Diary: Internet trolls, Twitter rape threats and putting Jane Austen on our banknotes

Caroline Criado-Perez starts the week in triumph as the Bank of England agrees to keep women of merit on our banknotes . . . and sinks into despair as trolls on Twitter line up the promises to rape, torture and kill her.

You are invited to read this free preview of the upcoming New Statesman, out on 8 August. To purchase the full magazine - with our signature mix of opinion, longreads and arts coverage, plus columns by Laurie Penny, Will Self, Rafael Behr and John Pilger, as well as our cover features on John F Kennedy and all the usual books and arts coverage - please visit our subscription page
It’s Wednesday morning and I’m still debating whether or not to wear my Jane Austenesque dress down to Hampshire. I’m about to attend a public announcement by the Bank of England that, in response to three months of campaigning for female representation on banknotes, it is instigating a review of its procedures and will in the meantime confirm Austen for the next tenner.
I opt for a simple red dress, concerned that otherwise the media will paint me as some sort of deranged Jane Austen fangirl – which, to be fair, I am. And, as it happens, I end up painted as such in the press anyway.
I head off, purged of Regency regalia, to Austen’s house, where I look forward to being able to announce finally what I’ve known for over a week: that we took on an establishment institution and won.
Standing next to the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, and the politicians Stella Creasy and Mary Macleod, I think: this is an amazing experience.

Torrent of abuse

But then, suddenly, it isn’t. Among the many good wishes pouring into my Twitter timeline, one @JackRiley92 has decided to let me know that he has taken umbrage at the outcome of my campaign. And he lets me know in a way used by domineering men down the ages when a woman gets a bit uppity: he makes a threat of rape – to be specific, violent anal rape.
This is just the beginning. Over the next couple of weeks I receive a steady stream of violent abuse, including rape and death threats. At its peak I am getting about one threat a minute, with men discussing how they will rape me together, which parts of my body will be penetrated and exactly how they are going to kill me. They are still coming in now – the latest: a death-throughgang- rape threat where I’m told to “KISS YOUR PUSSY GOODBYE AS WE BREAK IT IRREPARABLY”.
I feel like pointing out that if I’m dead, the state of my “pussy” will be the least of my concerns, but it seems a bit pedantic. 

Knock, knock! Who’s there?

The threats are vivid, graphic, horrific. I can’t help visualising them. I stop eating, I can’t sleep, I keep crying from sheer exhaustion and despair at the hatred for women that is pouring relentlessly into my Twitter feed.
While I am in this state, the media come knocking – literally. A London Evening Standard journalist turns up on my doorstep at 10.15pm on Sunday night. My first reaction is a surge of adrenalin and fear; my second, fury at the thoughtless insensitivity. Then back to fear, as I wonder how she has found my address.
For the most part, though, the media are supportive and understanding, if relentless. I am pleased that they are running the story – what is happening to me has happened to too many other people before, without anyone batting an eyelid. It is good to see it taken seriously and I feel it’s my responsibility to speak to as many journalists as I can, in part to put pressure on platforms such as Twitter, and on the police, to take it seriously. If this has to happen to me, I am determined that I will use it to try as hard as I can to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. It’s vital to make sure no one else is silenced.

Asking for it

Perhaps inevitably, given the antipathy towards any woman who isn’t a good, quiet little miss, it isn’t long before soi-disant supporters turn on me. “This is getting boring,” I am told. “Enough now.” I am making people uncomfortable. If I continue to “feed the trolls”, I deserve all I get. Never mind that ignoring or blocking only results in new accounts being set up – or the trolls simply finding a new victim. Never mind that my “trolls” are trying to shut me up. Never mind: take this awkward truth away.
Given the celebrity-obsessed society we live in, it is no surprise that a regular dripdrip of tweets comes through accusing me of “milking” the threats for fame, as if I had somehow invited them. As if I – as if anyone – could enjoy it. Some people, clearly more enterprising than me, accuse me of making money out of the situation. This is a suggestion that has sadly yet to come to fruition.

Now what?

The past couple of weeks have been surreal. Before the whirlwind of rape threats and press interviews, I was finishing up my MSc at LSE (now deferred) and campaigning for the use of more women experts in the media through the online directory the Women’s Room. The most high-profile thing I’d ever done was run the banknotes campaign – a campaign I started in a moment of rage at yet another decision wiping out women’s contribution to history, hampering the aspirations of young girls growing up without female role models. I was just another anonymous voice in the melee.
Now, I no longer recognise my life. I am suddenly someone with a “platform” and despite the abuse that got me here, this has made me public property. Suddenly I am contacted by anyone and everyone with a grievance or a story to run. I am expected to hold forth on all the ills of the world, I must condemn people and acts on request, and if I don’t, if I am just struggling to keep my head above water right now, I am deemed inadequate – someone to be pilloried.
The response from Twitter is initially woeful: the head of journalism and news, Mark Luckie, locks his account and blocks me personally as a result of people contacting him to tell him about the abuse I am receiving. The police are initially quick to respond but then achingly slow to act. Now, no doubt due to the intense media coverage, they are both acting. Twitter has taken some baby steps towards supporting the victims rather than the criminals, and the police have applied the resources they need to the problem and made some arrests. The next step is to make sure that this is a solution for everyone, not just those with a “platform”.
I don’t know where my life will go from here. I wonder whether the abuse will ever stop. I wonder if I am for ever doomed to be “that rapey girl off Twitter”. I wonder if I will ever gain control over my life again.
Caroline Criado-Perez (right) with Mary Macleod, Mark Carney and Stella Creasy unveiling the new Jane Austen £10 note. Photo: Getty

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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.