Vacuum cleaners vs French lesbian poetry: The eternal battle

James Dyson is dead wrong - studying things like "French lesbian poetry” can make people's lives better, even if they don't suck dirt up off carpets.

According to James Dyson the British are turning their backs on the things that once made them wealthy by studying humanities instead of science and technology. I reckon he’s onto something. Take me, for instance. I’m British. I have a BA in languages, an MPhil in European Literature and a PhD in German and I’ve never invented a single piece of useful household equipment in my life. I haven’t even had anything accepted by Take A Break’s Brainwaves Roadshow. And yes, it’s not very scientific to draw conclusions from just one example but I’m not very scientific. That’s the whole problem.

Dyson is worried, not just about getting vacuum cleaners around troublesome corners, but about the whole future of our nation:

Today we’re decadent. We’ve relaxed. [...] If we want to be wealthy and have our welfare programmes we’ve got to create wealth.

Which is fair enough, although to be honest, rich businessmen have been saying this for centuries. They used to say it 200 years ago regarding the German Romantics and their “decadent” influence on youth (I know this because I studied it, pointlessly, when I really ought to have been working out a means of improving on the humble tumble dryer).

So anyhow, I’m sorry, nation and economy, for spending so much time pissing about. It’s not as though I was even any good at it. It took me two goes to get my doctorate. To call me a “failed academic” would be flattering, to say the least. All the same, it does irritate me to hear Dyson making sneery comments about “little Angelina wanting to go off to study French lesbian poetry”. First, the subject of my thesis was German, male and straight, so ner (that’s the kind of debating technique one learns in an arts seminar). Second, just what is your problem, James Dyson? Would you have said the same thing about Shakespeare (who may have much to say about the human condition but, as far as I’m aware, knew sod all about bagless vacuuming technology)? To me it sounds as though you’re using the example of an imaginary artist who’s foreign AND female AND not straight to add extra weight to the suggestion that the arts just aren’t relevant. Because clearly, normal people – those who could be (but aren’t) making Britain great – are British, male and straight. A bit like you, really.

I realise that in saying this, I’m starting to sound like a typical lefty arts student. I’ll be honest – arts students do have that reputation. But don’t be fooled. We’re not always as woolly as we seem. We might aim to be inclusive but that’s not to say it’s not often tokenistic. Many’s the time* I’ve sat around with a bunch of middle-class arty types debating Marxist and feminist approaches to literature before the conversation’s moved on to mocking someone’s allegedly unattractive, uncultured cleaning lady. Even so, that’s not to say the inclusivity’s all lip service (or based on the fact that the more obscure the person you study, the fewer secondary materials you have to read. That’s true, but it’s not all down to that). The reception of good art – the kind of art that changes other people’s world views – doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes real treasures need to be dug out from all the prejudices that have buried them. And if you’re saying yeah, sure, but don’t expect other people to pay for it, well, sure. It’s a good thing AHRC funding is a complete bugger to access (although a pity this means promoters of diversity in the arts tend not to be very sodding diverse).

The truth is, I like vacuum cleaners. And I like books. What’s more, I don’t really believe absorption in the latter are responsible for the downfall of innovation or the decline of manufacturing industries (but that’s history. You don’t do history, James, do you? It’s one of the humanities, after all). Furthermore, things that improve our standard of living don’t just lie with science and technology. Sometimes good things come from arty-farty, pretentious, poncey, pondering types, the kind of people who don’t study disciplines where there are “right” answers (which, contrary to popular opinion, doesn’t mean they’re easier. How many pre-teen prodigies do you see getting GCSE English Lit compared to maths and IT?). We gain from having people who reshape our cultural landscape and put things in new contexts. People who don’t use “lesbian” as a shorthand for irrelevant. People who challenge bigotry rather than flippantly reinforce it. Engagement with feminism and queer theory – when it’s done properly (ie not as disastrously as I used to do it) – can change people’s lives far more than a modification to a vacuum cleaner and the fact that it’s made one person very rich. While I have never owned a Dyson, I still have feminism. And yes, one cannot live on feminism alone, but that’s why I’ve bought a cheap Tesco model, complete with bag.

* Oh, okay, it was once.

PS Here it may sound like I am agreeing with Michael Gove for once. Rest assured I am not Michael Gove. Just in case you were wondering.

This post originally appeared on Glosswitch's blog.

James Dyson would like us all to get rich by inventing things like this. Photograph by Nimbu on Flicker, via Creative Commons

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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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.