Letter of the Week

No more turgid Blairing

David Miliband leading the Blairites out of the woodwork and on to the pages of the New Statesman (NS Essay, 6 February)? No wonder the Daily Telegraph pounced on the piece with such glee. Have we forgotten already that Blairism was content to be Thatcherism-lite, "intensely relaxed" about those who were filthy rich?

What the opposition needs is not a turgid lecture from Miliband Sr, but informed people who have read John Lanchester, David Harvey, Thomas Franks, or any of the many other authors who have set out the facts behind the current malaise of capitalism and public gullibility, to puncture the coalition's myth - before George Osborne's economically illiterate policies take us into another recession.

Miliband Jr is not doing a bad job in the face of a hostile press. He is beating the coalition on bonuses (among other issues) and the more he talks about the obscene disparities in remuneration between bankers and binmen, the more the public will cheer him on.
Bill Wilson
Muirhead, Fife

David and Goliath
The timing of David Miliband's intervention could not have been worse for his brother (NS Essay, 6 February). His article is a thinly veiled criticism of Ed's leadership - which is under attack not because of his policies, but because his presentation is woeful. This is a shame, because what he is saying is correct. David's prescription for recovery is more of the same Blairite remedies - attack the publicly funded services and yet more kowtowing to the (already) mega-rich. We need a break with the Blair/Brown battles. We need someone completely new. That person is not David Miliband.
Alan Dazely
Horsham, West Sussex

The most irritating thing about David Miliband's article is the lack of any prescribed action or policy. Elsewhere in the same issue, Alistair Darling is quoted as saying that it would be a mistake for the Labour leadership to put its cards on the table too soon. Probably. But except for a few populist points and a vague idea that some parts of the capitalist system aren't very useful, Labour hasn't set out any way in which it would change the structures, and David Miliband's article doesn't either.
Jeremy Cushing

Millions are campaigning against government cuts and yet David Miliband advocates shaving away any structural economic imperatives that might differentiate his party from the Con-Lib coalition. So what's the point of voting Labour then?
Gavin Lewis

I disagree profoundly with your Leader (6 February). Labour reduced inequality so comprehensively that this coalition is reaping the benefit. The draconian cuts have yet to bite in many cases. When Labour left office, 13 years in power had revolutionised life chances for a generation to such an extent that the economic tsunami did not sweep the country away to sea.
Elizabeth McFarlane
Via email

Editor's Note Despite significant reductions in child and pensioner poverty, inequality rose under Labour. The Gini coefficient - the recognised measure of inequality - was put at 0.36 for 2007/2008, higher than at any time since the relevant records began in 1961. Ed Miliband has said: "I deeply regret that inequality wasn't reduced under the Labour government."

Doctor's diagnosis
As a GP in Witney, I was pleased to read your report (Observations, 6 February). I totally agree with most of the points made, as do many of my colleagues in Witney and all over Oxfordshire.

The provisions of the Health and Social Care Bill are a threat to the coherence and effectiveness of the National Health Service. GPs have neither the time nor the inclination to give up our surgery sessions to become untrained project workers.

Such "clinical engagement" turned out to be a poisoned chalice for me a few years ago, although my patients didn't lose out, because I work part-time and did the work, unpaid, on my days off. The experience has left me disillusioned and cynical about GP commissioning. The NHS is not broke; it is envied around the world. Those who want to “fix" it are out to make indecent amounts of private money from public funds.
Susanna Graham-Jones

Essex appeal
Thank you to Edward Platt for his detailed and informative article on Essex, a county of which I have heard much but experienced little ("Low rise
and shallow fall", 6 February). However, I must take issue with one error. On one of my rare visits, when I viewed Flatford Mill, the scene of Constable's Hay Wain, my journey had been through Suffolk, not Sussex.
Jim Martin

Lost translators
In the first paragraph of Leo Robson's review of The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker (The Critics, 6 February) there is a reference to J M Coetzee's Disgrace. It led me to wonder whether The Detour was written in English or translated from Afrikaans. Further on I read, "as translated from the Dutch by David Colmer". As a translator, I find it discouraging that a colleague should receive so little acknowledgement. Literature originating in other languages should have a higher profile in this country. Making it clear to readers that a book has been translated is a first step.
Imogen Forster
Via email

Make the sin odd
I was disappointed by Giles Fraser's article on George Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, which amounted to little more than a personal attack ("Yesterday's man", 6 February). Why didn't Fraser use this opportunity to provide some argument against Carey's views? That might have helped those of us on the left to persuade the 55 per cent of English people that Fraser says agrees with Carey in the view that a benefit cap is necessary and fair to think again.
Richard Bowman
London E3

If you had observed Chris Wright and his friends as they took to the disco floor (Letters, 6 February), enticed by the opening riff of a Rolling Stones record, you would have noticed the spring go out of their step after about 30 seconds. The Rolling Stones have never been able to groove. Their cultivated image of loucheness and rebellion, which their fans love, has obscured the feebleness of their music.
Michael Bartholomew
Otley, West Yorkshire

Mitts off
Sophie Elmhirst's Word Games on "Mitt" (6 February) reminds me of Kinky Friedman and his motley Greenwich Village Irregulars in his often hilarious crime books. When there is a problem, the call of "MIT" goes out and the detective work begins.“MIT" is code for "man in trouble". OK, the final "T" is missing, but how about "man in terminal trouble"? That could be an appropriate description of the Republican candidate - I hope.
Rab Macwilliam
London N16

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Boris vs Ken

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.