Wanted: Experienced interns. And I’m not joking

Journalism is now like working for the St John Ambulance, but without the chance to put a sling on s

Jobhunting isn't fun. There are many un-fun things about it, from the circulatory rejection email to the bottomless pit into which all applications seem to fall, never to be mentioned again. But perhaps the worst feeling of all is the one I've had a couple of times this week: finding a really decent job advertised that looks perfect for me, then discovering that the salary is £0.00 per annum.

Nowadays, in the media and other industries, you don't have to incentivise potential workers with old-fashioned money; any advert will bring a hundred eager candidates stretching right around the building. Bosses can pick and choose -- and they can pay nothing. Some so-called "internships" demand that candidates have extensive experience and skills and will be required to complete a challenging series of tasks to help make money for the company -- just not for themselves.

It sums up the state of the industry. On the one hand, a few experienced workers cling to permanent positions as if their lives depend on it; which quite often, they do, if they've got bills to pay and families to support. On the other, there's a huge churn of casual employees who have no working rights and who are therefore ripe for exploitation. Step out of line, and your boss could advertise for your position and get flooded with applications overnight, some of which would come from people who'd work for nothing. What choice have you got? It's this culture of fear that brings about compliance from workers who would stretch their ethical boundaries to keep their positions. It's a lose-lose situation for everyone.

It's easy to blame the thousands of graduates from media and journalism courses up and down the country and say it's somehow their fault for wanting to do what they want to do; but I can't, because I was, and am, one of them. I don't know if there really was a golden age when there were vast fortunes to be made and people had jobs for life; there probably wasn't, and those of us struggling to find work now probably knew that pretty well when we signed up. That said, there just aren't the jobs anymore as there once were, and, if there are jobs, you'll have to sweat to get them. True, some people do bafflingly walk into newspapers or magazines without any discernible talent and go on to make a fortune out of it, but I don't begrudge them their bit of luck either: they've played the fruit machine and won. Deep down we'd all fancy a bit of that luck, and I'm no different.

I've got nothing against work experience or genuine internships either; it's how a lot of us (me included) managed to get a breakthrough in the workplace, and it's vital for gaining an insight into a career path. But we're not talking about work experience; we're talking about working up to the standard of a paid worker, having the same tasks as a paid worker, but not being paid; doing a hobby in a workplace. Journalism is now like working for the St John Ambulance, but without the chance to put a sling on someone. The industry is essentially saying: "Look, you know you're desperate, we know you're desperate, so what's it going to be?"

Well, we all know what it's going to be. Already, the type of people who can make it in the industry has changed, and it will change even more. People from poorer backgrounds just aren't going to be able to chuck six months or a year of their lives away for nothing; those from wealthier backgrounds are. I don't think journalism was ever an especially diverse profession, but at least there were chances. Now, what chance do people have, when rents are rising, prices are flying and wages are non-existent?

There are many dispiriting things about being unemployable in this coalition world of dwindling opportunities and guttering hope. It's probably worse for the young people who feel there's no future, the masses of men and women with great qualifications, great skills and absolutely zero chance of getting anywhere because of when they happen to have arrived in the jobs market. I don't blame some of them for working for nothing in the hope it will get them somewhere. But I am not so sure it will get any of us anywhere.

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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.