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?

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.

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game