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Make way for girls at the top

I couldn’t help smiling at the tweet from the spoof @Henry_Wellcome, founder of the Wellcome Trust, which arrived soon after the list of new fellows of the Royal Society (FRSs) was made public at the end of April. “Can’t believe women are allowed to join the Royal Society now. Thankfully *hardly any* are. Might pop over and see if my FRS is still valid.”

In truth, 6 per cent of the fellows are women. There are now 82 living female fellows of the Royal Society, against 24 in 1980. Over the past ten years, the number of women elected is 43 out of 438: just under 10 per cent. Is this a poor show – or is it what might be expected, given historical trends?

Election to the Royal Society is widely seen as the most distinguished recognition of scientific excellence in the UK. The first female fellows were admitted in 1945. The historical and social changes since then have been great, but are they reflected in the numbers elected annually? This year, there were only two women and 42 men, plus one woman among eight foreign members. This compares unfavourably to five women plus one in 2011 and five plus one in 2010. There’s not much sign of a rise over this most recent period.

There has been a steady increase in women scientists’ share of professorships at universities in the UK (540 in 2010, 9 per cent of the total). This is comparable with female FRS elections in the past ten years. But the overall proportion is still woefully small. We can look for reasons for this in our culture and in women’s expectations of their potential.

An interesting phenomenon known as illusory superiority comes into play here. It makes many of us believe, in many matters, that we are better than average – for instance, that we have a better sense of humour and are better drivers than the average person. Rumour has it that 94 per cent of the lecturers at one university rated themselves as better than average.

Is such self-illusion more marked in men? Adrian Furnham, a psychologist at University College London, found that men are more likely to think that their IQ is 5 points higher than it actually is, and that women think theirs is 5 points lower. I wonder whether such a difference exists for the perception of intellectual achievements in general and whether this would have a dampening effect. If so, it might well slow the rise in recognition of female scientists at the top level. I am not saying that women should inflate their self-esteem, only to be disappointed. As ever, we all need realistic expectations.

Get on the list

What should be done? The answer is capacity-building – and the good news here is that the Royal Society has set up a committee
to monitor diversity.

The data collected by this committee shows that women make up 30 per cent of nominees included in funding programmes of the Royal Society, such as research fellowships. What’s more, the unique Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship programme now funds a cohort of young women (90 per cent of the successful applicants) who anticipate career breaks. Already there are stars of science shining brightly on the horizon. Their presence will make for ever more competitive elections in the future and for more female FRSs.

An all-male list of candidates for the next chief scientist appeared on Twitter on 26 April. It immediately drew pointed comments. From now on, not including any woman in the lists of candidates for the top science jobs, or for fellow of the Royal Society and other prestigious prizes, will no longer be acceptable in polite society.

Uta Frith is emeritus professor of cognitive development at University College London
Michael Brooks returns next week

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide