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In Britain, as in cricket, the north-south divide is as deep as ever

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

The Lancastrian fast bowler James Anderson took his 300th Test wicket on 17 May. Only three Englishmen have taken more – Ian Botham, Bob Willis and Fred Trueman, the patron saint of all northern fast bowlers. Before we indulge familiar clichés about down-to-earth, northern grit, it’s worth remembering that the highly skilled Anderson is the face of a vitamins brand and once dyed his hair with red streaks.

Ten years ago, when Anderson made his England debut, I remember another Lancastrian stating firmly in the commentary box: “You won’t have any difficulties with Jimmy. He’s from Burnley.” Geographical determinismis one of the curious aspects of northern self-image; it’s as though such a fine and sturdy tree could not possibly bear false fruit.

According to this theory, it is impossible to disentangle northernness from character. That the batting prodigy Joe Root is a) from Sheffield and b) phlegmatic and deeply impressive under pressure are not presented as independent facts. The former must lead to the latter. You can, apparently, see the Sheffield in his back defence.

Given that my mother is from Yorkshire, my father is from Wales and I grew up in the south-east, I feel able to assess such claims reasonably fairly. Commentating for Test Match Special recently, I teased Michael Vaughan – of Sheffield, Yorkshire and England – that southerners do not have the same sense of predestination about accidents of birth. We are generally happy to accept that the town in which you are born is poorly correlated with your moral virtues and psychological resilience.

When Andrew Strauss played his 100th Test, people did not rise up as one around the Home Counties, raising china cups filled with lightly infused herbal tea, and shout, “Of course he’s a tough lad – he’s from Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire.” When Alastair Cook becomes the leading English run-scorer of all time, as he surely will, I do not expect the good folk of East Anglia to patronise northerners in the local pub about the moral superiority of Bedford, where the young Cook was a chorister. When the languid David Gower eased the ball effortlessly through the off-side, there were few hushed whispers over wine glasses in east Kent that the young Gower had learned about beauty in the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral.

Cricket has a gift for exposing national stereotypes. I used to think that the schism between amateurs and professionals was the most revealing fault line. However, the northsouth divide, which overlaps with the fascination with class, runs deeper still. When it comes to indulging regional stereotypes, there is no limit to our appetite or our patience. George Orwell captured this in his spark - ling essay “North and South” (1937):

There exists in England a curious cult of northernness, a sort of northern snobbishness. A Yorkshireman in the south will always take care to let you know that he regards you as an inferior. If you ask him why, he will explain that it is only in the north that life is “real” life . . . that the north is inhabited by “real” people, the south merely by rentiers and their parasites. The northerner has “grit”, he is grim, “dour”, plucky, warm-hearted, and democratic; the southerner is snobbish, effeminate,
and lazy – that at any rate is the theory.

The most remarkable thing about Orwell’s insights is that he arrived at them without having met Trueman.

Orwell’s essay belongs to a great literary tradition that explores the qualities and tensions of north and south. Elizabeth Gaskell’s fine novel of that title, published in 1855, ends with John Thornton, a northern industrialist, achieving the author’s approval when he decides to learn Greek. Once the rough, northern edges are polished, the reader is allowed to like him more unreservedly. David Lodge’s comic novel Nice Work (1988) explicitly draws on Gaskell’s themes, juxtaposing industry with academia.

The surprising aspect of the north-south divide is that it is more relevant today than when Gaskell, Orwell or even Lodge wrote about it. That makes it different from the familiar argument about gentlemen and players. An increasing proportion of top-flight sportsmen now come from the educational elite (Anderson is a rare state-school product) and yet the language of professionalism and meritocracy has triumphed. The old cliché about gentlemen and players, in other words, obscures a much more surprising and uncomfortable reality.

The north-south stereotype, in contrast, is reinforced by political and economic trends. Look at the electoral map of Britain and you will see that it is becoming strikingly divided into three bands: the Scottish National Party at the top, the Tories in the south and Labour in between.

According to polls, voting intentions suggest that the next election will be even more divided between a Conservative south and a Labour north.

Gordon Brown argued relentlessly that the Tories had “attacked the north” and “systematically destroyed” its economy. But during the New Labour years, the divide widened – Yorkshire’s economic output went from 10 per cent behind the UK average to 17 per cent behind.

The economic output of financial services alone in London now exceeds the entire economy of the north-east.

That imbalance, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, fuels the old tensions. Critics of the south semi-deliberately blur distinctions, as though London was really the City and the south was really London. This isn’t entirely true – many areas of the south retain an independent character, separate from London, let alone finance – but it revives Orwell’s idea that northerners view southerners as “rentiers and parasites”.

In the cricket commentary box, the analysis of the north-south divide might be lighthearted. However, in the country, I suspect that the old cliché has more bite and sting than ever.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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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.