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Money has its own gravity:when it disappears, it takes everything with it

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

Last night I dreamed that I got paid again. Say it in the cadences of the opening line of Rebecca. It’s a nice dream, one of my favourites, but sometimes I wonder: is it better to have a horrible dream that you are relieved to discover, on waking, was only a dream; or a pleasant one to which reality is an insulting and uncouth rebuke? Anyway, the long-standing non-payment of a significant sum of money is having serious and worrying side effects. There was a letter in last week’s magazine which suggested that I was not literally Down and Out, which is technically true – I’m not shivering under a blanket or selling the Big Issue by Baker Street Station – but when I head along to the cashpoint, as one does, it tells me that my account has insufficient funds for the transaction I’d suggested. I’d wanted to take out £30. Well, I thought, that’s happened a little earlier in the month than I’m accustomed to. Much earlier, in fact.

So that was the end of my evening out. And when you find that you cannot even afford to buy a copy of the Big Issue you think: just how substantial is the difference between the vendor and yourself? Not as much as you’d like, is the answer – which in itself is not a helpful or healthy thought.

Where does the money go? You’d have thought the whores would have dropped their prices in a recession, and I suppose decent cocaine is always going to be a little pricey, and if you can find a drinkable claret for under 50 quid a bottle I will accuse you of poor taste or sharp practice . . . But no, this is not where or how the Lezard money goes. Money has its own gravity, as anyone who has ever played Monopoly knows; when it accrues, nothing can stop it from accruing further, just as when enough rocks in space have smashed together, nothing can stop them from becoming a planet; but when money disappears, it takes everything with it, and scrimping and saving just doesn’t seem to have any effect. This is a phenomenon to which I think the economists have not paid sufficient attention, and may account at least in part for the continuing, mystifying immiseration of this country despite its government’s manifestly sensible policies.

Another interesting facet of this phenomenon is that when the absence of money is caused by the tap-dancing and delaying tactics of a company that ought to behave better, the effect is still the same: virtuous poverty has much the same effect as the kind caused by fecklessness or extravagance. The debts accumulate and you end up having to earn twice as much just to get yourself out of the hole the late payment put you in in the first place. And I have been as busy as a bee lately. It is all most vexing.

The worst thing is the humiliation. You may not feel, as I don’t, that financial health equates to moral wealth – in fact, as I suspect many of this magazine’s readers feel, something almost exactly the opposite seems to be the case – but it doesn’t mean you don’t feel like a lowly spotted thing when times are hard. You can’t buy your girlfriend that lovely thing you saw, you can’t pay in full the money you owe to people who are equally blameless, and the whole business becomes a continuous background noise affecting everything, like tinnitus, which doesn’t even manage to drown out other worries but only contrives to bring them into even sharper relief. When in the company of others who are at least comfortably off, you start playing a kind of Poverty Bingo: when they mention a holiday they’ve had, you think, “Can’t afford that,” when they talk about a nice restaurant they’ve been to, you think, “Be a while before I can afford that,” and you even start wondering whether Zero Dark Thirty will still be in the cinemas before you can go and see what all the fuss is about. (I’ve already given up hope of catching the latest Tarantino for this reason.)

When one is locked into a consumer society, as people of my class and upbringing are, however much one affects to despise consumerism and avoid its seductions, this drip-drip of anxiety leads to shame. I am particularly dismayed about my parents’ reaction to this column when it comes out. So I would like to be able to say that, by the time it appears in print, the company responsible for the status quo in the Lezard coffers will have ceased to drag its feet and I will have some good news at last. And I apologise for the lack of jokes in this week’s column: but I thought I had better explain things to an understandably sceptical correspondent, just so I can put her in the picture. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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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.