This is the age of educational anxiety

But good grades don’t always make great workers.

Education has never been so stressful. A-level results were published this past week, the culmination of years of collective anxiety by pupils, parents and teachers. Like Christmas, exam stress begins earlier every year. Once confined to the summer term, it now creeps into the whole academic year, not just as a result of coursework but because exam results have never been more crucial. As the universities minister, David Willetts, pointed out, too many employers don’t even consider candidates without a 2.1 degree or better. Attainment is increasingly portrayed as a ladder to the top in which one missed step dooms the whole ascent.
I am almost the only member of my family who is not a teacher. My parents were teachers, as were my grandmother and my uncle and aunt; both my grandfathers were stateschool head teachers. Perhaps by genetic predestination, I married a teacher. My family’s experience confirms the general trend: more exams, more anxiety about exams and deepening concern among parents that their children cannot afford to fall short, that opportunities narrow early and decisively.
It is easy to bemoan pushy parents, private tutors, overanxious pupils and teachers who teach to the test. We have all encountered parents who view their child’s education as a kind of reverse teleology, beginning with the “right” kind of top job, working backwards through elite university, through school, even into the nursery playground. I suspect that their neurosis often does more harm than good in the long term.
But their competitive angst is also understandable. The age of educational anxiety is the inevitable conclusion of two questionable (though rarely questioned) assumptions: first, that grades reflect merit, and second, that academic attainment is what makes people successful in the workplace.
Almost everyone in education today agrees that the never-ending steeplechase of examinations and assessment has become damagingly stressful. But that will never change; indeed, it will increase indefinitely, unless employers change the way they make appointments. The question “How do people get good jobs?” is the first domino. That causes a cascade of assumptions that ends in the parental conviction: “My child has to get these results.”
Much more revealing than this summer’s exam results was a telling confession by one of the world’s best-known employers. In an interview with the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, senior vice-president of people operations at Google, gave a candid assessment of his firm’s track record at predicting who would turn out to be a good employee. “We did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring,” Bock said. “We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship. It’s a complete random mess.”
Bock’s testimony is unusually valuable because Google collects and analyses a huge quantity of information from employees. “One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that GPAs [the American equivalent of degree classes] are worthless as criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless – no correlation at all,” he said. “Your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed in college.”
Bock went further, arguing that there may be an inverse correlation between formal education and original thought. “I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are . . . conditioned to succeed in that environment . . . You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”
Everyone has heard the roll-call of big-name businessmen who failed in formal education: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson. Google is trying to widen the net to catch some of that talent. “The proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well,” Bock explained. “We have teams where 14 per cent never went to college.”
They would doubtless bridle at the idea of literature as “problem-solving” but Bock’s point applies to writers as well as entrepreneurs. Evelyn Waugh was awarded a Third at Oxford and didn’t even bother to collect it. Cyril Connolly was also placed in the third class. John Betjeman didn’t even do that well – he was given a “pass”, a meagre improvement on a straight fail.
But faith in exam results shows no sign of loosening its grip. That is partly because it suits the winners in today’s status quo. I’ve argued before that credentialism has turned full circle. Intended to be a progressive alternative to the old-boy network, credentialism now plays into the hands of people who have the energy and inside knowledge to navigate the system.
Given the lengths to which some parents will go in order to engineer superb grades for their children – private tutors, cramming, re-marks, resits – the correlation between exam results and ability is increasingly questionable. That is why we have all had the experience of meeting people with “good degrees” from “top universities” and wondering how it can have happened.
Credentialism is an easy position to defend, however. No one gets blamed for giving places at university to highly credentialled candidates who turn out to be spoon-fed. And those hiring at firms are unlikely to be blamed for appointing highly decorated graduates who turn out to be ineffectual employees. But setting out not to get blamed isn’t the same thing as making the best decision.
Each year’s set of results is greeted with a forensic analysis of standards, grades, places, rankings and prospects. If only we were equally rigorous about re-examining the dubious assumptions that underpin our obsession with academic attainment. 
John Betjeman at Somerset House in 1975. At Oxford, he just scraped through without failing. Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

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.