Blog posts

Who built Physics?

Who built physics? The answer to this question given by theoretical physicist Prof. Alessandro Strumia in a recent presentation at CERN is men. Men built physics. 

In a sense Strumia is correct, but not for the reasons he presented. Strumia tried to suggest the dominance of men in the discipline is due to innate differences which make them better equipped to meet the intellectual demands of the subject. His argument depended on cherry-picking the data and ignoring the historical or sociological contexts in which physics has developed and which have conferred long-standing advantages on male physicists. 

Fortunately others have been quick to point out the deficiencies of Strumia’s case. In a short twitter thread Prof David Smith (University of York) has provided a handy summary of the evidence that counters Strumia’s polemic:

Our own Dr Jess Wade, who presented a more rigorous take on gender imbalances in physics at the same CERN meeting, has responded in typically robust fashion. A large swathe of the particle physics community has also weighed in both to express their anger at Strumia’s ill-conceived remarks and to bat away his claims with yet more evidence. The funniest skewering of Strumia came from physicist Jon Butterworth who cast the incident as CERN’s latest particle discovery:

“The Strumion. A very small particle which interacts by misleading conference organisers and insulting its audience based on shabby analysis of cherry-picked data?”

Perhaps Strumia is an outlier – one of those temporary blips that appears in the noise of atom-smashing experiments (that he himself is so keen on analysing) but vanishes once sufficient data have been gathered to generate a decent signal-to-noise ratio? Perhaps. But the episode is a reminder that the case for gender equality in STEM, however well grounded, keeps needing to be remade – by men and women.

If you’re interested in equipping yourself to make that case – should an Alessandrio Strumia one day cross your path – you could do worse that start with Angela Saini’s book, Inferior, a cool and balanced look at how scientists like Strumia have been getting women wrong all these years.



For your summer reading and listening pleasure – and curiosity

Term is well and truly over. The undergraduates have dispersed to home and holidays, and for a brief spell (at least for academic staff) attention can turn to other things such as research. But hopefully everyone will have the chance to take break of some sort and time for a little summer reading. Let me therefore be so bold as to make a couple of suggestions of books, articles and podcasts that might illuminate some of the trickier issues of equality, diversity and inclusion.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon, public health leader and one of my favourite authors once wrote: “people talking to people is still the way that norms and standards change.” Gawande was writing (in a truly superb New Yorker article) about how ideas spread in medical practice, but it’s a phrase that has stayed with me and one that also applies to the boundaries that arise because of gender, race, sexuality, disability, class or any other aspect of human experience.

Those boundaries can be hard to navigate, which is why the first-hand perspectives of people from minority groups are so valuable. With that in mind, let me humbly point you to a few pieces that have caught my attention in recent months.

First up, one of my favourite reads from last year was Angela Saini’s Inferior: How science got women wrong and the new research that’s rewriting the story. I reviewed it for the Guardian and was delighted when Angela came to talk about the book at Imperial last autumn.

Also last Autumn and also at Imperial, I first came across Akala, a rapper, author, poet, and political activist, who had been invited to speak about black history by the students’ Caribbean society. He gave a fantastic lecture, brimming with charisma and ideas, and has since published his first book, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, which was reviewed by historian David Olusoga. I haven’t yet read it myself but it’s on my summer list. You can get a sense of the themes of the book and its author from this really thoughtful interview with journalist James O’Brien. There’s a podcast you can download or you can watch the YouTube video below:

Finally, The Economist magazine recently ran a series of articles discussing transgender identity. It was stimulated in part by the opening of a government consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. The consultation is seeking views on how to reform the processes by which trans people can legally change their gender. This is an important but sensitive issue that has been debated at length and with considerable heat on social media. For me the value in the Economist’s approach was that it was open to different voices from both sides of the argument, which touches on issues of the rights of women and trans people. A particularly helpful feature of the series is that in the second week the contributors had a chance to respond to what each of them had written in the first week. It is clear that this remains difficult territory – there seems little prospect of a consensus at the moment – but reading all the articles gave a good sense of the dimensions of the debate.

I am sure there are many other great and important reads on all these various topics. For now I’m sticking to the principle that “less is more”, but if you have suggestions please feel free to email me or to leave a comment.


In case you missed it, yesterday was the very first international day of  LGBTQ+ people in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM). The 5th July date was chosen for the geekiest of reasons: it can be written as 5/07 or 7/05 (depending on which side of the Atlantic your are on); in nanometres these are the wavelengths of the colours green and red that feature in rainbow symbol adopted to represent the LGBTQ+ community.

The College celebrated the day by adding rainbow icons to its social media feeds and posted profiles of four of our staff members from our own LGBTQ+ community. Laurence’s profile is below, but thanks also to Giulia, Dan and Ji Young for sharing their experiences; and to Ben, who wrote about why the day matters to him.

In Nature a moving article by Dr. Jon Freeman, a gay assistant professor at Stanford, described his experiences of isolation with academia and the importance to him of discovering senior LGBTQ+ colleagues who understood what he was going through and gave him hope.

“Just being able to talk science with a more senior researcher who was ‘like me’ was a powerful signal that I had a place in the scientific community.”

The importance of such contacts cannot be under-estimated. So I hope all staff and postgraduate students are aware that the Imperial600 network is open to them. Along with Imperial600, the EDI Centre at the College will be working over the coming months to train a network of allies – non-LGBTQ+ staff who have volunteered to offer understanding and support to LGBTQ+ colleagues. I had my first training session at the LSE earlier this week.

And finally, Imperial will once again be participating in the Pride in London march tomorrow – watch out for us if you’re in town tomorrow.

Springboard course: is it for me?

In this guest post, Anna Cupani, who is the Stakeholder Engagement Manager at Imperial’s Data Science Institute, writes about her experience of the Springboard Women’s Development Programme

Anna Cupani

I first heard about Springboard from a friend who had taken the course back in 2015. She was coming to the end of her post-doc and figuring out what to do afterwards. In our chats she mentioned how the course helped her to reconsider her career and to look at her values and strengths in a new light. So, when another colleague forwarded a reminder about the course last September, encouraging me to apply, I did not need much convincing.

Then, a week or so before the first training day, an article appeared in the Times Higher which contained some serious criticism of the course. It reported how some academics had dropped out of the training, put off by inappropriate the advice that women had to smarten up to boost their careers.

The last thing I needed was to be told that the way to a fulfilling career was paved with expensive shoes to make me look more authoritative, or a chic handbag so my manager knows that I mean business. It sounded bizarre that a development course would encourage women to conform to the most hackneyed of stereotypes. With this article at the back of my mind, I approached the first day of training with a critical mind. But I was also very curious and I hadn’t forgotten what my friend had told me. I am a scientist after all: so let’s look at the evidence!

And the evidence is that there was no significant discussion of shoes or handbags. Instead I am glad to report that the course is well worth attending! But you need to know why you’re there to make the most of it.

You will spend four days over four months in group activities with women from departments all around College – women of different ages, backgrounds and education. You will also be encouraged to undertake some activities on your own in between the training sessions, either to prepare for them or to mull over what’s been discussed during the training. How much time you dedicate to this ‘homework’ is up to you. You may set aside a few hours every week for self-reflection or just rush through the chapters of the training book the evening before because you forgot it under a pile of documents when you moved to your new flat (true story!).

If you expect Springboard to tell you how to get a tenure track job, or how to increase your success in grant applications, or how to get a pay rise, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. It’s not there to give you a precise set of instructions to complete your next project.

What the course does deliver (if you do the work) is an opportunity for reflection on your career and on your life through discussion with others in a structured way. You’ll be guided to look at your past choices, how they shaped your present situation, how they reflect your values and goals, and how to make the changes you feel you’re ready to make. You’ll practice giving and receiving advice and feedback, and you’ll get the opportunity to be a mentor and a mentee. Enacting simple real-life situations like a difficult conversation with your manager can be much more challenging than you imagine, and it’s incredible how helpful such a rehearsal can be. Half way through the course you may realise that you do not want to become an academic after all; or you may understand how to make your grant applications more impactful; or you may just go and ask for that pay rise because you can now talk more confidently about your achievements.

You will not learn the secret recipe to tackle gender inequality in the workplace, but you might come out of Springboard with a stronger determination to do something about it and a good network to help you. Which is a great starting point.

Pirate the Code of Conduct…

There are hundreds of research groups at Imperial College and hundreds of different ways of running a research group. But how many of those groups have a code of conduct?

One that does is run by Professor Chris Jackson from the Department of Earth Sciences and Engineering. Chris is perhaps better known as the guy who abseils into active volcanoes, but not only has he developed a code of conduct for his group, he has also posted it online.

You can see the document here – and comment if you wish (Chris would be glad of the feedback).

Since it’s published under a CC-BY license, you are free to adopt and adapt it for your own group. Indeed, as Chris readily acknowledges, his group’s code of conduct is based on similar documents from other universities and other labs at Imperial – including those run by Sam Krevor and Ben Britton.

This seems to me an excellent way for groups to start a conversation about the standards of performance and behaviour that they want to have when working at Imperial. Chris’s document covers inclusivity, mental health, open science, conference attendance, working hours, email etiquette and advice on engaging with social media.

Of course many groups work well without needing to have a code written down. But the advantage of an open published document is that it empowers all group members to be engaged in setting standards of conduct. It’s also a good way of advertising the values of your group to the outside world – and to anyone thinking of applying to join it.

Although the code is written for a research group, there is no good reason elements couldn’t be adapted for groups that are doing things other than research.

It’s great to find such initiatives happening at Imperial – and, like any good researcher, I’m glad to be able to share the discovery.


Our strategy for including you

Update (12 oct 2018): the EDI Strategy is now published and can be downloaded from here.

Over the past several months, I have been drafting Imperial’s first Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy.

In this work I have benefitted enormously from discussions with many people at the College and from debate within the EDI Strategy Group and the EDI Forum. The draft strategy has improved significantly from the rough framework that I first sketched out at the beginning of the year. It has a more coherent form, even if it is still unfinished. The latest version is now being circulated to various committees, but I wanted also to open it up for comment and criticism by everyone at the College.

I would therefore invite you to download the draft document (available here as a PDF) and let me have your comments or suggestions. Please feel free to contact me by email – you are not obliged to comment in public here! The plan is to have a final version ready for approval by the Provost’s Board by the end of June so I would be grateful to receive any feedback by Friday 18th May.

The aim of developing a strategy is to identify the College’s priorities and define how we – staff and students – will set about achieving them. The strategy has to be ambitious but it will only succeed if it is grounded in reality and earns widespread support within the institution. Ambition and reality can be hard things to balance, not least because equality, diversity and inclusion raise matters that are sometimes contested. But I hope that by opening up the conversation we will be able to plot a more optimal course to a more diverse and inclusive future.


Women@Imperial Week – your comments

Women@Imperial Week is an annual opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of women staff and students. It is also an chance to renew our focus on the remaining gender inequality challenges at the College.

This year, as part of the photographic exhibition that was the centre-piece of our events programme, we included a new feature: a suggestions board inviting people to post their experiences as a woman at Imperial and asking what they would do to improve things if they could step into the President’s shoes for a day.

You can read full list of comments here. Exercises of this kind are of course no substitute for the more systematic surveys of students and staff at the College. But the comments throw a useful spotlight on a number of issues and are being taken seriously – they have been shared with the President and the Provost.

Women@Imperial week suggestion boards
Women@Imperial week suggestion boards

In this post I wanted to briefly summarise some of the issues raised and mention some of the ongoing work that is attempting to address them.

Women@Imperial week took place during the recent UCU industrial action and the pensions dispute was clearly uppermost in some people’s minds, with several commenters asking for a fair deal to end the strike. The College’s public responses and the wider consultation on pay and benefits are available for people to read. As you will have heard, there is now agreement between UCU and UUK to try to work out an acceptable and evidence-based solution. I wish them luck. 

“Thanks Imperial for giving me a platform to develop further my passion for mentorship and raising awareness of issues women face.”

Other commenters raised the broader issue of the gender pay gap, asking the College to publish its data. This work was already in hand (as required by law) and Imperial’s gender pay gap information has now been made public. Alongside the data you will find an analysis of the underlying reasons and information on measures being taken to address them. (For comparative data on other universities and employers, consult the government’s gender pay gap web-site). The root cause of the pay gap is the relative lack of women in more senior positions (an issue that was also raised on the suggestion board), and will obviously take time to address. But it is a positive move that employers now have to be open about where they are. Data transparency generates useful pressure.

“I was told to ‘think like a man’ as the sole advice from senior leadership when going for a promotion interview.”

The most upsetting comments received were those that spoke about experiences of bullying and sexual harassment. We know from surveys of staff and students that this remains a serious issue at Imperial and elsewhere in higher education, and we are determined to tackle it. In March a new working group was formed, chaired by myself, and specifically tasked with reforming our policies and procedures for dealing effectively, sensitively and credibly with any report of sexual harassment. We aim to bring our review and proposals to Provost’s board as soon as practicable for approval and implementation.

“Encourage more women to take up important positions in the university.”

Several women mentioned incidents of ‘micro-aggressions’ – remarks revealing that stereotyping is alive and well in the minds of some in our community. Women have been called weak, or asked why they are not at home with their children, or informed that they were only recruited to fill a quota. Such comments will dismay many and should be contested wherever possible. Through the developing Active Bystander program (which started in the Faculty of Engineering), we hope that those who give voice to their prejudicial assumptions will in future be more likely to encounter a robust challenge.

“I have been labelled as ‘difficult’ and ‘intimidating’, just for being a strong and charismatic woman.”

Allied to this theme, a couple of comments suggested that initiatives such as Women@Imperial week are unnecessary – or even unfair – given the equalities enshrined by law. I disagree. That view seems to me to be uninformed by the lived experience of women at the College. I hope we are progressing to the point where such initiatives will be redundant, but regrettably we are some still distance away.

To close, I simply want to quote one of the most provocative and ambitious comments: “I would build a toilet for women at the top floor of the Business School!!! Women can make it to the top as well!!!”

Working weeks before and after Easter

I’m determined to keep these posts brief and informal so here are just a few scribbled let notes on what I’ve been up to lately.

The three days before the start of the Easter break were a busy time for meetings. I won’t bore you with all the details, but on the Tuesday I chaired the second meeting of the EDI Forum. The main item of business was a thorough-going discussion of the strategy which will shape the College’s approach to all aspects of equality, diversity and inclusion over the next five years. The Forum represents a wide cross-section of views and provided some very useful critique of the draft strategy. I am aiming to broaden the consultation in the coming weeks before we finalise the strategy. Watch this space…

The following day there was the first gathering of the Working Group which will conduct a root-and-branch review of the College’s procedures and policies for dealing with sexual harassment. Our aim is to develop a robust and credible mechanisms to which students and staff who are the victims or harassment can turn for support and redress. Recent surveys of the extent of the problem at Imperial and across the UK higher education sector highlight the importance of completing this work as quickly but as thoroughly as possible. Anyone wishing to comment or contribute should get in contact.

Power dynamics: warm-up act for the pro-Caesar rally that opens Shakespeare’s play.

Over the six days of the Easter break I enjoyed some family time in and around London. We visited my sister and caught up with a noisy and fast-paced production of Julius Caesar that I had been looking forward to for a couple of months. I managed to steer almost completely clear of work apart from reading Harvard’s new Inclusion strategy, which was a thoughtful and honest document, and reading Kalwant Bhopal’s provocative new book: White Privilege: The myth of the post-racial societyThere’ll be more to say about that another time – I’m still cogitating.

Last week I returned to College to start the interviews for the new part-time Coordinator who will be helping us on our application for the Race Equality Charter. Work starts in earnest very soon! The week rounded off with a discussion with Imperial600 and EDIC on of how to use the feedback from Stonewall on our Work Equality Index application to prioritise improvements in the experiences of LGBTQ+ staff and students at Imperial. As with everything else on my plate right now, this is a work in progress but I’m optimistic about making some positive changes in the coming months.

And finally, on Friday afternoon I spent a few hours of marking some of the coursework from the students on the final year Science Communication course in Life Sciences. I have not lost touch with my departmental obligations!

First post – what’s this all about?

Hello and welcome to the first post on the new Inclusion Matters blog. I’ve set it up because, as the relatively new Assistant Provost for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), I wanted to have place to post regular but informal updates about the work that is going on at Imperial to promote the EDI agenda.

Since I started in October 2017 I been working on a number of issues around the College in collaboration with a great many people – staff and students. While I am managing – just about! – to stay on top of various strands of work, all at different stages of development, I realise that most of this activity isn’t terribly visible.

I hope you might have attended some of the events that we planned for Diverse@Imperial week at the end of January, and Women@Imperial week earlier this month. However, given the volume of information flows inevitable at a large organisation, you may well have missed the establishment of the new EDI Strategy Group, the new EDI Forum, and Imperial’s decision to sign up for the Race Equality Charter.

In future posts I can explain more about these and other initiatives that are under way. One of my most important tasks right now is to draft the College’s first ever Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy. We will be discussing this at next week’s meeting of the EDI Forum before the document goes out for wider consultation.

I also hope to use this blog to provide snapshots of my weekly activities. We are currently in the last week of term so I am still teaching on the Science Communication course that I co-convene for final year students in the Dept. of Life Sciences (where I still spend 50% of my time). This week I have also attended the launch of the second cohort of Staff Supporters, and had my monthly meeting with the Provost. Today, along with members of the EDI Centre and Imperial 600 I’ve been discussing the feedback on our application to the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, a programme that is helping us to value and support LGBT+ people at the College. Tomorrow morning, I get to talk to some new staff recruits, and later in the day will be attending the meeting of the Disability Action Committee.

So, like everyone else at Imperial, I’m pretty busy. But never too busy to stop and chat, or to respond to comments, emails or phone calls. Got something on your mind? Let’s talk. By making EDI activities more visible, I hope to create opportunities for more people to get involved. We all share in the responsibility for creating an inclusive and respectful environment at Imperial for working and studying. I know my job gives me particular duties, but ultimately the best I can do is to enable that joint endeavour.