Women are forever subjected to the "tick tock" body clock media narrative. Photo: Getty
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We know we won't be fertile forever – we don't need misinformed media dropping "fertility timebombs" to keep reminding us

A message to those constantly deploying the "tick tock" body clock narrative: we already know we can't "have it all", so stop reminding us.

I can’t be the only one who wants to crawl into a hole whenever the phrase “fertility timebomb” hits the news. To have your entire multifaceted being reduced to the status of a time-stamped broodmare with a ticking clock chained around its neck is not the most pleasant of sensations, especially when accompanied by statements such as Professor Geeta Nargund’s, who said over the weekend: “We can’t rely on net immigration to increase the country’s birth rate. It’s not a permanent fix.” Well, excuse me if my decision to procreate involves a few more considerations than the “obligation” to maintain population levels.

The coverage of Nargund’s comments was yet another example of the kind of haranguing pressurised remarks that always make you want to throw up your hands and declare in a thick New York accent, “who are you, my mother?” Despite the fact that it was revealed two years ago that the “wisdom” that a woman’s fertility “falls off a cliff” in her thirties (another charming analogy – why don’t you just push all the selfish childless whores off Beachy Head and have done with it?) is actually based on a study of peasant women living in France in the 1700s, this debate continues apace. Yet I’d hazard that modern women share very little in common with those living in French hamlets 300 years ago other than a nagging sense of malaise at being reduced to little more than our biological parts and a desperate desire for carbohydrates.

More irritating still, if that is indeed possible, is the suggestion that women of my generation are ignorant of their fertility to the point where we just rock up to the doctors one day in middle age, menopause looming, and demand to know why we are not yet impregnated. In reality, the pressure to conceive from the media is so predictably frequent that you might as well set a reminder in your phone. It’s only a matter of time before they start putting little slogans on your contraceptive pills. “Tick, tock…”

It’s all rather quaint, really, this notion that we’re all just hanging about, as though it’s a lazy Sunday on the sofa, Netflix punctuated by frenzied masturbation, and tea. It’s not as though women of my generation have other concerns, such as how exactly we can go about being responsible for a whole other human being in the midst of a housing crisis, the quagmire of zero-hours contracts, patchwork careers and low-paid work, and a post-Tinder dating market. The need for a reliable partner is, for many, a concern. Last time I checked, unattached women who had babies who couldn’t afford it were feckless, scrounging single mothers. The same newspapers surely couldn’t be telling us to throw caution to the wind and get birthing? Could they?

I suppose you could argue that delaying motherhood is the plight of the modern urbanite, and that all these educated women in their late twenties should be shipping themselves out to the suburbs or even the country if a child is what they really want. Sure, it’s an economic model that belongs in the Fifties (pass the barbiturates), but what’s the alternative? Affordable housing and childcare? Proper paternity leave? Don’t make me laugh. A future of garden cities populated by frustrated, lonely Stepford baby-machines surely awaits those of us who know we want children but can barely afford a studio somewhere in Zone Q.

We’ve been told that we can have it all, but any woman living in Britain today knows that this is some savage bullshit. In my more optimistic moments I comfort myself with the knowledge that skint human beings have been procreating and managing for hundreds and hundreds of years (see aforementioned French peasant women), but one must also take into account the fact that they had support networks of mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers to help share the childcare.

When most of the work available to career-minded, educated young women is concentrated in urban areas, this is not always achievable. Also to consider is the disturbing notion that women who are starting to think about children might also seek fulfilment in other areas, and that the fear of a disrupted career path is not one solely dominated by financial considerations, but ideals and ambition and the desire to create, to change, to influence, to be independent. I know that, should I choose to have a child now, there is a very real risk that I would lose the chance to have that. I know others feel the same.

The choice to be a stay at home mum is, of course, a valid one. But many of us who want both (and do not have parental financial support, nor will marry rich) are in an impossible situation, with many factors against us. I wish, truly, that it were easier, but it isn’t. Indeed, thinking too much about the obstacles that we face induces a kind of despair that is difficult to articulate. It is a despair rooted in the knowledge that a tough, anxiety-inducing choice and almost inevitable sacrifice awaits us. It is scary, profoundly sad, and, like the hum of an intrusive fridge, is difficult to tune out.

So, to anyone who feels the need to invoke the “fertility timebomb” argument in public again, I say only this: we know we won’t stay fecund forever. We know with painful clarity of thought. For fuck’s sakes we know. We know, we know, we know. You’ve told us enough. Now shut up.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

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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.