Language-testing spouses for visas is discriminatory

Making spouses take language tests for visas goes against the principle that family unity is central

You're in a bustling street market in Salvador, Brazil. You look up, and there she is. Your eyes meet, your heart skips a beat. It's love at first sight.

You are lucky enough to date, to marry and to have a child together. Unfortunately you happen to lose your job, and so you return to the UK to take up clerical work.

Fast-forward a few months to the autumn of 2010. You assume you can bring your wife and adorable one-year-old with you. There's one problem -- your wife grew up in the countryside in Maranhão, one of the poorest states in Brazil.

She lived on less than a dollar a day for most of her life. She has no formal education and cannot speak English. You're on a small salary. You already have to prove to the immigration authorities that you've got enough money to support and accommodate her, your child and yourself.

You struggle to scrape together the £1,000 or so needed for her English tuition and test fees. She studiously attempts to learn the language for eight months, but fails her test.

She retakes the exam several months later after yet more costly English classes, but fails again. It's been one and a half years and you've been living without your wife and child who still cannot join you. There is no end in sight.

This would be a perfectly ordinary example of how the coalition government's pre-English language tests for visas can be expected to impact upon those applying to join their British or settled spouses or partners.

Double jeopardy

The tests are officially justified in benign terms -- it's apparently all about "integration" and removing "cultural barriers".

Andrew Rosindell, the Conservative MP who appeared on The Politics Show over the weekend, was a little more upfront about the measures. Observing that the measures would lead to a 10 per cent reduction in applications, and therefore cut immigration numbers, he considered this to be a "good thing" and, indeed, one of two aims behind the measures. But however you look at these proposals they are open to serious objection.

Perhaps the ugliest aspect is the sheer discrimination and elitism that underpin it. The tests don't apply to spouses who cannot speak English from within the European Union.

For those to whom they do apply -- who happen to be drawn disproportionately from Asia, in particular south Asia -- it is very clear that the poor are most likely to suffer, as they are the least likely to be able to afford English lessons.

Given that family-based migration tends to be feminised, and that educational opportunities are gendered across the globe, it is highly likely that women will be disproportionately affected by all of this. Those with learning difficulties and mental health problems will also suffer.

The Netherlands recently introduced a similar scheme that has already been subject to international criticism by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The exemption there for "western states" was considered to have been discriminatory and inconsistent with international law.

But even from the point of view of efficacy in facilitating migrant integration, the measures are seriously lacking. First, how an earth can migrants who are prevented from coming to the country seriously be expected to integrate in the UK? The experience of the Netherlands shows any delay in family reunification/formation is likely to delay integration.

Further, as the proposals apply only to one small subsection of the migrant community in the UK, they are inherently limited in their reach, and therefore their ability to enhance integration is seriously compromised.

Moreover, these individuals are already subject to language and cultural testing at a more exacting level shortly after their arrival in the UK. Spousal testing in fact takes place within 24 months after arrival.


If anything, these measures will in the long term hinder integration. They will only reinforce erroneous stereotypes held by some sections of the host community that migrants on the whole don't wish to learn the English language or be part of the UK. From the point of view of migrants, the discrimination and hardship that the measures will subject them to will delay the development of the sense of membership of a society that is a precondition for integration.

The experience of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is that most migrants do in fact learn the language and actually want the opportunity to do this but oversubscription for classes, and the costs of learning tend act as significant barriers.

A far more effective and proportionate way of addressing any deficiencies in the English-language skills of migrants would be to remove restrictions that prevent many migrants who arrive in the UK from learning the language at an earlier stage. This could be done through charging fees at more affordable home prices, rather than overseas rates, which tend to be prohibitive.

Further, the £50m the government proposes to spend on implementing this scheme could be better invested in expanding already oversubscribed English language classes.

This would give all immigrants -- and all others with less sophisticated written and spoken English skills to boot -- the opportunity to improve.

Adopting such an approach to language learning, integration and immigration policy would also reflect international law and the principles that underpin it.

Indeed, international consensus on the centrality of family unity to human dignity crystallised as early as 1948 with the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Dog-whistle politics offers no justification to depart from these obligations or the long-cherished principles on which they are based.

Hina Majid is director of policy at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

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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.