Don’t get carried away with headline fall in unemployment

Subtantial progress may not come until 2013

The drop in the latest unemployment figures is good news. It is the first time unemployment has fallen in ten months. But underneath the headline fall is bad news for women and some worrying trends that make substantial progress over the next year very unlikely.

Today’s fall in the overall jobless count masks a continuing rise in female unemployment, now higher than at any point since 1987. Since last month’s figures, there are an extra 8,000 women unemployed and 27,000 more women out of work for more than a year. In total, there are now more than a million women (1,136,000) unemployed, the highest since 1987 and a rise of 100,000 over the last year. Of those, over a quarter (29 per cent) of women (327,795) have been unemployed for more than a year.

Long term unemployment continues to rise, reaching its highest level since 1996. Overall, long term unemployment rose 26,000, the highest level since 1996, to a total of 882,821. While 1,000 men have left long-term unemployment, there are now 27,000 more women who have been out of work for more than a year. IPPR predicts there will be almost a million unemployed for more than a year by the end of 2012. There is a real risk that these people will struggle to take advantage of any upturn in the economy.

While youth unemployment has fallen by 9,000, there are still more than a million (1,033,440) young people (aged 16-24) unemployed, the second highest since comparable records began in 1992. Of those, 263,000 young people (aged 16-24) have been unemployed for more than a year. The Youth Contract has now begun, but it has a huge job to do.

Almost half a million (430,672) people over 50 are now unemployed, up 42,000 in the last year. More than 40 per cent of unemployed over fifties have been out of work for more than a year, up 13,000 over the last year to 189, 593. It’s going to be very tough indeed for over 50s out of work for more than a year to fund new jobs, even when the economy bounces back.

There has also been a rise in part-time work, which rose by 80,000 while the level of full-time employment fell by 27,000. There are now 1.4 million people working part-time because they say they cannot get longer hours.

Public sector employment contracted by 270,000 last year, while private sector employment increased by just 226,000. The resulting gap means rising unemployment. The economy is not being rebalanced by public sector job cuts because growth in the private sector continues to lag. There are actually 19,000 fewer vacancies in the economy than there were a year ago. Looking ahead, there is going to be a rise of 100,000 in unemployment this year, according to IPPR analysis of the latest forecast from the Office for Budgetary Responsibility.

This is already hitting the north of England hard. Over the last year, unemployment is up 22 per cent in the North West (an extra 57,000 out of work) and up 11 per cent in the North East (an extra 14,000 out of work). The chancellor is wasting the opportunity to boost national prosperity by ignoring the economic potential of the north.

The priority for the government must be to prevent long term unemployment, with a job guarantee, and to support women to get back to work, by prioritising childcare. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but that tunnel stretches well into 2013. Before it gets substantially better, it’s going to get worse.

Boarded up shops wait for redevelopment in the Hanley Shopping Centre in Stoke-On-Trent. Credit: Getty

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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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.