The "great pensions divide" - it isn't what you think

Mehdi Hasan on today's pensions strike.

As public-sector workers, including teachers, go on strike today, the (right-wing) papers are filled with anti-union, anti-public-sector-pension headlines and stories. The Daily Telegraph, on its front page, claims that "a mid-ranking teacher on £32,000 a year will receive a final salary pension that is the equivalent of having built up a £500,000 pension pot. This is 20 times higher than the average private-sector scheme, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics."

The Daily Mail headline is:

Great pensions divide: private-sector staff must put in a third of their pay to match state worker benefits.

But the "divide" isn't between private sector and public sector -- as usual, it's between the rich (including newspaper editors!) and the rest of us. Most papers conveniently chose to ignore a report from Income Data Services, published yesterday, which revealed a "widening gap" between the boardrooms and workers.

Thankfully, the Guardian didn't:

Directors in Britain's top 100 companies have accumulated final salary retirement pots worth £2.8m on average, according to figures that reveal a widening gap between the pensions awarded to boardroom executives and the shop floor.

Incomes Data Services (IDS) said about 46 per cent of FTSE 100 directors were still accruing final salary benefits in generous schemes that typically pay two-thirds of final salary as a retirement income.

A pot of £2.8m could buy an employee a pension annuity worth more than £170,000 a year, IDS said.

Using the Telegraph's aforementioned ratio, directors' pension pots are worth more than 100 times as much as the average private-sector scheme. The Guardian report continues:

Company directors, like MPs, have among the most generous schemes in the G20 group of richest nations, with guaranteed benefits worth two-thirds of final salary accrued at an accelerated pace. Many directors can earn their full pension after only 20 years service, while it takes MPs just 26 years. Most workers take between 35 and 40 years to accrue a full pension.

Meanwhile, a letter in today's Guardian reminds us of TUC research in 2009 outlining how:

. . . tax relief on pension contributions of £37bn is heavily skewed towards the better off. Treasury figures show that 60 per cent of tax relief goes to higher rate taxpayers, with 25 per cent going to the top 1 per cent of earners.

Where is the anger? The outrage? Where are the headlines bemoaning "gold-plated" pension schemes in Britain's (failing) boardrooms? As Mark Serwotka, the leader of the PCS union, has rightly pointed out:

It's not public-sector workers who exploit [private-sector workers] but their private-sector employers.

One final point: can we, once and for all, nail the right-wing lie that public-sector pensions are "unaffordable"? The cost of public-sector pensions is set to fall in the coming decades. Don't believe me? The Hutton Report, commissioned by the coalition government and used by ministers as a justification for the "reforms" to pension contributions, states on page 22:

There have been significant reforms to the main public-service pension schemes over the last decade, including increased pension ages for new members and a change in the indexation of pensions from RPI to CPI indexation. Some of these changes have reduced projected benefit payments in the coming decades. For the interim report, the commission asked the Government Actuary's Department (GAD) to project future public-service pensions expenditure. It projected benefit payments to fall gradually to around 1.4 per cent of GDP in 2059-2060, after peaking at 1.9 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010-11.

But, as Jon Snow's interview with the Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, on Channel 4 News on Monday evening revealed, the government seems totally unaware of the contents of the report that it commissioned -- and that it now chooses to hide behind.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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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.