Cameron has promised what he cannot deliver on social exclusion

We need to recognise the limits to the state's ability to solve complex social problems.

In the dark, panic-fuelled days following last summer’s riots, David Cameron made a knee-jerk pledge to turn around the lives of 120,000 "troubled families" by the end of this parliament. The promise presented a neat policy solution to calm the moral panic that followed the disturbing mix of child criminality, mindless destruction and deprivation brought to the fore by the riots.

Cameron is not the first politician to make sweeping promises in a bid to reassure the public and get tough on social disorder. Even more ambitious vows were made by New Labour on coming to power in 1997 to mend the decayed social fabric of the country after years of Tory rule. Tony Blair famously pledged to "eradicate child poverty" and Peter Mandelson spoke in 1997 of his vision for New Labour to "end social exclusion". Unsurprisingly, given the scale of these ambitions, the Blair and Brown governments fell short in achieving them, despite significant gains. But it is not so much the scale of these undertakings, as the way in which they perpetuate the illusion that it is in the gift of the state to achieve them that is their undoing.

Take, for example, the Family Intervention Projects (FIPs) begun under New Labour that Cameron’s "troubled families" policy is based on. The government stressed that the projects were excellent value for money in preventing or reducing anti-social behaviour (ASB) in 8 out of 10 cases. They provided much needed one-to-one support for families struggling with serious social problems. But a later evaluation found that in less than a year ASB returned in just over half of families and that this was primarily related to mental health problems.

In fact, 80 per cent of the FIP families in this study had mental or physical health problems, yet a further report found that only 11 per cent of families received professional psychiatric treatment or counselling and only 35 per cent received parenting classes. Another study of FIPs in Leicestershire found that none of the participants could explain what the purpose and objectives of the support they were receiving were.

The projects were undoubtedly doing excellent work, but in some cases, without creating a sense of ownership or drawing on the agency of these families and addressing the root causes of their problems, the projects hit their target but missed the point, which was for families to sustain lasting change. The lesson of this period for today has to be to recognise the limits of a hubristic state to ‘solve’ complex social problems.

It is unlikely, given the political capital staked on it, that the coalition’s troubled families scheme will be allowed to be seen to have failed. Though it has fewer resources available to spend per family than the FIPs and a vastly higher number of families to "turn around" to reach the much criticised target of 120,000 families in time for the 2015 election (FIPs helped 5000 people at their peak in 2010), the Troubled Families Unit itself will evaluate the overall impact of the programme and some of the success criteria will be measured subjectively. The assumption that there is a link between these families and the riots has barely been challenged despite no real evidence to support it. But what exactly is the point of the government setting targets it has little real control over achieving anyway?

Both right and left need to rethink the way in which government tackles deep social problems and also how they do ‘tough love’ politics. Obvious as it may sound, politicians must grasp that it is only individuals with the right support, not governments, that can turn their lives round. This means a greater understanding of what leads to genuine, sustainable change for those individuals, whether that is through a greater sense of ownership and control over shaping outcomes or using limited resources differently to provide longer term and more specific support.

It also means thinking about whether central government pledging to ‘deliver’ an end to hard, long running problems in lives of the most disadvantaged is the best way to show it is getting tough on social disorder or to legitimise spending money on the most vulnerable and least popular groups, which is ultimately what these commitments are about.

Interviews with key figures inside Labour and on the right for a review of New Labour’s social exclusion agenda, soon to be published by IPPR, suggest that unrealistic pledges on complex social problems can erode instead of deepen public trust and are likely to be a thing of the past. The coalition may well prove to be the last government to make promises on tackling extreme disadvantage that are not within its power to achieve. This may be no bad thing both for the people they aim to support or for British politics.

Clare McNeil is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

Twitter: @claremcneil1

A scene from last year's riots in Hackney on August 8, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Clare McNeil is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

Twitter: @claremcneil1

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.