Saturday, 14 December 2013

Time to call that spade a shovel

Image from National Portrait Gallery

Under the steely eye of Good Queen Bess, a crowd of property industry clients and consultants gather to hear about the launch of the DTZ Curzon Group at the National Portrait Gallery in London. An appropriate setting for an initiative to attract and retain more women in the sector, yet I can't help wondering how Elizabeth 1 - the monarch with the 'weak and feeble body of a woman but the heart and stomach of a king' - would have regarded the need for such an event half a millennium after she had ruled a country for so long. 

But then as Colin Wilson, head of DTZ in the UK and Ireland says in his address, for organisations like his who can trace their origins back a few hundred years, "it is difficult to judge the point at which things like this need to change  - largely because that is the way it has always been."  So the DTZ initiative is welcome, particularly as the plan is to roll it out throughout the EMEA region. 

Interestingly, as 2013 draws to a close, the DTZ event is one of a veritable flurry looking at attracting and keeping more women in engineering, construction and property. Listening to the familiar litany of problems, proposals for more research, earnest statements about fishing in only half the pool, I raise my metaphorical hat yet again to the campaigners who repeat their storytelling with new minted, smiling freshness.  But it seems that the demographic and economic arguments have finally got through, not to mention that whilst the UK slides down the global table when it comes to the number of young people studying science and engineering, the relatively few girls tackling these subjects achieve higher grades than the boys. 

Student Award finalists 2013,  run by the Association of Women in Property

However there is an interesting dichotomy appearing. We might have moved from a culture of avoiding putting gender on the agenda to a cry of 'please tell us how to resolve it' but there is still quite a degree of wriggling when it comes to terminology. Colin Wilson confesses to being uncomfortable with words like gender or ethnicity, preferring to talk about people. 

The language  issue arises again the following week when the redoubtable Dorte Rich Jorgensen hosts a CIC Constructive Diversity event at the Building Centre. We hear Kate Lloyd of the CITB telling us how difficult it is to attract women (generating heated interventions about the loss of successful training organisations such as Women's Education in Building) and how one of the problems is that diversity is a word that turns off construction industry employers, particularly SMEs. 

We then hear veteran change manager Ian Dodds telling us about his time at ICI back in the 1970s and his more recent work with legal firms. Quoting a US report from 2007 that reported growing concern about white men beginning to feel vulnerable and alienated, he suggests that  the word inclusion rather than diversity generates a more positive reaction.  

Perish the thought that we are using language that makes men feel uncomfortable, I muse, recalling trying to convince report and contract writers that it is not enough to assure everyone that when referring to 'he' and 'him' they mean women too. Not to mention a sales director  telling me a few years ago that his ideal candidate for a customer relations manager is a blonde with large bosoms (well not exactly those words).  

And this year - for those who think times have changed - we saw astonishing personal attacks against Australia's first woman prime minister.  For example, a dish at a Liberal party fundraising dinner was called Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail, was described on the menu as 'small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box.'

Cartoon found on
We should certainly use livelier language to engage on complex issues, to generate open and honest  discussion - and a good dash of humour helps too - and this does not mean being personal, offensive and hurtful.  But it is a dangerous game, as Julia Gillard found out when she delivered a blistering speech on the misogyny that dominates politics in her country.  As Allison Pearson said in the Daily Telegraph, "The boys’ club will never let you get away with that, " and indeed, she lost the premiership.  

Back at the National Portrait Gallery, beneath the portrait of the Virgin Queen, I am reminded that Julia Gillard was not only attacked for her personal appearance but also for being 'deliberately barren' to pursue her career. I step up to the platform, on behalf of the Association of Women in Property,  to congratulate Colin Wilson on establishing the Curzon Group and tell the assembled crowd that I prefer to talk about   'Age, sex and leadership', rather than diversity or inclusion - and that people usually stay to listen rather than making a quick exit for coffee.  

If we are going to increase the recruitment and retention of women in construction, property and engineering we need to take an up-front,  rather than simply a politically correct approach. Calling a spade a spade may cause some discomfort, but calling a spade a shovel might get the job done quicker. 

Peasant man and woman digging, Vincent Van Gogh

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Walking with Matilda, spinning with Old Nick

Made to last in the mountains - hobnailed boots and wooden clogs
Nearly a thousand years ago, high on the Apennine ridge that separates the Tuscan provinces of Lucca and Modena, a hospice was established at the little village of San Pellegrino in Alpe to give shelter and sustenance to travellers on the difficult and dangerous road across the mountains, a route known from pre-Roman times.  Today the hospice is a museum of rural life and the village trattoria and bars provide shelter and sustenance for the hikers, bikers and skiers who flock to the area, including us (part of our holiday regime is a daily 90 minute walk).

 A rake for gathering myrtles
The museum is a beautifully arranged homage to the way people in this rugged landscape lived and worked for centuries, before the dramatic changes in agriculture and crafts of the 1960s. Local priest Don Luigi Pellegrini spent 20 years gathering out-dated tools and objects from attics and store rooms in the local villages, arranging them in a series of thematic rooms from cobbler to weaver, wine-maker to miller and then in 1987 handing the whole museum over the Province of Lucca to run and promote.

A striking aspect of the collection is the use of wood, particularly a huge wine vat hewn from a single chestnut trunk, pasta presses, spinning wheels and what looked like giant combs for Afro hairstyles but which were used by villagers to gather wild myrtles (bilberries). 

Emerging from the museum along the old mule track we stop at a large sign showing the original map of the hospice round 1110, and which tells us that in the Middle Ages the road travelling through San Pellegrino became a ‘great communicating artery between the north and south of the pensinsular, and along which Matilde di Canossa wielded her power over the Tuscan territories.’  Who was Matilda of Canossa, I wonder, making a note to consult Google on return to the house.

Then off we stride through the sun-dappled beech woods, which open into lush alpine meadows filled with flowers and thick carpets of those myrtle berries, still providing rich harvests of vitamin C. More surprisingly there are also swathes of sweet and juicy wild raspberries as far as the eye can see,  and promise of a rich harvest of blackberries too.

Giro del diavolo
The track twists and turns higher until we find ourselves on a peak that gives a spectacular panorama of the Apuan Alps. According to the fingerposts, we are 1,636 metres above sea level and have reached the Giro de Diavolo (the Devil’s Spin).  Legend has it that when St Pellegrino (the rather vague founding figure of the village who is not recognized by the Church) was tempted in vain by the devil, Old Nick gave him such a slap that the saint whirled round in a spin three times. Subsequently pilgrims visiting the site would crawl round the field three times, in addition to the ritual of carrying large stones in penance to mark the spot. 

We stick to our own ritual -  never returning on the same route - and make our way down the mountain on another track, emerging into the village by a shop selling chestnut flour biscuits,  dried mushrooms and, irrestistibly, punnets of freshly gathered myrtle berries. We also succumb to cold beer and a plate of bruschetta. Next to the trattoria is a shop selling foraging equipment on an impressive scale, including myrtle berry rakes, but unlike the beautiful hand carved wooden ones saved by Don Luigi Pellegrini, these efficient and rather grim tools are factory punched out of aluminimium. 

Matilda of Canossa, 1046-1115
And what about Mathilde di Canossa?  Quite a woman, I discover.  Known as the Tuscan Countess, she outlived her father, brother and older sister to inherit the title at the age of six and became an ardent defender of the extensive family lands in the Po Valley against the attacks of Henry IV.

Educated and cultured (she could speak several languages) she was also skilled in military arts,   successfully fighting a number of battles. She was a key player in the dramatic struggle between Church and State, known as the Investiture Controversy.  She had two politically chosen husbands, first her step brother Godfrey the Hunchbacked, and then at the age of 43 she married the 17 year old Welf V of Bavaria - a union that lasted only six years.

But her real love, which was consummated according to some scholars, was for Pope Gregory VII. During one of the most famous and episodes in the war between Church and State, Henry IV travelled across the Alps in a bitter winter of 1077 to do penance before the Pope Gregory at Matilda's fortress at Canossa - where he was made to wait three days in the snow before being admitted. Henry never recovered his influence in Italy after this humiliating defeat.

The Investiture Controversy diminished after the death of Pope Gregory and Matilda turned to governing her territories, donating lands to churches and monasteries, supporting building projects (including the beautiful Ponte della Maddalena bridge across the River Serchio, which we pass often on our way to Lucca)  and supporting the developing school of canon law at Bologna.

In 1635, some five hundred years after her death, her remains were removed from the cathedral in Mantua to St Peter's Basilica in Rome (one of only five women to be interred there) and her tomb marked with a monument by the great Baroque sculptor, Bernini.  I am sure that if the devil had met Matilda rather than St Pellegrino on that mountain top, he would have been the one sent round in a spin.
Matilda, The Countess of Tuscany. Bernini's sculpture in 1635)

Friday, 2 August 2013

Physical attraction

Fabiola Gianotti - huntress of the god particle 
Fabiola Gianotti, world-famous particle physicist, is interviewed in the Weekend edition of the Financial Times, reminding me not only of the fascinating trip I made to CERN in April but also of my quest to find out why there are more women physicists in Italy than in any other European country.

Described as the defining face of the hunt for the Higgs Boson, because of her lucid performance as the spokeswoman and co-ordinator of the Atlas experiment that made the breakthrough in detecting the so-called God particle in the summer of 2012, Milan-born Gianotti has become a role model for many young would-be scientists, especially female ones.

I was visiting CERN as one of a small group from the Friends of Imperial College invited to see the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiment masterminded by Imperial's Professor Tajinder Virdee. Click here for more about the trip. The CMS is, with the Atlas experiment, a key part in the search for the Higgs Boson. It is the point on the 27km Large Hadron Collider running deep in the ground around Geneva where the cataclysmic collisions take place, replicating the big bang of the birth of the universe.

Before visiting the CMS experiment, we are given an introductory presentation. Amongst the facts and figures about this extraordinary collaborative venture, I spot that of the 6,000 or so scientists at CERN, there are currently twice the number of Italian scientists (1455) than from the UK (728). The presentation is being given by Dr Mario Campanelli, so who better to ask why physics is such an attractive subject for his fellow countrymen - and women?

He ponders for a few moments. "It is a cultural thing, I think," he says. "In Northern Europe, it is regarded as a technical or engineering discipline and it is people with scientifically inclined minds that tend to study it. In Italy and  much of southern Europe, we see physics as a philosophical or even metaphysical discipline."

Dr Campanelli then reels off the names of women colleagues who are leaders in their field including  Lisa Randall a theoretical physicist and expert on particle physics and cosmology at Harvard; Dr Ilaria Segoni, particle physicist, and - hooray - Tara Shears, Professor of Physics at Liverpool University. She began working at CERN on the OPAL experiment, measuring the lifetime of the tantalisingly named beauty quarks, before joining the team at CMS and seeking answers to why there's so little antimatter in the universe.

Visible women at CERN
Later, as we emerge from the lift that has taken us 100m below ground to see the extraordinary engineering of the Large Hadron Collider, we are confronted by a huge photographic collage of the people working on the project - and it is refreshing to see how many of them are women. Yet despite this, there is an active group of women at CERN who believe that the current rate of 18 per cent female amongst the scientists is nowhere near good enough - and seized a golden opportunity to raise the issue.

Long way down - and up
When CERN was given observer status at the UN General Assembly in April this year, it dedicated its first act to highlighting the disparity between women and men who build careers in science. Kate Pachal of the University of Oxford, Barbara Millan Mejias of the University of Zurich and Sarah Saif El Nasr of the University of Bristol delivered, via web conference, a set of 10 recommendations to bring about change. See the CERN newsletter.

But let's return to that philosophical v scientific debate in relation to  physics. Fabiola Gianotti's schooling was focused almost exclusively on the classical humanities. It is a cliche she says, that scientists are only interested in data and hard facts. An accomplished pianist, she sees many links between physics and mathematics,  art, architecture and music. Lisa Randall, the Harvard professor, has written an opera.

The words of Arlene McConnell, The Institution of Engineering & Technology's Young Woman Engineer of the Year come back to me. Speaking at the launch of the Smith Institute report Unlocking Potential last year, she bemoaned the fact that so few women make the transition from  engineering study into engineering careers. Observing that many young women are taking combined courses such as engineering and music, she comments, "While engineering provided an outlet for their problem-solving and analytical passions, they felt that music quenched their creative thirsts."

This should not be a surprise. From Leonardo da Vinci through to Professor Sir Robert Winston (musician, film maker and writer as well as world famous medical man) there have been many examples of Renaissance man. Now is the time to encourage and nurture more Renaissance women, with persuasive arguments demonstrating the artistry of mathematics, the philosophy of physics and the humanity of engineering.

Sandi and Rod go underground