Online trolls, Julian Assange on the run and Jimmy Carr’s tax dodge

“You’re a Bolshevik feminist Jewess.” That was one of the more printable insults aimed at a blogger named Anita Sarkeesian, who wanted to make a series of videos about the portrayal of women in computer games. And it wasn’t just offensive comments. In a targeted campaign of harassment, seemingly led by a handful of message boards, she had her Wikipedia page defaced and received dozens of threats of death and rape. What was her offence? Little more than being a woman with an opinion, which is usually enough to burst the dam of rage on the internet.

Last autumn, I wrote a piece about the bullying experienced by many female writers online. It hit a nerve: others came forward to tell their stories and there have since been two BBC documentaries on “trolls”.

Slowly, the law is beginning to catch up with online bullies and the first cries of “you’re infringing freedom of speech” have gone up. The mistake that is often made in talking about the internet is to assume it’s somehow qualitatively different from any other medium. If you threatened to kill someone in person, or by letter, or through phone calls, you wouldn’t expect to get away with it. Our “freedom of speech” already has restrictions. Why should the web be a consequence-free playground?

Added to that, what about Sarkeesian’s freedom of speech? She proposed making some videos and was harassed, shouted down and victimised by hundreds of anonymous persecutors. Thankfully, she has decided to continue making the video series but many women (and men) will have looked at her ordeal and thought again about speaking up.

When you gotta go . . .

Why does the right hate Owen Jones so violently? After the Chavs author spent a day on Twitter talking about how call centres limit their workers’ loo breaks, the Telegraph’s blogs editor, Damian “Blood-Crazed Ferret” Thompson, commissioned two separate hit jobs on him. First came Donata Huggins, who found the whole subject hilarious. “He has spent the day, as [Dave] Spart would, campaigning for longer toilet breaks for call centre workers,” she chuckled. (Dan Hodges, also of this parish, followed up with an ad hominem attack about Jones being the “Justin Bieber of the left”.) 

Perhaps I’m a Dave Spart, too, but loo breaks are only a trivial subject to those who are allowed them whenever they want. The most eye-opening book I’ve read this year is Rose George’s The Big Necessity, which chronicles the struggles of the millions of people across the world without access to adequate sanitation. The Telegraph bloggers would presumably find their plight hilarious.

Leaking away

At some point on the afternoon of 19 June, Julian Assange slipped unnoticed into the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge to claim political asylum. It was a surprise, not least to those who had put up the £240,000 he needed to make bail while his appeal against extradition to Sweden played out.

Over the course of the past 18 months, I’ve watched in fascination as Assange has destroyed almost every friendship he has had: with the original WikiLeaks team, with the journalists who worked with him, and now – perhaps – with those who backed him financially. He appears to believe that he and his cause are indivisible, and therefore nothing he does can be wrong. Hosting a chat show on the Kremlin’s favourite TV channel, Russia Today? Fine. Refusing to investigate or comment on allegations that his associate Israel Shamir handed over cables on Belarusian opposition activists to the country’s dictator, Alexander Luka­shenko? Not a problem. The importance of the original WikiLeaks project has been drowned in seas of self-promotion.

The irony of Assange’s situation is this: the self-avowed campaigner on free expression now wants to go to a country where, according to Human Rights Watch, “laws restrict freedom of expression, and government officials, including [President Rafael] Correa, use these laws against his critics”.

Manger zone

Have we reached Peak Pret? Walking down Piccadilly at the weekend, I saw a hoarding advertising a new Pret A Manger store “opening soon!”. It could not have been more than a couple of hundred metres from an existing Pret.

I’m intrigued. How can the market bear so many identical shops in such close proximity? Who thinks about going to Pret but doesn’t, for the sake of an extra few metres? The answer can’t be that competing owners are jousting over business, because the chain (unlike, say, Subway) refuses to sell franchises. There are 249 Prets in Britain, 176 of them in Greater London. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry: they’re sure to come to a town near you soon. The chain has stormed the slow-eating capital of Europe with a store on the Avenue de France in Paris. Disappointingly, over there Pret A Manger is not called “Ready To Eat”.

Carr crash telly

Following the news that Jimmy Carr shelters £3.3m a year from tax by using a Jersey-based scheme, I can’t really do better than his fellow comedian Frankie Boyle’s reaction: “It’s OK to avoid tax, providing every time you do a joke about a town being shit you add, ‘Partly down to me, I’m afraid’ under your breath.”

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

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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.