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The row about Stuart Wheeler shows Britain has turned into a giant version of Woman’s Hour

16 August 2013

3:44 PM

16 August 2013

3:44 PM

The hunt, since you ask, is on for one of Stuart Wheeler’s three very pretty daughters – Jacquetta is a well-known model – to opine about their father’s off-message remarks about women being ‘nowhere near as good as men’ at chess, bridge and poker. This was in response to a question about why there are so very few women on company boards. Stuart Wheeler, UKIP treasurer and Douglas Hurd lookalike, went on to explain that both sexes are good at different things and ‘you don’t necessarily want to impose a minimum of either sex at the top of any profession or at the top of any board’.

Here Wheeler showed his engaging naivety. His observation was, of course, the contemporary no-say. You’re allowed to deny quotas as being unnecessarily bureaucratic but not to remark on gender differences, any more than you’re allowed to suggest that Russia’s take on gay rights is its own business.

There are a couple of things to say about this. One is that Wheeler is right that men are better at chess: the slightly autistic obsessiveness that characterises the most proficient players seems to bypass women. Dunno about bridge; the two Spectator bridge columnists are women and are plainly as expert as anyone at this baffling pursuit. But yes, Wheeler has a point: when it comes to analytical skills and big strategic thinking, men probably outflank women.

Indeed he could go further. I once interviewed an eminent Cambridge scientist, Charles Goodhart, who got into trouble for saying that the reason why men and women are different can be observed in fruitflies: male ones have either lots of hair on their bottoms or very few whereas female fruitflies have a middling number. It was something to do with testosterone. So, the sexes tend to extremes – women get, by analogy with the fruitfly hairy bottoms, lots of 2:1s whereas men get more firsts and thirds. I may say that the current batch of A-level results bears out his thesis, for the boys got more starred As than the girls, but it didn’t apply at other grades.

The rather more important question is whether any of this matters a tinker’s curse when it comes to performance on company boards. I don’t think, myself, that it does. I once attended a conference on how to bolster the number of women on boards (the cheat’s way is to make them non-executive board members) and I have to say, I wasn’t struck by any notable traits from the male executives that were absent from the female wannabees. Alison Carnwath, the former chair of Land Securities, was the showpiece woman executive and omni-board member; her traits derived from class confidence and a brisk personality as well as intelligence, none of which is gender related. She did not, I noted, have children. I expect she’s good at chess too.

The real issue when it comes to the representation of women on boards and in the professions is down to children. As Sheryl Sandberg noted in her rather irritating book, Lean In,  women tend, right from the outset, to choose careers and career paths that make it easier for them to manage to mind their children or indeed to see them occasionally, which Sandberg manages to do by virtue of deciding her own hours at Facebook, being its boss. And it’s interesting that Wheeler’s most vociferous opponent on this issue was Clare Gerada, chairman of the Royal College of GPs. Being in the public service, she can have rather more flexible hours than those in the private sector; the NHS is sufficiently gargantuan to allow women to work round their families. But even with the childcare problem, women are outstripping men in several professions and branches of medicine; more trainee solicitors are women than men. The board problem is one that will solve itself, given time, as these women work through the pecking order. It’ll be easier if they’re able to work flexibly and to take career breaks, but it’ll happen anyway.

What’s more to the point right now is that Stuart Wheeler has been put in the stocks for speaking his mind. He was asked a question and he answered it truthfully. Now he faces the thought police. It’s as if the whole of Britain has turned into a giant version of Woman’s Hour, and you know how good Jenni Murray is at handling dissent. We complain about politicians being bland and then we jump on any public figure – which Stuart Wheeler just about is – who says what he thinks. It’s scary, this move to surface conformity. And which party, you may ask, is less conformist than any other in British politics? Yes, well, quite.

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