Monthly Archives: January 2016

How can we solve the problem of work-life balance?

Michelle Ryan is Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter, whose research specialisms include a number of projects on women in the workplace. One recent talk made the TEDx top ten in its category internationally based on YoutTube views. Here, she talks about approaches that can make us all more successful in the workplace.

Women have made great advances in the workplace – seeing great success in particular professions, such as education, medicine, and the retail and service industries. But women continue to be significantly underrepresented in some sectors, such as science, the armed forces, surgery, particularly in senior management positions. My recent TEDx talk focussed on the reasons why women may continue to be underrepresented – is it simply about the preferences that women have for a better work-life balance, or do women still face subtle barriers that constrain the choices they make? This debate is one that interests many people, as we all face these choices in our daily lives, and indeed the TEDx talk has been viewed over 75,000 times.

Professor Ryan's TEDxExeter talk examines work-life balance – asking whether it is about balancing time or balancing identity.

Professor Ryan’s TEDxExeter talk examines work-life balance – asking whether it is about balancing time or balancing identity.

Many argue that women’s underrepresentation is because women have a greater need for work-life balance and thus choose to avoid the ambition, the hours of dedication, and the sacrifice required for success. I don’t want to question the decision of many women (and some men) to prioritise home over work, this is an important and valid decision. But our research suggests that there are complexities involved: Why might women not express ambition or be unwilling to make sacrifices? Is the pull of family stronger on women than it is on men? Or is there also something more complex going on?

Research conducted with university science students, members of the police force, and surgical trainees demonstrates that women start their studies or their careers just as ambitious as men. But this ambition erodes over time, so that within three years men express much greater ambition than their female colleagues.

Does the ticking of a woman’s biological clock cause ambition to wane? It seems not – our research demonstrates this drop at very different stages in women’s lives: students in their late teens, police trainees in their mid 20s, surgical trainees in their mid thirties. This says something more systematic about spending time in a rather male environment: the science laboratory, the police force, or the operating theatre.

Instead, our findings show that women’s drop in ambition directly follows from their increased awareness that they are very different from those that have made it before them (male scientists, male police officers, male surgeons). And who can blame them, why would you wish for something that is unlikely to come true?

Work-life balance

But what about the desire for work-life balance? Traditionally, this is perceived as all about time – how much one spends at work versus at home with family, with friends, engaging in hobbies. While time is important, what is equally important for work-life balance is how one feels about the workplace. Consider surgery –why are less than 10 per cent of surgical consultants women? Many argue that the long hours, night shifts, and being called out in the middle of the night make this an unattractive job for women – but what about nurses or midwives: long shifts, unsociable hours, and you don’t get much more unpredictable than mid-wifery.

Indeed, we have found that perceptions of work-life balance are just as much about feeling you belong in your organisation as the amount of time you spend there. Here, for both men and women, the extent that you feel similar to those who had been successful before you, the more you feel you have a good work-life balance – irrespective of the actual time you spend at work.

This can be explained in two ways – being similar to successful people reinforces your identity: who you must be in order to be successful at work is compatible with who you are at home: thus your home and work identities are balanced. Second, being similar to successful individuals facilitates greater expectations that you too can succeed, making you more willing to make sacrifices to get ahead. Thus, the sacrifices you make are balanced out with the expected benefits of success. Women are less likely to feel similar to successful others because of the dominance of men in positions of authority, and thus they might feel they have a poorer work-life balance than men and be less willing to make sacrifices for their careers.

Identity and belonging

We therefore have evidence that women’s choices are very much shaped by their workplace experiences, and in particular, by issues of identity and belonging. This has a number of implications. First, this is not just a women’s issue – anyone can feel that they don’t belong: this can be on the basis of race, class, sexuality, religion, or age. Thus we can help explain why many different groups are underrepresented in particular roles.

The research also has implications about what can be done. The majority of work-life balance initiatives focus on time: part-time working, flexible-working, working from home. These initiatives are all important and help everyone achieve a better time balance. But they may inadvertently exacerbate issues of identity and belonging – part-time workers are less likely to feel they belong and can succeed.

I believe we need alternative measures that address issues of identity and belonging. One approach is to send the message that all types of people can succeed – so that women (and people of colour, working-class individuals, etc) can imagine themselves in a role, imagine being successful in that role, so that we can all feel confident that our sacrifices will be worthwhile.

Balancing academia and music

The life of an academic is full of deadlines and conflicting priorities; however, how do you balance these priorities, if you add an emerging band and a record contract? 

This is the situation which PhD researcher, and member of The Echo and The Always, Angela Muir finds herself in. In this blog post she talks about how these different roles have become intertwined.

Photo courtesy of Polly Thomas

Photo courtesy of Polly Thomas

Like most PhDs and career academics I lead a very busy life with conflicting deadlines and priorities, and an endless struggle to find the time and inspiration to write, all of which needs to be managed with an eye on future opportunities and the endless funding applications they require. Like most (if not all) academics this is balanced against other personal and professional commitments outside academia. For me, that second commitment is music.

I’m in a very fortunate situation. I’m funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada to pursue my PhD on the experience of childbirth for unmarried mothers in eighteenth-century England and Wales. Outside academia I’m in a signed indie band called The Echo and the Always which has been funded by the Arts Council of Wales to promote the release of our debut album ‘…and After That the Dark’.

The first two weeks in December highlight just how busy these two careers can be. In addition to the inevitable endless marking that comes with the end of term I was also writing an academic article, writing funding applications, fulfilling my duties as PGR Liaison for History, and preparing for upgrade before I left to spend Christmas in Canada. At the same time, the band was chosen to be BBC Wales Artist of the Week. In addition to this I stepped in as a session musician for a BBC Horizons Maida Vale session, which involved travelling to West Wales for practice sessions with another band, then to London to record and film. At one point I showed up to an Ex Historia colloquium with my trumpet on my back because I had to leave straight after to catch a train to London.

This is just one example. On several occasions when we’ve been on tour I’ve spent my morning on my laptop in a hotel room analysing statistics on infant mortality or writing a conference paper, or making a detour so I can spend my day in the archives before meeting the band at the venue we’re playing that night. I spent part of the weekend of Green Man Festival sat backstage reading secondary literature for a chapter. This may not be for everyone, but I find it exhilarating.

For the past five years my academic and musical careers have been intertwined. I moved from Canada to the UK in 2010 to pursue my MA in Early Modern History, and even before I landed I was in a band with friends I had made on previous trips. Although our line-up has change over the years the academic links are still there – I met our guitarist (and my partner) during our MAs Swansea University.

It hasn’t always been easy, and the fortunes of the band and academia seem to mirror one another. The band had a great debut year at the same time I graduate with my MA and published my first academic article. Things slowed a bit with the band as we cycled through members trying to find the line-up that ‘clicked’. During this time I was turned down twice for international PhD funding. When I finally secured Wellcome funding the band signed to the independent record label, Jealous Lovers Club. Finally, not long after I was awarded SSHRC funding from Canada the band was awarded Arts Council funding. Surely this is just coincidence, but it’s been an interesting pattern nonetheless.

Photo courtesy of Gemma Conde

Photo courtesy of Gemma Conde

My schedule may seem hectic or unmanageable to some, but I’m one of those people who thrives when I’m at my busiest. Other than the never-ending worries about funding and constant self-promotion academia and music are very different, which is a blessing as each gives me an opportunity to clear my head of the other. This juggling act is also helping me learn how to make the best use of my time, and when necessary learn when and how to say no. The problem of major conflicting priorities has been mitigated by extensive planning and by making choices such as releasing our album at the end of October, which meant we could tour during reading week to promote it.

This balancing act is also made possible by the support networks I have working around me. I have a great relationship with my supervisory team, Dr Sarah Toulalan and Dr Alun Withey, and there is a fantastic community of PhDs and early career researchers at Exeter.  The band serves as a surrogate family for me, and the music community in Cardiff is incredibly supportive and inclusive. Plus we have great management behind us.

I may be busy, but I’m also fully aware of the privileged position I’m in – I get to pursue not one, but two of my passions at the same time.

The earth wants to be green

Rewilding the United Kingdom – from restored forests to the return of predators such as the lynx – were in the spotlight at a topical lecture featuring acclaimed writer George Monbiot and leading conservationist Alan Watson Featherstone, Founder of award-winning charity Trees for Life. PhD student Kuba Jablonowski was there….

“Woodland covers 31 per cent of the world’s land area and 37 per cent of Europe, but only 13 percent of Britain,” says journalist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot at the start of his talk at the University of Exeter.

Later, during the question and answer session that follows, someone from the audience adds that natural woodland accounts for even less than that, just about six per cent of the British land. Why is it? Well, according to rewilding pioneer Alan Watson Featherstone, who speaks after George, this is mainly because we are ‘a nation of sheep’. He means it quite literally: Scotland, where he comes from, has 5.3 million people and over six million sheep. Scotland also has countless red deer who have no natural predators in today’s ecosystem and hence are left free to overgraze desolate hills. No trees can take root in such an environment.

Throughout the evening George and Alan explain why Britain’s rolling hills, for many a defining feature of the country’s landscape, should rather be considered as evidence of an environmental disaster which turned our uplands into some of the least functional ecosystems in Europe. They blame it on human activity and yet it is not the industrial revolution and its unintended consequence, the climate change, that they focus on.

The peculiarity of the British landscape with its barren, ‘grass-trashed’ and ‘sheep-wrecked’ uplands is an effect of farming and a particular pattern of land ownership more broadly.

Unlike almost anywhere else in the world, Britain has never had a revolutionary event that would trigger some kind of redistributive land reform. As a result very few people own much of the land, and Britain has one of the most concentrated land ownership patterns in the world, second only to Brazil. To make matters worse, the enduring lack of transparency as to who owns what exactly makes the efforts to mitigate ecological damage harder.

For George, therefore, the main obstacle to rewilding Britain is political ecology and economy. Sheep in the uplands are often a loss-making business and many farmers live off subsidies form the European Union, which are paid per hectare of land in ‘agricultural condition’. This excludes woodlands but does include barren and overgrazed land. The cumulative effect of unusually large size of British farm holdings and European subsidies is a landscape where only the most resilient animals can survive: deer, skylark, and not much more.

Rewilding is about reversing that process and bringing back biodiversity that used to characterise much of rural Britain. There is palpable excitement in the audience as George describes the wilderness of our last interglacial period, when elephants, rhinos, hippos, lions, and hundreds of other species roamed Britain. However, his is not an agenda for conservation with an arbitrarily selected baseline, or for going back to a particular historical moment. Rewilding is a progressive agenda to let nature thrive. As George puts it: “The process is the outcome,” and it is certainly not about protecting the few species we have left.

This makes most sense when Alan speaks about the work of his life which he spent planting trees in Scottish highlands, or often just protecting them with fences to stop sheep and deer overgrazing. The result is there for all of us to see. He shows numerous photos of barren land that becomes overgrown with young trees within just a few years from putting up fences. A few more years and these fences can be dismantled, and lush woodlands stand proudly where there was nothing. This often is achieved with no planting at all – nature does not need our help as much as a chance to grow on its own. Coming back to one place every two years Alan documents the rewilding process and shows how he just lets the nature take its course. There is something incredibly intimate about these photos, showing Featherstone looking after trees until they are strong enough to cope on their own. It is like a family album…

Rewilding has very simple principles, says Alan. It starts with restoration of vegetation communities, which is followed by reinstatement of vital ecological processes, and finally reintroduction of missing species including large mammals and predators. And this process of rewilding is not just a way to heal our dysfunctional landscapes, but also to bring people together. Alan clearly loves trees, but he is also very concerned about the wellbeing of people ‘deprived of nature’. He lists Scotland’s social woes, and says that rewilding is a great way to get people to work together, be out in nature, and do something meaningful for one another and future generations.

In the question and answer session much attention is focused on winning over the wider public for rewilding Britain. George and Alan argue that it is all about sharing knowledge and using existing resources smartly. They say that agricultural subsidies, for example, would bring greater returns if they became rewilding subsidies, and that reforested uplands would be the most effective flood defence Britain can have.

Finally, a question about the baseline ecosystems comes up: if we decide to reintroduce missing species, then what is the new, wild landscape supposed to look like? Which point in history do we reference as the right type of wilderness? But Alan says it is really ‘not about turning back the clock, but restarting it’. Let’s begin with that, adds George, and who knows – maybe eventually we will get our elephants, hippos and lions back!
The talk was organised at the University of Exeter on Thursday 14th January by the Network of Wellbeing, Exeter Community Initiatives, and Research Services.

January blues? Act now to beat depression

Professor Ed Watkins is a clinical psychologist at the University of Exeter, who specialises in the treatment of depression. Here he looks at ways to better tackle depression.

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In the dark clutches of January, many of us feel low after the overindulgence of the festive season. We may have eaten and drunk too much. Credit card bills loom large. We review 2015 and what we want to improve in 2016. For those vulnerable to depression, this is a risky time as realities can take on the hard edge of winter frost – referrals to GPs and NHS treatment services for depression peak in January and February.

I encourage those who experience depression to see this New Year as an opportunity to get our expert support, whilst helping us to improve treatment. How will we do this? Through two activities that most people do every day: eating and using the internet.

We want to find out how internet therapy for depression works, so we can make it better. We are also testing whether you can eat your way to better mental health. We need volunteers to help us. Maybe you, or someone you know, can help?

Internet CBT makes therapy more widely available and accessible nearly anywhere and at any time.

Internet CBT makes therapy more widely available and accessible nearly anywhere and at any time.

By depression, I don’t mean feeling a bit low, as is sometimes used in everyday speech. Instead, clinical depression involves symptoms that persist every day for weeks on end and that cause significant distress and impairment, including not enjoying normally pleasurable activities, poor sleep, disturbed appetite, negative self-worth, tiredness, poor concentration, and sometimes suicidal thoughts.

Depression is common. Approximately one in five people will experience these debilitating symptoms during their lifetime. Because it is so common, occurs repeatedly, and disrupts work and family life, the World Health Organisation estimates that depression will cause greater individual disability than stroke, cancer, and heart disease.

The good news is that we have effective treatments, including antidepressant medication and talking therapies such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT uses problem solving, positive activities, and challenging negative thinking to break people out of depression. However, only 15 per cent of adults with depression and anxiety disorders are offered such therapy, despite it being recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Moreover, even these treatments only achieve sustained recovery in one third of patients.

This indicates that we need more powerful and widely available treatments. A recent editorial in the leading scientific journal Nature noted, “despite progress, we do not yet fully understand how psychological treatments work – or when they don’t.” This understanding is necessary to improve treatment. If we can identify therapy’s active ingredients, we can discard the inactive parts and concentrate the active ones to make therapy stronger, briefer, and more widely available.

Building a better therapy

My team is pursuing an exciting line of enquiry that rises to this challenge. In an innovative approach, we allocate all patients by chance to different combinations of components within CBT. This reveals which components best reduce depression so that we can build a better therapy.

We study internet CBT because it makes therapy more widely available and accessible nearly anywhere and at any time. It overcomes stigma, limited mobility, difficulty scheduling therapy sessions, long distances and inconvenience.

Funded by the Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and the South West Academic Health Services Research Network, we are now recruiting across all of South West England. Anyone with depression can volunteer for a version of free internet CBT, with support from a therapist. To find out more or sign up, please visit Improve Research Trial on Facebook or visit the Mood Disorders Centre’s Depression Mood Screener for Internet Treatment site.

We also want to prevent mild January blues from spiralling into full-blown depression: Prevention is an essential part of reducing depression. Our European-funded MooDFOOD project tests whether improving diet and nutrition can prevent depression in overweight people.

Whilst most people know that obesity is a major public health challenge, many don’t know that obesity, depression, and poor diet are linked. Studies involving more than 55,000 people show that being overweight increases the chances of becoming depressed, and vice versa.

Unhealthy diet is one mechanism linking obesity and depression. Eating processed foods, fried foods, and refined sugars is associated with depression, whereas a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole‐grains is associated with less depression.

A Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole‐grains is associated with less depression.

However, the role of diet in preventing depression has not been directly tested. We also don’t know whether it is a healthy diet reducing fat and sugar or just increasing particular vitamins and nutrients that protects against depression.

To answer these questions, we are recruiting individuals near Exeter who are mildly depressed and overweight or obese (Body Mass Index 25-40). Participants receive by chance either free multi-nutrient supplements, containing Vitamin D, calcium, folic acid, selenium and Omega 3 fatty acids, or inactive placebo pills, each daily for a year. Half of the participants also receive lifestyle coaching to manage mood, improve diet and reduce unhealthy eating, such as habitual snacking on sugary and fatty foods.

If successful, this could provide a public health strategy to achieve widespread positive effects on mental health and physical wellbeing, helping more people to avoid depression through January and beyond. For more information, please visit our website.

Fantasy Figures: A New Art Exhibition in Toulouse

Professor Melissa Percival, Associate Professor (French, Art History and Visual Culture), talks about an exhibition she has curated that is currently showing at the Musée des Augustins until 6 March 2016.

This post first appeared on the Humanities blog.

Michael Sweerts (1618-1664) Garçon au turban tenant un bouquet de fleurs Vers 1658 Collection Thyssen-Bornemisza ©Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid

Michael Sweerts (1618-1664) Garçon au turban tenant un bouquet de fleurs Vers 1658 Collection Thyssen-Bornemisza ©Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid

Faces, heads, bodies. A busy gathering of ragged beggars, dashing soldiers, haughty courtesans, absorbed readers and sleeping children. Young and old, tender and wrinkled. Flashes of artistic brilliance, humour and eccentricity. These are the key ingredients of a new exhibition of 80 European old master paintings that I have curated at the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, France.

Whereas portraits depict a real person in a well-defined social context (professional or domestic), fantasy figures are much more mysterious. They are hard to read with their dark backgrounds, minimal objects, flamboyant costumes and ambiguous expressions. Instead they lend themselves to fiction and dreams. When you ‘meet’ these characters it is not always clear who you are looking at: some actively engage with you; others make you feel like you shouldn’t be looking at all. This type of informal, experimental work was greatly admired by collectors. Our exhibition – the first of its kind – brings together works from Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, France and England from the late sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries.

The idea for the exhibition came from my book Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure (2012).

Bernardo Strozzi (Gênes, 1581/1582-Venise, 1644) Le Joueur de piffero (Il Pifferaio) Gênes, Galleria di Palazzo Rosso © Musei di Strada Nuova

Bernardo Strozzi (Gênes, 1581/1582-Venise, 1644) Le Joueur de piffero (Il Pifferaio) Gênes, Galleria di Palazzo Rosso © Musei di Strada Nuova

Around 1769 Jean-Honoré Fragonard painted a famous series of sixteen fantasy figures that have long puzzled the experts. I discovered a large number of similar works by Fragonard’s predecessors and contemporaries that had never been compared with each other, or regarded as a distinct type of artwork. They were far too beautiful and fascinating to remain hidden in picture archives or scattered in museum collections.

After two years of preparation, the paintings are finally up on the walls. It has been one of the most exciting few days of my life, seeing packing cases delivered from all over Europe, and opened up to reveal much anticipated treasures. (Not being an experienced picture handler, I’m not allowed to touch anything!) The paintings were thoroughly checked by a paintings conservation expert before being placed in a pre-arranged spot and carefully aligned.

 In the show we have ‘big names’ like Annibale Carracci, Murillo, Van Dyck and Frans Hals and of course Fragonard. But it’s also great to be showing the public less well-known but mesmerizing artists such as the Flemish Michiel Sweerts, who on his good days was as brilliant as Vermeer.

Jean-Baptiste Santerre (1658-1717) [d’après] Jeune femme endormie à la chandelle Fin XVIIe-début XVIIe siècle © Nantes, Musée des beaux-arts Photo C. Clos

Jean-Baptiste Santerre (1658-1717) [d’après] Jeune femme endormie à la chandelle Fin XVIIe-début XVIIe siècle © Nantes, Musée des beaux-arts Photo C. Clos

The designer has done an incredible job of creating an intimate yet dynamic exhibition space at the heart of the vast gothic church (the museum is a former Augustinian convent). Instead of ordering the pictures by chronology or artistic school, we have a less conventional themed arrangement: the sections are called such things as Musicians, Inner Lives, Laughter and Sarcasm, and The Laboratory of the Face. Alongside the serious scholarly purpose of remapping art history, the exhibition explores in so many ways what it is to be human.

I was fortunate to find a like mind in Axel Hémery, Director of the Musée des Augustins, one of France’s oldest and most prestigious museums. Together we made a long-list of loans, knowing that each would require careful negotiation, and that quite a number of our requests would not be met. It’s no easy feat to borrow an old master painting! I got to work on the catalogue, writing the main essay, shorter essays on each painting, and commissioning scholars to write chapters. Background research of this vast subject area tested not only my art historical knowledge but also my ability to read in several foreign languages.

Ceci n’est pas un portrait: Figures de fantaisie de Murillo, Fragonard, Tiepolo is at the Musée des Augustins from 21st November 2015 to 6th March 2016. ‪#Figures2fantaisie‬‪ ‬‬

Professor Melissa Percival is an expert in eighteenth-century French studies with research interests in Eighteenth-century art, literature and history of ideas. She has published widely on theories of physiognomy and facial expression.

Which women win? Party differences in gender bias in the 2015 English local elections

This blog was written by James Winterbotham; James is an undergraduate student of social sciences and data analysis at the University of Exeter. As part of a team of students working with the University’s Q-Step Centre he has collected and analysed the results of the 2015 local elections.

This year’s English local elections have returned relatively low numbers of female representatives; just 31 per cent of newly elected councillors are women, which is actually a slight decrease compared to the 2014 figure of 32 per cent.

In the context of renewed interest in gender equality in politics, accompanied by a film dramatising the female suffrage movement and increasing efforts by pressure groups such as the Counting Women In Coalition to secure 50/50 gender representation in Parliament, this might strike some as disappointing.

Attitudes toward the urgency of achieving proportional gender representation vary significantly between parties. Likewise, there is no consensus over which methods are acceptable to achieve this. For example, The Labour Party has considered all-women shortlists for parliamentary selection contests (p.67). The Conservatives, who also support the idea that women should be better represented in senior positions in society, nevertheless hold that ensuring equality of opportunity for all is fairer than positive discrimination is in favour of women (p.19).  Smaller parties follow a similar cleavage: the Green Party aims to field 50 per cent female candidates at next year’s elections whilst UKIP is adamant that policies targeted specifically at women are unnecessary and unfair. Given this variation, it would not be surprising if some parties had considerably higher shares both of female candidates and of female councillors than others. I set out to investigate this.

Difference in success

Is there a difference in the success of female candidates by party? There certainly is. As the bar chart below demonstrates, left-wing and/or liberal parties such as Labour, the Greens and the Lib Dems have considerably higher percentages of female winners than the Conservatives and UKIP. Labour, for example, has returned councillors who are approximately 37 per cent female, whilst the new Conservative councillors are 29 per cent female; a considerable difference of eight percentage points.

Independents have a lower proportion of female councillors than any of the major parties.   Fewer than two out of ten independent councillors elected are female. This may seem surprising; media coverage of independents, although sparse, has tended to give the impression that they are generally progressive and disillusioned with the current political situation. Nevertheless, although some independent candidates may favour the greater inclusion of women in politics, they are not themselves a shining example of it.

female ward winners

A quick note on statistics: the I-shaped bars on this chart are Error Bars. As long as the Error Bars of two parties do not overlap, we can be 95 per cent sure that there’s a genuine difference between them that’s not the result of random chance. Otherwise we can’t be certain that a meaningful difference exists

This finding tells us that the under-representation of women varies between the main political parties and between independents. But it does not tell us why. Further analysis was needed to establish whether this is the result of fewer women than men standing for local elections, fewer women than men being elected, or a combination of the two.

I mentioned earlier that about 31 per cent of councillors elected this year are women. The percentage of women among candidates fielded is very similar, at 32 per cent. In fact, the difference here is so small that we can’t be certain it’s not the result of random chance. This suggests that, on average, voters do not disproportionately favour male candidates. The overall disparity between men and women, then, can be traced back to when candidates are selected and fielded, rather than to voters’ choices on Election Day.

Important caveat

The caveat that voters do not disproportionately favour male candidates on average is important, because it would appear that this varies significantly according to the party they voted for. All the major parties fielded candidates that are about 30 per cent female, varying little from the average figure of 32 per cent. Once the councillors were elected, however, significant differences in gender ratios appeared. This means that those who voted for Conservative, UKIP and Independent candidates disproportionately voted for male candidates. However, those who voted for Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party voted disproportionately for female candidates. This existence of these opposing tendencies is what makes the overall effect of voters on gender representation so slight.

Based on these findings, a reasonable conclusion might be that the overall difference between male and female councillors originates in the fielding of candidates, but that variations in this disparity by party originate from the process of voting.

Although interesting, these findings barely scratch the surface of the complex and well-documented gender inequality in every level of British politics. More research is needed on the motives and the disincentives of people considering whether to stand for election at the local, national and international levels. In particular, the lack of women among those who stand as independent candidates and are elected as independent councillors is noteworthy and needs explaining. Once answered, these questions would contribute to a better-informed and more effective approach toward equal gender representation.

Solving the mystery of missing exoplanet water

Professor David Sing is the lead author on a new research paper that has detailed the atmospheres of a number of planets outside our solar system for that first time. Here he tells us more about this ground-breaking research…

A little over six years ago, the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off for one last repair mission to one of the greatest scientific instruments of all time. NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope spectrographic electronics had failed in 2004 and the spectrograph had been unusable since. A spectrograph analyses the light of the star as it passes through different chemicals and elements of the planet’s atmosphere.

I had been granted precious Hubble time to observe the atmosphere of a transiting exoplanet – ‘transiting’ meaning that, from our point of view on earth, it passes directly in front of its star, and ‘exoplanet’ referring to a planet outside our own solar system. My work was to analyse the spectrographic changes in order to classify the gaseous makeup of a planet’s atmosphere, still a relatively new concept in exoplanet science at the time. But in order to proceed with what I hoped would be groundbreaking science, the instrument had to first be repaired by an astronaut on a space walk.

In space, even the most routine tasks can prove challenging. A space walk can be downright dangerous. Via a live stream, I watched nervously here on Earth as astronaut Mike Massimino left the airlock of Atlantis in order to repair the Hubble’s spectrograph. But in order to install the new electronics board, a handrail that was in the way had to first be removed. The handrail had, of all things, a stripped bolt; it wouldn’t budge, rendering the spectrograph inaccessible.

As I watched, all I could think about was the lost telescope time, lost exoplanet science, and the possibility of the next decade devoid of meaningful scientific progress in my field, all because of a bolt. Astronauts must be intelligent and ingenious in space, but in the end Mike relied on brute strength to rip the bar free– a risky manoeuvre in space. It allowed access and successful repair of the instrument. With Hubble fully repaired and better than ever, not only could we once again look at the composition of exoplanets, but its new infrared capabilities opened a much broader view of their atmospheres.

Today, there are nearly two thousand exoplanets known. My team has just completed a large Hubble survey, the first of its kind, that compares exoplanetary spectra across ten very different planetary worlds.

Teasing out the spectra of a planet is a tricky business, as the star vastly outshines the planet, and there are still only a select few dozen that can be analysed spectroscopically in detail. The exoplanets we can study are nothing like Earth, or even any of the rest of the planets in our solar system. Our survey targeted Hot Jupiters, gaseous planets orbiting so close to their stars they are heated to thousands of degrees, creating immense winds moving thousands of kilometers per hour and pushing heat to the night side.

Unlike other astronomical objects such as stars, exoplanets show immense diversity from planet to planet, and two otherwise similar exoplanets can show very different characteristics. These are, after all, different planets around different stars with completely different formation and evolutionary histories. If you looked at ten planets for the first time, and they were of a type scientists didn’t even expect to exist, what would they look like, what would you discover? The first few glimpses from Hubble’s new infrared camera showed puzzling results; the large water vapor feature everyone expected to see was barely visible. This was quite a surprise as oxygen is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, and we would expect to see water vapour dominating the infrared spectra in all Hot Jupiters. Scientists theorised that the answer to the missing water vapour could be traced all the way back to the very formation of these planets.

Gas giant planets form far away from their stars where there is ample gas to accumulate. Far away from the star, ice forms, lowering the water vapour content in the gas. Thus, the theory holds that Hot Jupiter planets form in these far away regions, gathering gas from water-starved regions to form its planetary structure. The planet then migrates very close to the star through processes such as gravitational interactions with another planet or another nearby star. If this theory were true, it would be a major new insight into how planets form and a shakeup of conventional thinking.

We have, however, a competing theory to explain the lack of expected water features on these planets: clouds. Unlike clouds on Earth, the clouds in Hot Jupiters are expected to be quite exotic, made of small iron or silicate particles. It can rain glass on some of these planets, and shortly after Hubble was repaired, our initial observations indicated this was the case on at least one planet. But how common are these clouds, and could they explain low amounts of water vapour in Hot Jupiters simply by covering up their features?

From our Hubble telescope survey of ten planets, we now know the answer. Clouds do indeed hide the water vapour features in many Hot Jupiters, but not all. Using Hubble spectra at optical wavelengths, we can detect and study the light scattering caused by the clouds, and using infrared spectra from both Hubble and the Spitzer Space Telescope, we can simultaneously study the water vapour, comparing how the two interplay and manifest themselves across the different types of Hot Jupiters.

The diversity we found was unexpected, to say the least. No two planets look the same, ranging all the way from clear, pristine atmospheres to heavily clouded planets. The planets with clear atmospheres show very large water features just as expected, indicating Hot Jupiters are not so water poor after all. The diversity of clouds across the different planet types has also given us new insights into how clouds form in extreme conditions, and we have discovered the unique atmospheric structure of Hot Jupiters makes them particularly sensitive to cloud formation.

We may not yet entirely understand how these planets form, but we’ve devised several metrics to enable astronomers to separate the different planet types, such that clear-atmosphere planets can be specifically targeted to accurately measure their chemical abundances, which will soon provide new insights into planet formation.

As Hubble enters its last few years at full capacity – no other servicing missions are planned now that the space shuttle has retired – a new successor is on the horizon, the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in late 2018. It’s a telescope so powerful, it’s expected to revolutionise nearly all areas of astrophysics, particularly exoplanet science. Instead of just water vapour, we’ll be able to study the full, rich chemistry of an exoplanet’s atmosphere, and the makeup of their exotic clouds. The James Webb telescope will enable us to study much smaller planets, possibly even to study rocky and potentially habitable ones.