What do you do with a vile advertisement?

Commercial freedom, trans issues, and the struggle for respect.

Today the gambling firm Paddy Power were told that their major "Ladies' Day" advertising campaign could no longer be shown on British television. The company did not take this well, saying:

This is especially frustrating given the commercial was already pre-approved by British television advertising clearance body Clearcast, just one week ago, who then considered the humour in the advert, while not to everyone's taste, fell short of causing offence.

But what this omitted was not that the objection was to the advert causing "offence" but that it was likely to create a worse situation for trans people. In the words of Helen Belcher of TransMediaWatch:

The issue was not about offence, but simply about respect. The advert placed real people at risk of humiliation or abuse simply because they could be perceived as being trans.

But Paddy Power cannot see the problem with their "humour". Perhaps the readers of this post may not see it either, so let me spell it out. Transphobia is not about a mere laugh and a nudge at someone who is dressed differently from how you might expect them to look. It is about the daily hostility and humiliations some fellow human beings have to endure simply because they are seeking to realise themselves rather than have to impersonate somebody they are not.

Many trans people go about their lives in fear of the "mare or stallion" confrontations they have to suffer from strangers which Paddy Power is so gleefully happy to promote. And this mockery and taunting can sometimes lead to the sick violence of "tranny-bashing". As the journalist Jane Fae writes about the Paddy Power adverts:

So the Paddy Power ad campaign is all just a bit of fun? Just for laughs?

Sadly, the evidence already beginning to come in is just the opposite - and pretty much in line with fears expressed at the supposedly more "alarmist" end of the spectrum.

Earlier this week, a trans woman flew into London, where she stayed overnight in a reasonably upmarket hotel. Yesterday, at breakfast, two of the waiters huddled together, staring at her. Shortly after they were joined by two more staff. One of them pointed.

As she explained later, she knew she'd been 'read'. However, the last thing she expected was for a young Spanish waiter to be pushed forward.

He came over and asked her if she was in the Paddy Power advert.

He was speaking with sufficient lack of concern for her privacy that other guests were able to hear and, as a result, two business executives sat next to her loudly asked to be moved to a new table.

[...] many of the "just a laugh" brigade will still be puzzled by all of this. After all, there was no violence: nothing.

Except that paid staff thought it was OK to humiliate her with impunity.

Such dreadful experiences are not unusual. As Patrick Strudwick writes today in the Gay Times:

[A] 60-something trans woman spoke about her life. She had only transitioned a few years ago, and when she did she lost her family, including her children. She did not break down as she said this. She did not pause for dramatic effect to let the devastating news sink into the audience. She mentioned it in passing - this is so normal for trans people that it is half expected.

She reminded me of a transgender woman I met at a hate crime rally a couple of years ago. "I get abuse every single day," she said flatly, almost casually, "From name-calling to threats of murder."

No gay person, apart from those being bullied at school, experiences that level of hate.

Paddy Power may not have thought they were promoting bullying; they may well have been "only joking". But for them to seek some commercial advantage by stoking an already hostile environment for trans people was a vile and shameful exercise. Trans people surely have enough to put up with from other members of society, and it was wrong for Paddy Power to seek to make it yet more uncomfortable just so they can get more revenue from gamblers.

A modern liberal society should not encourage the banning of humorous adverts. No one should be a criminal just because of a bad joke, and no sensible person wants to criminalise advertisements made in bad taste. Freedom of expression is a basic right, just as are the rights to privacy and autonomy. We do not create a more civilized society by resorts to coercion against free speech. And, in practice, censorship is illiberal and often misconceived.

However, any exercise of freedom of expression certainly does not mean that others must fall silent. A more humane and liberal environment requires those who sneer should also be challenged and confronted. The rights to condemn and complain are just as much free speech acts as any "bit of fun". After all, freedom of expression should work both ways, and not just for the benefit of big business.

So if there has to be a special system of regulation for broadcast advertisements, then it is certainly more humane for the voices of those seeking to promote a respectful and safe environment for marginalised people to prevail over the interests of a large and brash gambling company.

Fundamental to any modern liberal society is a sense of respect for all those whose road to self-realisation may be different from one's own, as long as any person's self-realisation does not violate the rights of others. How free speech can be squared with such personal autonomy is more a cultural and moral matter than a legalistic one.

Paddy Power may be enjoying their notoriety and their defiant pose. Any company whose business model is based on encouraging those with little money to gamble it away is unlikely to be a moral exemplar in any case. But they should perhaps reflect that some people do want to ban gambling, and why it is not banned.

It is because others are happy to live and let live that gambling exists as a major commercial concern. The popular sense is that if people want to gamble, and make money out of gambling, then it is entirely a matter for them. So it is disappointing that Paddy Power and so many others who take autonomy for granted in their own affairs are so ready to make it difficult for others to do the same. It is not only the bookmaker and the punter who should be able to get on with their lives free from the intrusions of others. The benefit of self-realisation should be open to us all.


David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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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.