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The NS interview: Russell Kane, comedian

On the "smashing" of grammar schools.

How did you get into stand-up?
Some of my friends said, “Maybe you should perform some of your stories, because they’re quite funny.” I just googled “stand-up London”, clicked the first link, phoned the first number and went on the first stage. No passion, no inspirations, no history, just an apathetic drifting into something that I turned out to be nauseatingly good at. I couldn’t give a shit and I’m still good at it. Cocky, isn’t it?

What do you care about?
Literature. The novel’s finished. Tiny advance, which means it’s a good novel. Always remember, the smaller the advance, the better the book. I was distraught to get any money for it.

Was writing novels always your dream?
When I was eight I used to decorate my own little books and put bar codes on them. But my mum’s a cleaner; my dad was an asbestos remover. I wasn’t brought up to think that dreams are achievable. The grammar school system was smashed away by well-meaning liberals. So I was fucked, packed off to a comprehensive along with all the other bright working-class kids, to be watered down and then shipped out to Asda. So it was a pie-in-the-sky dream. I just kept it ticking over.

Do you have strong feelings about schools?
What we should’ve done in the Sixties is fixed the secondary moderns; we made an intellectual error. Bright working-class kids now go
to a comprehensive. The value system inverts temporarily: you want to be the most popular, and if the system of value in a secondary school is who is the toughest, that becomes the value system. If you’re born in a council flat now to a single mum, you have less chance of getting to Magdalene College than you did in the Sixties. That’s fucking awful; that’s unacceptable.

Did you have a tough time at school?
No, because I was funny and it was easy to be popular. What I did come out with was five GCSEs grade A to C, which is a lot more than other people came out with. But I could have done more. I turned it round and got a First at uni. But what’s the point in looking at freaks like me, who are the exception? The majority of those kids, you go: “Whatever happened to Terry who was so bright at primary school?”

Does your family mind being in your material?
My mum likes it because she knows it’s true. I al­ways talk about my dad in the present tense on the stage. He’s funnier alive than dead. So that’s upsetting, but in the right way – moving.

Do you think it’s easier to write comedy when you’ve been having a hard time?
Yeah, particularly for British people. We want to hear comedy about pain. We like bathos.

Is there an essence of British humour?
Definitely. We put each other down. If I went on stage in the States and started laying into the front row without establishing myself with a joke, it would be a problem.

You won a comedy prize at Edinburgh in 2010. How did that feel?
Amazing. I don’t have the skill to – I’ll use a For­ster word – “dissimulate” – otherwise. I wanted to win it and I was obsessed with winning it. The Oxbridge I never got to was all bound up in winning.

Do you still get nervous before performing?
Put it this way – Imodium could sponsor my tour.

Do you consider yourself political?
Not really. I’m more sociological than political, more about gender and class and masculinity and femininity and ideas like that.

What do you think of the coalition?
I hate everything David Cameron’s doing with a passion but it’s quite refreshing to see someone actually doing something. It’s like someone punched me in the face after I’ve been sat in a room for 20 years.

Is religion a part of your life?
Not at all. I’m atheist. I don’t think I meditate in a Buddhist way, but I take ten minutes each morning to focus on different areas of my brain and make sure they’re working.

Is there anything you’d rather forget?
I’ve had some horrible things happen but I don’t want to forget them, because I write about them and turn them into comedy.

Was there a plan?
The plan was to do advertising and have an interesting hobby in the evening. Inside all along, I was a narcissistic, self-centred, attention-hungry little gremlin. The moment someone injected the heroin of stand-up, I was hooked.

Do you vote?
Yes, I voted Liberal Democrat. I certainly won’t be [doing that] next time.

Are we all doomed?
I don’t think so. The Arab spring filled me with a new hope.

Defining moments

1980 Born in Enfield, north London
2004 Wins Laughing Horse New Act prize
2006 Takes his debut show, The Theory of Pretension, to the Edinburgh Fringe
April 2010 Causes controversy by joking about autistic children on the Australian Good News Week TV show
August 2010 Wins Edinburgh Comedy Award on third consecutive nomination
April 2012 Publishes his debut novel, The Humorist (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food

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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.