Last woman standing

The “new politics” announced by David Cameron and Nick Clegg has sidelined women from most of the to

There are now five times as many Davids in government as there are women in the cabinet. David Cameron promised that a third of his inner circle would be women, but walk into a cabinet meeting and you are three times more likely to meet a minister who went to private school than you are to meet a woman. Nick Clegg and Cameron may trumpet the arrival of a "new kind of politics", but women have been left with the same old sidelines.

This follows the most male-dominated election in recent history. The leaders' televised debates highlighted women's absence from the top ranks of the major parties; the chancellors' fared no better. With a shift in focus towards the more "serious" issues of the economy and the constitution, women seemed to give up the steering wheel and return to the back seat. The most high-profile women in the campaign were Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron.

Asked about the current gender imbalance, the new Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the newly elected Conservative MPs Nicola Blackwood and Charlotte Leslie said they were "too busy" to comment (or perhaps they've already learned to be "seen, not heard"?), but the other parties were more forthcoming. The Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone - one of the few new female ministers, who has responsibility for equalities at the Home Office - describes the situation as "atrocious". Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, says that it is "shameful". Shirley Williams, a Lib Dem who helped write Labour's manifesto in 1974 with Barbara Castle, clearly feels betrayed: "It's a step backwards," she says. "It was appalling that neither of the two coalition parties included a single woman in their negotiations. I wasn't consulted - I was out campaigning for them. It was a bad slip for both sides. It was only when we started shouting that they noticed."

Some parties did better than others. With its policy of all-women shortlists, Labour might have lost the best part of 100 seats, but it still put 81 women in the Commons. The Tories gained 100 seats but brought in only 48. Although women contested 40 per cent of the Lib Dems' winnable seats, the number of its female MPs dropped in what was a bad night - seven out of 57 are now women, down from nine in 2005.

“It's ridiculous," says the Labour MP Emily Thornberry. "Clegg stands up and says how inclusive and diverse his cabinet is, but there aren't even enough women to doughnut [form a ring around] the leader for press shots. If the party can't bite the bullet and take the necessary steps to increase their female candidates, then we'll benefit. The Labour Party will be the only party that represents both genders."

Labour members might be right to criticise, but they have challenges of their own. At present, five out of the party's six candidates for the leadership are men. The two leading women MPs with cabinet experience have already ruled themselves out of the race. The party's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, seems to have internalised the view that she's not "up to it" and Yvette Cooper says she might consider it when she doesn't have a two-year-old to look after (but presumably this constraint does not apply to her husband).

Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, is the only woman standing. Gender is a card she intends to play. "This is a pivotal moment for the leadership of the Labour Party, and it's important to get the full range of opinions represented," she says. "The current front-runners are all very nice but they all look and sound the same. Women were invisible in the election - they can't disappear in the leadership, too. This is the 21st century, not the 1950s."

But why does women's representation matter? To date, the left has struggled to explain why gender equality might be important in politics beyond an abstract notion of "fairness". Yet women don't just help with legitimacy - they also make tangible differences to policy. Sarah Childs, professor of politics and gender at the University of Bristol, has researched the effect of 100 new female Labour MPs on party policy and documented their vital role in the development of Sure Start, child tax credits and policies against domestic violence.

In the wake of the recession, the Fawcett ­Society points out that women's input into policymaking is more important than ever. Women make up 65 per cent of public-sector workers and 89 per cent of carers. Their experiences must be heard, because when state services are slashed, it is women who pick up the slack. Or, as Abbott puts it, "One man's public-sector cut is another woman's job loss."

“The labour movement has fundamentally changed," she says, "Trade unions now have huge numbers of women working in hospitals and transport, and we need a woman who can speak to their concerns. I've brought up a son as a single mother. I can speak over the heads of union bosses and reach the members."

Bully boys

Abbott was one of the early campaigners for all-women shortlists, a policy that has helped Labour push its female MPs up to 30 per cent of the total - the highest of all the parties. Supporters argue that female under-representation is driven largely by a lack of role models and a macho political culture best characterised by the jeering and bullying of Prime Minister's Questions. The only way to break the cycle, Labour argues, is to get a critical mass of women into the chamber to change its culture (though it remains to be seen whether the party will commit to using female quotas in its own elections for the shadow cabinet).

The Lib Dems and the Conservatives, on the other hand, have always seen all-women shortlists as an insult to meritocracy. "We've always had problems because we're a party of clashing principles," Featherstone concedes. "We believe local people should decide on their choice of candidate and intervention from the centre isn't welcome. You can't just drop people in."

The Lib Dems say all-women shortlists are unlikely to fix the problem in any case, because the root cause of the under-representation is not female insecurity about a "boys' club", but bigger issues. Political careers tend to take off at the same time as a woman's biological clock starts to tick (Charles Kennedy delayed having children until his forties - an option not available to most female colleagues) and many end up dropping out. Those who carry on face a difficult task. Running for office and holding down a job is challenging enough; adding in caring responsibilities makes it almost impossible.

“I still feel perpetually guilty about my children," Featherstone says. "They've grown up now, but earlier on I was bringing them up as a single mum. When I was out canvassing I felt guilty about not being at home; when I was with them I felt bad I wasn't at work. I used to hold political meetings in my house because I couldn't afford a babysitter."

All-women shortlists won't fix these problems, the Lib Dems argue. Far better to work on measures to promote flexible working and paternity leave. According to the Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson, parliament itself may have to change. At present, the building still makes space for a suiting lounge but no crèche, and the recently extended hours have made it more ­difficult for families. "Nick has got some great changes for political reform but we need to look at the business of parliament, too," she says. "Parents need to be able to work flexibly, and at the moment votes are held at very short notice, making it hard to balance family life."

Fresh hope

Reforming the electoral system would also be a step forward for equal representation, as women tend to feature as second or third preferences rather than first. Countries that adopt proportional representation tend to have more women in higher places. The Spanish cabinet has 53 per cent women, South Africa 33 per cent and Sweden 50 per cent; compare these figures to our impoverished 17 per cent. The Welsh Assembly has the best profile in the UK: a form of PR combined with a policy of joint male and female candidates has pushed female representation up to 50 per cent.

Could the "new politics" of 2010 offer fresh hope for women? The overall proportion of women in parliament went up 2.1 per cent in the last election, and coalition governments are supposed to be better suited to women's more "consensual" style. Some, like Lucas, the Green MP and party leader, are already proving hard to ignore. "The biggest challenge is not to be trivialised," she says. "We know that women aren't less able to do these jobs, so we have to look at what else is holding them back. We need to get over the stereotypes, and fight to keep women visible."

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge