 2015 I took up the position of Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Reading. Importantly, this role is a job share, allowing me to engage in University leadership whilst remaining part-time and keeping a link to my research. For the next 5 years I, alongside my co-Dean Professor Simon Chandler-Wilde, will be working to embed diversity and inclusion consideration and appreciation across the activities at the University of Reading.

Second year blues…

Much has been written about the  dip in confidence and perhaps achievement commonly felt by PhD students during their second year . Apparently there is a now evidence for a similar problem in the second year of undergraduate degrees. An article by national teaching fellow Claire Milsom from Liverpool John Moore’s University in the Guardian Higher Education Network  reveals that many second year undergraduates experience a period of increased dissatisfaction, confusion about academic achievements and disengagement.

In 14 years as a personal tutor I have lost count of the number of times that I have provided tissues and sympathy to distressed second year tutees. I use the phrase “well, the 2nd year IS much harder than the 1st year because we spend the first year partly bringing everyone up to the same level”, but I’ve also heard colleagues say “the real work starts in the second year”, which is a slightly different way of presenting it! Whilst this offers an explanation, it doesn’t really deal with the complexity of the issue and nor does it offer constructive suggestions to the students.

Thinking back to my own second year as a physics student, and drawing upon many conversations with tutees, it is clear, as the Guardian article points out, that several things are at work. The assessment rate and frequency and complexity tend to increase. These assessments often become more discriminating (i.e. bits of them at least are harder) in order to provide more opportunity for all students to be challenged and this can mean that differing abilities within the cohort become more apparent to students as well as staff. On top of these thoughts surrounding your academic subject and progress, well meaning tutors start to ask questions like “what you want to do when you graduate?”. We do this out of concern for the future of our students, to prompt them to make the most of the university environment to develop “employment skills” (although it is also true that rates and destinations of graduates are an important metric used in league tables etc).. Finally, budgetary concerns may well be kicking in and the need to work part time in order to eat reduces “free” time. It is easy to see how this combination can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed even before you add in any social or familial issues.

I don’t like seeing my students in this state, but apart from listening and providing tissues, it’s certainly true that I haven’t done much to be more constructive. The Guardian article suggests three ways that Universities could better support second year students:

  1.  an induction week for second years
  2. market the second year appropriately particularly over the long summer break in order to enthuse students towards upcoming content
  3. Ensure consistent academic support in terms of personal tutoring throughout the second year.

Whilst in my Department, we are still thinking about items 1 and 2, we have already made some changes to our personal tutoring system, primarily to improve effectiveness and consistency of support to all our undergraduate students. Of course every student needs a tutor, but not every academic necessarily need be a tutor. The default has been that tutees are spread out so that each academic staff member has only 1 or 2 tutees. But this year, staff were given the option of being a BSc or MSc tutor (admittedly we have very small numbers of students and so have a lot more flexibility here than many places). Those that expressed preference for tutoring undergraduates were then allocated a group of 4 or 5 students in each of year 1 and 2 and the meeting schedule changed to include both an opportunity for one to one meetings and termly group tutorial sessions facilitating peer support. Indeed these group sessions can be combined with other tutor groups.

A further opportunity to make these group sessions more meaningful has been provided by a change in the term structure at my institution this year to introduce “Enhancement Weeks” in the middle of the two long 11 week terms. The 6th week of term is now free from standard lectures and filled instead with opportunities to develop study and employment skills. On offer are activities such as: a software development course for environmental scientists, sessions on industrial placements, an entrepreneurship competition, leadership skills sessions and many others from both Departments and the University centre. Some students are obviously taking advantage of this week to develop such skills, although I have also heard much talk about recharging the batteries via sleep and catching up on assignments! Formally measuring the success of enhancement week is likely to be a non-trivial issue.

However, my most recent experience of enhancement week was positive. On a sunny Tuesday morning, our programme director and undergraduate tutor team provided a tutor facilitated session on Skills for Employment. The introduction talked about the kinds of skills that key employers in our field are looking for, and the importance of being able to provide evidence of these skills from a range of activities. The students, a mix of part 1 and part 2, then congregated with their tutors and discussed the kinds of evidence they could use in future job applications. It transpires that the current cohort of students are perhaps much more used to doing this than their lecturers were when they were students – after all personal statements on UCAS forms require much the same type of effort.  Particularly relevant to the “year 2 dip”, the group I was with discussed how even “failures” could be turned round to demonstrate positive qualities (self-development, persistence, reacting to feedback).

None of these actions are particularly profound or novel, but sometimes they don’t need to be. What made me most happy to see was the willingness of students to talk about their current and past challenges, the first year students seizing the opportunity to ask advice from the second years (how do you stop yourself getting stressed out by assignment deadlines), and the second years passing on tips to the first years (pay attention to vector calculus even if you can’t see the point – you need it next year). Building a strong community of students willing to engage in peer support, will offer another way of smoothing the lumps and bumps of student life, whether that happen in Year 2 or at any other time.