Mensa fails the sexism test

The society for big brains has just ousted its first female chairperson . Does it have enough basic common sense to thrive in the egalitarian Nineties?
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The Independent Culture
EVERY DAY in the heart of England an elite, male-dominated clique plots its next move in an unending quest for glory. The intelligent men in charge have worked for years to climb to their positions, and the media attention is welcome fuel for their actions.

A woman headed their institution, briefly, a strong and popular woman. This week she was ousted, and now the grey men have taken over again.

This particular clique is not Her Majesty's Government but Mensa, the society for the country's brainiest citizens - and its internal plottings, which resulted earlier this week in a popular chairman being ousted, would put even the Tory Party to shame.

Mensa has been riddled with infighting since it was founded, but recently it has been struggling to recruit members, shake off its dorky image and find someone to transform it from a loose organisation whose members have nothing in common except a high IQ, to something more substantial.

Julie Baxter, a sociable 45-year-old from Lancashire with an IQ of 154, was supposed to change everything. She was appointed to be the society's first female chair in October last year, and said she was keen to expand membership, modernise Mensa's image and improve its services to members.

Mensa chairs had previously been feted for their squareness. Even Sir Clive Sinclair is best remembered for his ludicrous C5 road buggy. Now here was a woman whose "dyed blonde hair and tight-fitting jodhpurs" were the talk of the tabloids.

But a week ago, at a meeting of the committee to which Baxter was not invited, it was decided to strip her of her post. Noel Burger, a quiet, 35-year-old, single computer programmer, was appointed instead.

Officially, the main reason was that Baxter had encouraged Dave Chatten, a former chief executive, to circulate a derogatory newsletter about two fellow members of the executive committee. Exit tight-fitting jodhpurs, enter loose-fitting anorak.

Baxter is furious. "It's all absolute drivel," she says of the allegations of wrong-doing. Her nine months on the committee, she says, shocked her: "I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to face. But I didn't think it would be so petty and silly. It was like Kafka's Trial: here is the prisoner; let's see what charges we can find against her."

She says the committee was obsessed with "self-aggrandisement and the pursuit of power for its own sake", and that some of the men on it are "sad people with no social life" who are obsessed with Mensa. "They are a little bit adrift; it's sad that they have to take it out on others."

A few years ago, Mensa was enjoying a boom, with a membership of 38,000. Harold Gale, the chief executive largely responsible for the boom, was unceremoniously sacked for running a small puzzle business out of Mensa offices. The committee, says an insider, knew about and tolerated his activities, but one member decided to make an issue of it.

Though his appeal to an industrial tribunal was successful, Gale never got over the depression generated by the publicity. In 1997 he drove his car into a railway bridge support arch. Though the official verdict was accidental death, those close to him believe he took his own life.

After Gale's departure, Sir Clive, who was still chairman, appointed another non-Mensa businessman, Dave Chatten, to the post. Chatten had numerous run-ins with the committee, and eventually circulated a crude newsletter containing damaging information about two of its members. At the beginning of this year he was finally forced to resign; but as he did so he circulated a letter suggesting that Baxter had been a "driving force" behind the derogatory newsletter.

It was largely on this implication that she was speared last week.

Julie Baxter says she plans to fight back. Articulate and thoughtful, she is the kind of person who leaves you trailing mentally. She is convinced that two allied forces ousted her from the job: sexism, and power play from the male members of the committee.

She is withering in her analysis: "These are people who can behave in the most dastardly way, and then justify it to themselves. They have no life except Mensa, and they don't want to do anything for Mensa, they are just sad people ... It's psychologically unhealthy; most of them can't have relationships or even hold proper jobs."

In contrast, Mensa's new chairman, Noel Burger, says that Baxter was ousted not because she was a modernising woman, but because "she never listened to anything anyone else says".

"It amazes me she's taking this angle", he adds. "She accuses us of playing politics, but she was the most political member of the committee."

On one level it's all just another chapter in the pothole-ridden story of Britain's brainiest people. But at the heart of the issue is something more fundamental. In the US, Mensa is much cooler than it is over here; those who join it boast proudly of their achievements. In this country, though, ostentatious shows of intelligence are frowned on as surely as shows of wealth. Just as the aristocracy once used to potter around in old tweed jackets, so the super-smart restrict themselves to making laconic comments to each other in London's clubland.

The point of Mensa's existence here is twofold: as the butt of anorak- ridden jokes from the press, making fun of the fact that Britain's "most intelligent" people are impractical, uncool and in fact dumber than the rest of us, and secondly as a comforter to people who feel excluded from society, to prove to themselves that they are superior.

There are exceptions to this generalisation, but their actions speak for themselves: Carol Vorderman now declines to have anything to do with the society's publicity, and the new, super-glam face of Mensa, the teenage model Hayley Abdullah, resigned from the committee last week.

Julie Baxter may vow to fight back against the plotters of the Wolverhampton putsch, but she'll be fighting against the organisation's very raison d'etre.