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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

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.