Saturday 16 November 2013

Of course it hurts

Surely you're Joking Mr Feynman is full of telling anecdotes about how creative people tick and how science works. But it's also about work-life balance and how insight comes when you're relaxed. When Richard Feynman was at Princeton, his friend and rival Paul Olum showed him a trick for snapping a spring-loaded tape measure back into its housing.  Having seen him do this, competitive Dick spent the next two weeks trying to replicate the trick, but each time the tape over-shot and whipped back on his hand. When his hand was totally raw, he met his rival in the corridor and asked how Olum was able to manage the tape without getting hurt.
"Who says it doesn't hurt? It hurts me too!"

I have no intention of or qualifications for analysing why work trumps home in today's professional environment but I do have a few comments. Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a piece for The Atlantic last year that went viral on Friendface. It is about how successful professional women have to behave like multi-tasking super-heroines: 'I told her how difficult I was finding it to be away from my son when he clearly needed me. Then I said, “When this is over, I’m going to write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’” She was horrified. “You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women.'

For Ada Lovelace Day I wrote about another successful professional woman, a scientist, who seems to have it all: Director, Mentor, Mother, Professor, Teacher, Volunteer. So she's clearly a role model for younger women.  If they could only replicate whatever it was she did then it would be possible to fulfill their scientific and their reproductive destiny.  But I suspect that, knowing the story of a successful role model, the young women internalise "it's been possible for her" as "it's been easy for her".  But if they were to ask the mentor, she is much more likely to say "Of course it hurts". Even if it hasn't been painful, you'd better believe that the stately apparently effortless swan has feet churning like buggery underwater.  Indeed a major part of mentoring students on any long-haul relationship like a PhD is to provide support and to help find a way forward when the younger person suffers their first major set-back; and often their second and third crisis: of conscience, of confidence, of data or of dating.  The fact that a 'successful' life has been a brutal hard slog against the odds of having been born the wrong sex, into the wrong postal district, or of the wrong colour is not necessarily a source of regret.  But it won't have been easy.

What to do?

Last month there was an essay in the NYT "Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science" by Eileen Pollack who was one of the first two female graduates in physics from Yale in 1978.  If you want to weep tears of frustration at the crap this woman had to put up with a whole generation after Mad Men type sexism had been locked firmly in the closet, then read the whole sorry story. Things we can all do for each other, which were conspicuously absent in Pollack's young academic life:
  • be generous with your time, your data, your ideas and your expertise
  • tell people that they have done well when they have done well
  • ask your colleagues how they are doing and listen to the answer
I'm not saying that watching 25 hours of day-time television is entirely a Good Thing, but it was something I could do with Dau.II. The fellow Luca Man who won Masterchef USA Season Four kept giving his rivals a stick of butter or a handful of flour when the rules of the contest allowed him to just say no.  Do you want to craft your first paper in Nature by not sharing a stick of data with someone who could use it?

1 comment:

  1. I've often used the term "copy left" as opposed to "copyright" for ideas...there again no hope of me getting a nobel prize for science!