Critics interview: Abi Morgan

You belong to a generation that came to political consciousness under Margaret Thatcher. Did writing the screenplay for The Iron Lady feel in a way like exploring your own adolescence?
I spent most of the Seventies living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and most of the Eighties living in Stoke-on-Trent. They're both places that suffered under her - so I felt the effects of her policies. And I think in 2011 you still feel the effects of her policies. So she very much shaped the political landscape for me. But I also think of her as a cultural icon, a satirical figure - I grew up watching Spitting Image in the Eighties.

The director, Phyllida Lloyd, has said this isn't a political film, but a Shakespearean one. Do you agree?
Writing a film is like giving birth to a baby and then giving it up for adoption. I think there's a vividness to Phyllida's work that has elevated the film and made it a real roller-coaster ride. But I do think it's quietly political. If you're dealing with a powerful leader, you're inevitably going to have a dialogue with her political past. It was always my intention to interrogate Thatcher's political life. Where I think Phyllida is right is that, fundamentally, the film is a study of power. It's also a portrayal of dementia. And I think it's about the loneliness of power.

Are you prepared for people to complain that the film isn't political enough?
I didn't realise I was meant to have this huge agenda when I started writing the script.
I just went in as a creative writer. There will be films made about her that are far more political than this one, but this is a very small film about the aftermath of power.

Is that why it is told in flashback, from the point of view of an elderly Thatcher?
Yes. I was struck by the aftermath of Bill Clinton's presidency and also by watching Tony Blair leave office and go on the lecture circuit. What was interesting to me about Thatcher was that she sort of just stayed prime minister.

She wrote her memoirs, but she didn't, as far as I can see, have that huge lecture tour circuit. So she was very much preserved in the public psyche as the prime minister.

I saw it as a small film about what it's like to go out and buy a pint of milk and no one notices you. What's interesting about the opening sequence of the film when we see Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep, doing just that, was that Meryl did it in one take and no one recognised her.

The film is organised around a small number of important relationships - notably the one between Thatcher and her husband, Denis.
It's played as a kind of King Lear for girls - in a way, Denis [played by Jim Broadbent] is her Fool. He's the ghost on her shoulder.

I was very inspired by the film adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which is a sort of flip-book of random memories. I wanted to see this woman [Thatcher] navigate her way through the flip-book of her past. More than anything, the film is about the isolation of power. For a politician to be so driven by conviction, so strongly resist consensus, meant that she alienated herself from her own cabinet.

Was her isolation also a function of class? She had a very different background from most of her colleagues.
Someone who knew her well said he thought class was the bigger hurdle for her than her sex. I think there's some truth in that. One of the reasons she fell in love with America was that it is a meritocracy.

If this is indeed a Shakespearean tragedy, what was Thatcher's tragic flaw?
I think everybody should doubt. It was part of being a strong leader and the woman that everybody looked to that she didn't allow herself to doubt.Her success was also her failing - her drive and conviction; her inability to truly engage and allow herself to be part of a consensus.

The flashback sequences in the film are sown with intimations of her downfall.
There are references made in some biographies that there was a kind of fury or frenzy to her leadership towards the end. When you're in a position where your own cabinet has told you, "It's time to go," and you've stopped listening to that, the reality check has gone AWOL.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
Abi Morgan's play "Lovesong" opens at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6, on 11 January. Details:

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama

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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.