I’m a chicken when it comes to hens

There is something about hen parties that repels me. I was at Girona Airport near Barcelona two weeks ago. In the passport queue were a group of women in pink feather boas (the hens) and behind them men in numbered football shirts, their names plastered across the back. I shuddered and felt relieved I wasn't getting the Sunday flight back. I have attended only two hen parties, one a perfectly civilised dinner and the other by accident.

Thanks to Ryanair and easyJet, the hen has gone international since my laying days, and Barcelona is the top overseas choice for British hens today - an honour so overwhelming that the region has banned two-for-one drinks, ladies' nights and other cheap drinking offers in an attempt to quell the revolting behaviour.

In an effort to understand what repelled me so much, I immersed myself in sociological studies into drunken tourism and hen nights, and now recognise the paragraph above to be laden with middle-class cultural superiority and Foucaultian crisis (even if I'm not quite sure what that means). A professor at Goldsmiths in London with the excellent name of Bev Skeggs has warned that hens are superseding single mothers as the source of moral panic in Britain: "We now have the loud, white, excessive, drunk, fat, vulgar, disgusting, hen-partying woman who exists to embody all the moral obsessions historically associated with the working class now contained in one body . . ."

This is one academic who is a joy to read. White working-class women, she adds, are "being marked as the national constitutive limit to propriety - an act which repeats moments of crisis in authority condensed and symbolically figured through the excess of the grotesque, weeping, leaking, excreting bodies of working-class women". Lovely stuff.

Yob rule

But it doesn't quite explain my revulsion, as I find all hen parties grotesque; it doesn't matter what class of chicken they are. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a working-class one. And I feel particularly ashamed of these parties overseas. This, too, is dangerous sociological territory: another value-laden, judgemental middle-class attitude, this time towards mass tourism. Yet, as with the hens, I dislike all mass tourism, be it in Tuscany or Torremolinos: the transporting of your home life to another country to sit pissed by the pool and claim some kind of cultural capital out of it.

Just as we are allowed to admire the women in Sex and the City because their overt heterosexuality comes couched in professional jobs and dressed in Manolos (Skeggs again), so we are invited to respect the middle-class binge drinking associated with villas in Corfu or "wine tasting" in France at the same time as professing our disgust at drunken hens or football fans. The rich have always hidden away yobbish behaviour in villas, Fulham nightclubs or the Priory, while the poorer classes have the streets for their stage.

So what is it with me and these hens? I may not have thought much more about the girls in boas, had I not received, on my return from Girona, a text message inviting me to a hen night. Just a night (although I did notice a reference to breakfast on Sunday in a subsequent email that also mentioned karaoke) and in London. Yet I panicked and immediately replied that I was sorry to miss it, but I would be in France. And now I am in France, for I had to see the lie through, and consequently missed the start of the election campaign to which I had been much looking forward. It's not the furthest flight I've made from a hen: I once fled as far as Belize. The closer the friend, the further away you must be to avoid offence.

Boa war

After my 48-hour immersion in sociological texts, I'm suspecting that I may just be a snob and it is only the public element of the hen night I abhor; it's not as if I mind wrapping myself in a feather boa in private. But then there is the affectation of the thing, too - comfortable middle-class people pretending to be loud and crude and out of control and then returning to their desks on Monday morning.

Alco-tourism is thought to be about pushing boundaries; people frighten themselves with the risks they take. There is a parallel with the adventure holiday, which sells organised danger. But as Skeggs points out, choosing adventure and risk might enhance your status among the middle classes; if you are working class, it is more likely to land you in jail. We have "gap years" where you can pretend to be poor, and bungee jumps that mimic the feeling of one's life falling off a cliff. And hen parties where you can get really really drunk and pretend to be vulgar. But just for the weekend.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice

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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.