Show Hide image

The truth won’t always out: Tiger would still be burning bright if he hadn’t crashed his car

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Was Lance Armstrong unlucky? Not in the moral sense – we know he fully deserved his fall. But what about in terms of simple probability? Was his fall inevitable? Or, having got away with it for so long, could Armstrong have reasonably expected to escape safely into the hills?

The same question could be asked about all great scandals. In analysing events that lead to public disgrace, we comfort ourselves that the truth cannot be silenced indefinitely. I’m not so sure. Take away a single, contingent thread from the story and the ending could easily have been very different.

The fall of Tiger Woods is a classic example. It was not philandering, if that is the right word for it, that led to Woods’s disgrace. It was crashing into a fire hydrant in Florida. If he’d controlled his steering wheel better, Woods could have indefinitely retained his rotating cast of hostesses and escorts. After all, the golfing world had known for years about Woods’s double life. But the story had never broken. The press had been scared to write what they knew because Woods, like Armstrong, froze out journalists who didn’t indulge his controlling personality.

The fans, however, at least the perceptive ones, had also long known that Woods wasn’t the man he pretended to be. Simply watching him on television – snapping and snarling his way around a golf course – was proof enough. Woods’s carefully controlled image as Mr Perfect was fully contradicted by the evidence. But there was little enthusiasm for joining up the dots. We were too lazy to revise the established narrative.

Then suddenly: car crash! Wife wielding golf club! Smashed fire hydrant! Woods in hospital! There was a new urgency in the relationship between the media and the public. Until then, the public’s reverence for Woods had discouraged the media from telling the truth about his double life. That changed when the bonnet of a Cadillac crunched into government property.

It was not the steady drip of rumour or evidence against Woods that led the dam to burst. It was a single dramatic catalyst. That changed the lens through which Woods was seen. The public’s over-reverence was transformed instantly into amused contempt and the man who had been untouchable was suddenly fair game. Woods’s mask of impregnable mastery had slipped forever and the deluge began. Pause for a moment and consider the logic: if Woods had kept a single marital row inside the house, he could easily still be lecturing the world today on family values, backed by advertisers promoting him with fraudulently idyllic family photos.

It is a pattern we see repeated in more serious spheres. The journalistic investigation into phone-hacking was old news long before it became big news. The New York Times investigation about the News of the World broke in September 2010. Yet it didn’t fully penetrate public opinion. Long article, lots of words but old news, no? For all the mounting evidence, it was far from inevitable that the story would develop sufficient momentum to close a newspaper and lead to a massive judge-led enquiry.

The catalyst that changed everything was the revelation that the News of the World had hacked Milly Dowler’s phone. Instead of weighing up evidence, public opinion was now driven by a visceral emotional reaction. The hunt to expose the News of the World gained a momentum that would not recede. Without that single revelation the story might well have died down again, as it had many times before.

This brings us back to Armstrong, so long a master at escaping the knot of disgrace. The cyclist controlled his fraud with considerable efficiency for 15 years. The press was muzzled through a mixture of intimidation, complicity and litigation. The cycling authorities were terrified of opening up a Pandora’s box. The peloton was mostly frightened into silence.

Armstrong could have managed this corrupt alliance of interested parties for a long time to come but even he hadn’t accounted for a whistle blower who was prepared to go the whole way, whatever the consequences. This was Floyd Landis, raised a Mennonite in rural Pennsylvania, whose once clear sense of right and wrong had been corrupted by the culture of drug cheating inside Armstrong’s team. Landis won the Tour de France the year after Armstrong’s retirement but immediately failed a doping test. That was routine enough. What was different was the effect the guilt would have on Landis’s attitude towards the truth.

Dopers who confess usually do so in a hedgy, cautious manner. Not Landis. As David Walsh relates in his book Seven Deadly Sins, Landis confessed with an almost religious fervour, as though he was purging his sins and reverting to the values of his childhood. Landis spilled everything. Armstrong had victimised plenty of people and got away with it. Landis wasn’t like other people and that made all the difference. His confession led to the federal investigation that ultimately toppled Armstrong.

There is an air of righteous satisfaction in the public reaction to Armstrong’s fall, but we should be cautious about putting an optimistic spin on his disgrace. The real lesson, depressingly, is that that a cheating bully can survive at the top for a very long time. Indeed, he can survive indefinitely – so long as there isn’t a sensational catalyst that captures the public imagination.

It sounds like a weary defence of Armstrong to say that if he’d had more luck, if just one of his enemies had possessed a different personality, he could have avoided catastrophe. In fact, it is quite the opposite. If he was indeed unlucky, we can sadly deduce that there are plenty more Lance Armstrongs out there, pedalling happily into the hills.

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 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

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.