Show Hide image

The MP Interview: Seema Malhotra

On launching Playstation 2, identity theft and dinner with Ally McBeal.

What made you go into politics?

I got involved with a lot of community campaigns and some political campaigns while still at school. So much about being in pressure groups is about influencing decision makers – and it made me realise that as well as influencing, sometimes its also important to be part of the decision making process. That got me interested in how politics works. I met someone in the Labour Party who encouraged me to join and I haven’t looked back since.

What job did you do before you became an MP?

I worked for Accenture and PwC and then as an independent management consultant (which isn’t a career that is well understood!). I have worked with a range of Government departments and with industry (most recently film and games industries) on projects mostly around how you improve business and public services. It’s been a career with a lot of variety. I spent two years as a systems analyst, then worked as part of the set up team for a regional development agency, and even project managed the launch of Playstation 2 in the UK. My four years in the Home Affairs/Justice sector were probably the most lifechanging experiences. I always wanted a career outside politics and am lucky to have had one that taught me so much. 

Which law would you scrap?

Not surprisingly I wish I could turn the clock back on the Health and Social Care Bill. We’ve had unnecessary structural change that I believe has weakened the NHS and there is much pain still to come.

And if you could pass one law, what would it be?

I’d make it illegal to fraudulently use someone’s address as your own. Apparently it is not against the law – and it has happened to a few of my constituents. They have had police turn up in the early hours with warrants for the arrest of people they have never heard of. Any form of identity theft is a real invasion of people’s rights and privacy.

Do politics and religion mix?

No, at least not for very long. And not very well.

Who is your favourite prime minister from history, and why?

I’m not sure I’d have one. I’d choose Clem Attlee for his courage setting up our post-war welfare state, and Harold Wilson for his wisdom on social reform and abolition of the death penalty. I also feel very fortunate to have experienced the Labour victory in 1997 – it’s easy to forget quite how much we changed under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Name three dream dinner-party guests.

Ally McBeal (ok she’s fictitional but she’s a big part of my life), Madam Alaska – a refugee from the Russian Revolution who lived in Feltham around 100 years ago. She trained circus animals and used to walk up Feltham High Street with a lion. And finally, Maud Pember Reeves. In 1908 she founded the first Fabian Women’s Group – the forerunner of the Fabian Women’s Network I founded in 2005.

Which politician from a different party do you most admire?

I may not always agree with her, but right now I would say Caroline Lucas. A quite remarkable politician with absolute conviction.

What’s your karaoke song of choice?

Gloria Gaynor’s “I will Survive”. Such a classic. Perfect for a girl’s night out.

What’s the last film you saw?

It was actually The Iron Lady a few weeks after I got elected. Her election scenes and first moments in the House felt eerily familiar.

What’s the last work of fiction you read?

David Lammy’s Out of the Ashes is my book of the month.

Newsnight or Question Time?


Humphrys or Paxman?

Kirsty Wark.

Who is your favourite blogger?

Sunny Hundal. He lives and breathes the blog.

Who is your favourite newspaper columnist?

I’ll always stop and read what Mary Riddell has written. Quite a unique blend of head and heart.

If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

I’d change nothing, but an extra day in the week would be great!

What’s the funniest or saddest thing you’ve ever heard at a surgery?

My first house visit – a woman left by her husband to bring up her three children with all of them living in two rooms rented in-house from a private landlord. She had never paid the rent or had sight of the rental agreement before he left. She had to deal with the emotion of him deserting her, find a job and look after the children. Now they are older they rotate between the bed and sofa. She doesn’t have the money to move out. So often women are left picking up the pieces when families break down.

What was your worst doorstep campaigning moment?

I’m afraid I love every doorstep visit.

Who is the most important person in your life, and why?

There’s competition for that! My husband of course – I’m in awe of his intelligence and he’s incredibly supportive. But my parents have always backed me – through all the times I stood in non-winnable local elections – and I doubt I’d have been here without them.

Do you think you will ever be prime minister – and if not, why not?

Not the right question to ask an MP after four months – I’m still working out how to be a backbencher! (Next month’s book: Paul Flynn’s guide!) 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

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.