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Kate Adie's diary

I wondered if the breakfast show phone-in had a list of those Not to be Put on Air in Any Circumstan

Start the week in Vadstena, an enchanting lakeside town in Sweden, at a conference organised by the European Science Foundation, about which I know nothing. I hope I'm not asked about the Large Hadron Collider, about which I know less, except that it's tricky to convey on radio - the Today audience believes the "God particle" is usually known as Thought for the Day. Luckily, I've been asked to talk about the media and the military, where I'm on rather firmer ground, though the idyllic surroundings of birch forest and candlelit medieval buildings don't lend themselves to the realities of Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the taxi driver to the airport at Linköping is a gently mournful Kurd from Iran. His English is sparkling, his Swedish - an awkwardly tonal language - hesitant: "Such a . . . gymnastic tongue," he sighs. "Up and down and through hoops. But politics sends us to these far-off lands and you have to survive . . ."

Pseudo-Tudor horrors

Back to London for a book launch that couldn't be more English: Icons of England, a collection of essays by various contributors on much-loved aspects of the countryside: holloways, stiles, Norfolk windmills, cattle grids and crop circles - it's an eclectic gathering of enthusiasms. I'd opted to write about deer parks, recalling the tantalising moment in childhood when the deer of Raby Castle in Durham played hide and seek at sunset. The party was held in the swish offices of Arup, the building designers and engineers. More than one voice asked why, if we have a passion for the countryside and have some world-class architects, the design of ordinary dwellings has to resemble brick pigsties tricked out with gables and pseudo-Tudor cladding. Not that a steel-and-glass needle will necessarily be welcomed in Winchcombe or Blanchland. Surely there's something that doesn't inspire an instant grumble?

Save our screens

Preservation came to mind the next day, having headed for Leyburn, in North Yorkshire, to give a talk on my new book. A goodly number gathered in the delightful Picture House, which shows current films to enthusiastic audiences, thus curbing their carbon footprints to the distant multiplexes of the big cities. Alas, the rent is rising, the developers are circling and the volunteers are shaping up for the defence of their arts centre. All appeals to national sources of funding are met with questions about diversity, youth and innovation. The good people of Leyburn are not giving up the fight yet.

The myth of public access

Two days later, I am in the studio of a daytime TV programme. It's like my early local radio days, but with make-up and astrologers. (Rising at 4am and facing just one bleary-eyed co-presenter at dawn reduced the need for make-up on radio and the BBC had strict rules then about putting star-gazing speculators on air.) The conversation was a kind of verbal badminton: steady shots back and forth from the panel punctuated by grand slams from phone-in contributors. I wondered if they had a list of those Not to be Put on Air in Any Circumstances. Just like every other public access programme I've worked on, they did. The claim that broadcasters open the lines to everyone who may call is tenuous indeed. You have no idea what's on the minds of the Great British Public until you've sat in on the Jimmy Young Show (of blessed memory) and read the ranting, raving, libellous, and plain nuts comments of those who want their opinion broadcast. Clearly obscenity and libel are out, but I've always been curious about the ethics of trumpeting the claim to broadcast "your views", when to be precise it's "your views - as long as we more or less approve of them being voiced".

Dangerous work

On the road again and to Bournemouth to sign books. A polite young man says shyly: "We met in Saddam Hussein's place in Basra." He's a medic with a Scots regiment and he's off to Afghanistan. Kindly, he's bought my book, Into Danger. I wish him well and he laughs and says: "It's my job."

"Into Danger: Risking Your Life for Work" is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20)

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008

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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.