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Profile in courage — G D H Cole

Jonathan Derbyshire on the pioneering social and political theorist who did more than most to bring about the ideals of the Beveridge report.

The New Statesman offered a robust welcome to William Beveridge’s Social Insurance and Allied Services in a leading article in the issue of 5 December 1942 (the report had been published four days earlier). The NS, that week’s leader declared, looked “highly favourabl[y]” on Beveridge’s proposals. If Sir William were to get his way, it went on, we would see an end to the “long-tolerated scandal of the exploitation of the poor by insurance companies” and the introduction of a “guaranteed income” for every working person when he or she fell sick, was injured at work or became unemployed.

Not only was it morally desirable for the state to take responsibility for ensuring “security of income” and the provision of what Beveridge called a “national minimum”, it was efficient, too. The leader cited the “monstrous figures of waste” involved in the existing system of private insurance. Though some of the details of the plan might be quibbled with, the schemes for social insurance, children’s allowances and an “all-in scheme of medical treatment of every kind for everybody” were “worth backing through thick and thin”.

Yet social security on its own, the NS declared, was not enough to give every household in the country a “tolerable living income”. Only an active economic policy designed to bring about “full employment” could do that. Beveridge recognised this, acknowledging that “income security by itself would not produce a good society”.

The Statesman returned to this theme in its leader of 26 December 1942. Beveridge had been concerned with protecting people against temporary interruptions of income, not with guaranteeing to all citizens an income on which “a decent standard of life can be sustained”. That required economic planning and the imposition of certain “conditions” on industry. As for those who insisted that such planning offended against the laws of political economy, they were “talking nonsense”.

In March 1943, the NS published a pamphlet, entitled The Beveridge Plan: Where Are We Now?, by the political theorist and longstanding contributor G D H Cole. (Beveridge subsequently joined Cole in helping to set up the Social Security League, which campaigned for immediate implementation of his report.) Cole’s pamphlet examined the response of the wartime coalition government to Beveridge’s plan. He feared that the recommendations of a committee chaired by Sir John Anderson, the Lord President of the Council, threatened to weaken the original vision. “The discrepancies between Sir William Beveridge’s Plan,” Cole wrote, “and what the Government is willing to accept are very serious.”

He was particularly worried about the government’s reluctance to recommend the establishment of a new ministry for social security. The government favoured instead setting up a statutory board or commission that would take responsibility for those aspects of social security that existing departments of state could not handle. Cole detected a “fear of democratic control”. He reiterated the point about full employment that the NSleader had made. Without a commitment on the part of the central government to maintain production and employment, “most projects of social amelioration will come to nothing”.

Beveridge believed the same. In a letter of February 1943, he wrote: “While I am still mildly interested in my own proposals for Social Insurance and Allied Services, I am much more interested in the much more important problems of maintenance of employment (Assumption C of my Report) [and] of the organisation of industry . . .” By this time he was already at work on Full Employment in a Free Society, the sequel to his first report; it was eventually published in November 1944.

The NS published a 50-page summary of the second Beveridge report as a pamphlet. It ends with a ringing peroration on the “meaning of social conscience”. Beveridge writes: “The Policy for Full Employment outlined in this Summary is a policy of spending and doing. It is a policy of common action. If we attack with determination, unity and clear aim, the four giant evils of Want, Disease, Ignorance and Squalor, we shall destroy in the process their confederate – the fifth giant of Idleness enforced by mass-unemployment.”


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

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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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.