And I'm not making this up...

Instead of pandering to tabloid mythology why can't May, Cameron and co just be honest?

Sometimes I like to think of a world in which everything that's said at the Conservative Party conference is true. Imagine that world, for a moment. It's a world where rich people are nice, and businesses are trying their hardest to make the world a better place but are constantly thwarted by pesky red tape.

It's a world where the poor are grasping and bad, and people who aren't doing very well have ended up there by not trying hard enough and not getting on their bikes.

It's also a world where political correctness has gone mad. But you can't even say mad nowadays, you have to say "mindfully challenged" because otherwise the Brussels bureaucrats, and I'm not making this up, won't be able to deport racists back to where they came from because of their so-called human rights, and I saw someone had to wear safety goggles to open a packet of Murray Mints, it was in the papers and everything.

No, I'm getting confused. That was just a silly caricature of things that might be said at the Conservative Party conference; it wasn't what was actually said. However, even though that isn't quite accurate, it's close enough, isn't it? I mean, who cares what actually happened, when you can just tell a story that's got some kind of basis in fact, even if it's not exactly what happened?

When challenged about it, you can get your mates in the press to tell their readers that you're right; and it's not as if anyone on your side cares or not whether you're telling them the truth, as long as it neatly chimes in with their prejudices and expectations.

Well, that's not entirely true either, though. Because not all Tories roared with approval when Theresa May told her since-discredited shaggy moggy tale about a cat that kept someone in the country who shouldn't have been in the country, and how that showed why the Human Rights Act should be consigned Mary Bale-style to the wheelie bin.

Kenneth Clarke, the only Tory it's all right to be fond of if you're a leftie (although if we were allowed dead ones, I'd put Kenny Everett in there) thought it cheapened the debate to mention something that wasn't fundamentally accurate.

Later that same conference, David Cameron came up with a tale about health and safety having literally gone mad when a school tried to order highlighter pens, concocting a daft image of kids having to put on chemical protection suits and stand behind a blast shield just to use them. Was that true? It might have been, I suppose, but it's this kind of anecdotal justification for important policy -- the scrapping of the human rights act here, the relaxation of health and safety regulation there -- that cheapens our political life.

This kind of pandering to tabloid mythology is reminiscent of the black man Cameron met before the election campaign in 2010 who had apparently told him what he wanted to hear about immigration. But we only ever hear anecdotes from people he's spoken to that back him up; he doesn't talk much about the doctor he met, who told him to sod off out of his hospital, does he?

Who knows. Maybe there is a school somewhere that keeps highlighter pens in a safe, because they're so scared of the H&S brigade. Maybe there's a rush of illegal immigrants heading down the pet shop in the belief that it'll prevent their rightful deportation. Maybe some of these anecdotes are true, or grounded in truth. But even if they are, is that justification enough to change things? How about looking beyond the anecdotes, and beyond the farcical exceptions to the rule, and wondering why these bits of legislation are around in the first place?

Why not just be honest? If you don't like the Human Rights Act because you think it gives people too many human rights, then say so. Don't say it's stopping judges from deporting people because they've got cats when it hasn't stopped judges deporting people because they've got cats; that makes you seem childish and the reasons for your lawmaking flimsy.

If you don't like health and safety legislation because it means businesses are annoyed at having to spend money on safeguarding their employees -- and let's face it, if a few manual workers get horribly mutilated or killed, they weren't going to vote Tory anyway -- then don't be shy. Why use these daft anecdotes to get the point across?

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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.