September 13, 2013 6:37 pm

The Diary: Noreena Hertz

The author and economist on gender equality, Lady Gaga’s performance at the Roundhouse, and what ‘British’ stands for today
Illustration by Luke Waller©Luke Waller

At the Last Night of the Proms, as most of my fellow audience members proudly waved their Union Jacks to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 in D major (“Land of Hope and Glory”), I reflected on why I had no inclination to raise a flag myself. My childhood is partly responsible – my late mother’s repeated admonition never blindly to follow the crowd means that I have always struggled to conform. In addition, affiliations and loyalties based purely on geography strike me as a poor reason to unite and coalesce.

But I think what kept me from standing up and joining in the nationalistic revelry was that I’m not really sure what “British” means right now. The nation that I am proud to be part of is one of religious tolerance, fairness and internationalism – the Britain that embraced my Israeli-accented mother’s standing as a Conservative candidate for parliament, that allowed my immigrant parents to build successful lives and businesses on its shores; a nation of the NHS, of Emmeline Pankhurst, and of rich cultural diversity.

Yet with euroscepticism and anti-immigrant sentiment rising, inflammatory rhetoric being deployed by the government around the issue of illegal immigrants (the recent “go home or face arrest” campaign was a depressing example), and the national flag co-opted by the UK Independence Party as well as the far right English Defence League, what exactly would I have been cheering for?

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Near the end of a glorious evening of classical music, Marin Alsop remarked from the stage that it was shocking that she was the first female conductor to take the helm of the Last Night of the Proms in its 118-year history. Why did it take so long to reach this milestone? As a professor in the field of economics – a subject in which only 10 per cent of professors are female – I’m all too aware of how few women have been able to reach high-ranking positions. So I was delighted when Michael Arthur, the new provost of University College London, where I will be taking up a professorship this month, told me of his commitment to address the gender gap in academia.

It makes sense that UCL should spearhead such an initiative; it was England’s first university to accept students of any race, religion or political belief and the first to accept women on equal terms, back in 1848. But bridging the gap will be a significant challenge; prejudices run deep and are often unwitting. In my new book I recount the story of what happened when researchers at the University of Wisconsin asked 238 university psychologists to rate the CVs of one of two fictitious applicants for an academic job – a Dr “Brian” Miller, or a Dr “Karen” Miller.

Although the two CVs were identical apart from the first name, the results showed that Dr “Brian” was assessed to have better research teaching and experience than Dr “Karen”.

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Marin Alsop was not the only groundbreaking musician I saw last week. The other was Lady Gaga, who performed at London’s other famous circular venue, the Roundhouse in Camden Town. With 1,700 seats compared with the Royal Albert Hall’s 5,272, the Roundhouse has an intimacy that is profoundly different from the impersonal stadiums and arenas that most big stars perform in these days.

For anyone who regularly gives speeches in public, Gaga’s performance was a masterclass in how to connect with your audience. I’m not suggesting that before your next keynote you don a wig and strip down to your underwear. That definitely won’t play well at Davos. But the way she drew us in, linking her songs with a clear narrative, bringing us into her confidence, exposing not only her strength but also her vulnerability – was powerful, even for someone who is not a fervent fan. Authenticity, storytelling, and an emotional connection with the audience are attributes that underpin all great performances, whether musical or oratorical.

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On the subject of performance and storytelling, it seems to me that the UK prime minister, David Cameron, lost the vote on Syria in parliament largely because many of his fellow British politicians drew an incorrect parallel with Iraq – a war that divided and scarred the United Kingdom. The more appropriate comparisons, I believe, are Bosnia and Rwanda, whose conflicts loom darkly in our past; their genocides were witnessed passively by the west for far too long before intervention, to the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and the displacement of millions. Using the past as a lode star to guide us carries significant risks if we don’t think carefully about what is really relevant.

After years of simply accepting that transatlantic travel meant a week of messed-up sleep patterns despite melatonin and a BA flat bed, I think I’ve cracked jet lag. Research in behavioural economics and psychology suggests we have far more power to override our dominant beliefs and habits than we acknowledge. So I very firmly told myself as I boarded my flight from Los Angeles to London that this time I simply wouldn’t buy into jet lag. I had too much to do. And it seems the pep talk delivered. I’ve readjusted fast and I’m not craving my duvet by mid-afternoon. Of course, this is not a scientific analysis. I’ve only tested the hypothesis on myself, and only once. So I’m going to try it again next week, when I’m flying to New York.

Noreena Hertz’s ‘Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World’ (William Collins) is out now

www.noreena.com; Twitter: @noreenahertz

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