Obama’s odyssey

The president hares from state to state, but are the Democrats heading for a “historic bloodbath”?

Believe the respected Rothenberg political report, and the Democrats are heading for a "historic bloodbath" on Tuesday – at least in the House. The Republicans need to pick up just 39 seats to win a majority, and there isn't a poll around that doesn't suggest they'll win at least 50 – if not dozens more.

As for the Senate, it looks likely that the Democrats will at least avoid a wipeout there – the GOP isn't heading for the neccessary ten-seat win.

And while Obama has been appealing to supporters to knock on 20,000 doors this weekend, even the wildly successful Rally to Restore Sanity hasn't given the Dems the last-minute boost they were hoping for.

Sure, most of the 250,000 people who crowded into the National Mall were liberals through and through (and you couldn't help but think back to that freezing day back in January '09, when the entire city was a sea of Obama flags and faces shiny with hope), but Jon Stewart's shtick deliberately avoided any kind of partisan appeal.

"Some of you may have seen today as a clarion call for action," he told the crowd. "Clearly some of you who just wanted to see the Air and Space Museum got royally screwed."

And when he did get political, Stewart let rip against extremists on both sides. The media, especially the likes of Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck, got most of the flak. "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing," he said.

But beneath this cacophony of extremities, there's no getting away from the fact that President Obama is about to be dealt a huge rebuke.

"Part of it is a profound unhappiness with the way Washington is working," says Matt Bennett from the Third Way think tank, describing people's deep frustration that their lives aren't getting any better and no one in charge really seems to care.

The recession is overshadowing everything – almost all Americans think the economy is in bad shape, and hardly anyone can see things getting better soon.

Curse of the 'burbs

It is even more profound in the suburbs, where 53 per cent of people describe their own financial situation as "bad". Most people, according to Princeton Survey Research, have either lost their job or know someone who has, while 40 per cent have lost their home, or know someone in that situation.

That's a lot of discontent, and, says the survey, the suburbs hold the key to this year's Republican success. Especially when the president is so city-centric: years ago, he told AP he just wasn't interested in the suburbs – "they bore me".

But what is really noticeable right now is how polarised the debate is: as the saying goes, it's a lot easier to rant than to rave. If part of the national disappointment is over what's seen as Washington's obduracy, many voters are also disillusioned by a president who promised unity, but has ended up presiding over a country more divided than ever before.

So much for "No red states, no blue states – but the United States of America". Instead, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has been proclaiming that "the single most important thing we want to achieve for President Obama is to be a one-term president", while Obama himself urged Latino voters to "punish our enemies" on Tuesday, warning Republicans, "You can ride with us if you want, but you gotta sit in the back seat."

And partisanship is flourishing within the parties as well. The Republican establishment must surely be worrying about the prospect of all those unruly Tea Partiers causing trouble for them – as well as the Democrats – in Congress. And the "professional left" is still causing trouble for the president.

Last night, as Obama made his final pitch for votes on a four-state blitz, one small section of the crowd in Connecticut suddenly started heckling him about funding for Aids research, before the rest of the audience drowned them out.

The president – looking noticeably annoyed – told them curtly to turn their anger against the Republicans instead, warning that his entire agenda could be rolled back if the GOP prevailed.

He did get a better rap back in his old Senate seat of Illinois – where a 35,000-strong crowd whooped it up for him, 2008-style. But it says a lot about the state of the country that, three days before election day, he's having to focus on getting his own key supporters to turn up at the polls.

Felicity Spector is chief writer and US politics expert for Channel 4 News.

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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.