The five worst arguments in defence of lads' mags

"This is a matter of freedom!" No. No, it's not.

So it seems the Co-op and the lads’ mags can’t be friends, after all. Zoo and Nuts have refused to give in to calls for "modesty bags" and will be off to sell their – or more accurately, women’s – breasts elsewhere.

To be fair, the term "modesty bag" is a bit misleading. Makes the whole "might be nice to be able to walk in Tesco’s and not see a woman stripped" appear to sit between Victorian prudishness and a cry for someone to protect the children.

I wouldn’t want my (hypothetical) daughter or son to see a lads’ mag when they walked into a shop – not because breasts are somehow something children shouldn’t see, but because I wouldn’t want them thinking they are something to see in a shop. There’s the lottery tickets, there’s the Curly Wurlies… Oh and there’s rows of pictures of naked women’s massive tits.

I wouldn’t be keen on any adult thinking that’s not a bit strange. Women’s objectification is to such a degree normalised that it seems to many perfectly natural for it be plastered around the place you buy food. Meanwhile, in something close to a diabetic’s relationship with insulin, men are portrayed as such simple, rampant creatures a picture of a pair of breasts needs to be made (easily) available to them every minute of the day.

The belief that pictures of women – sometimes headless, often nameless, always naked – have to be everywhere can lead to some strange arguments. And indeed it has done – both from casual supporters on social media and editors of the magazines themselves. As the lads’ mags continue their fight for freedom, I’ve taken the liberty (sorry, pun) of explaining the most common.

Women wearing bikinis on the beach is a double standard 

Women can want to wear a bikini on the beach whilst not wanting to see pictures of women with their clothes off in their local shop. These two thoughts are not contradictory. I can hold the two simultaneously quite easily, whilst rubbing my head and thinking what I’m going to have for my tea.

Wearing a bikini on a beach is a really sensible place to do it. You do it because you’d be hot otherwise and because no one likes to swim in their jeans. On the other hand, photos of naked models that some men like to use for sexual pleasure aren’t necessarily something you’d expect to be in full view in the supermarket. Or they are, and maybe that’s part of the problem.

This is a matter of freedom 

I get it. Putting modesty bags on Nuts and co would step on your right to buy a magazine with naked women on and for everyone around you to have to see it. This is clearly a basic human right, next to freedom of speech and being able to watch soft porn on the bus. That’s why when I find a picture of a naked man I want to get off to, I cut/print it out and wander around the street showing it to people. 

There are some prudes – the elderly or men’s rights activists, usually – who get uppity about it. “Why can’t you just enjoy it yourself without all of us having to see it?” they ask. I pity their understanding of freedom and I just move on and find some children to show a picture of a pert arse cheek to.  

Lads’ mags “celebrate women

Okay. At a push, you’re celebrating women’s breasts. (In the very restrictive sense of celebrating the way women’s breasts arouse you. Breastfeeding and a woman’s enjoyment of her own body, to the side.) You are not celebrating women, unless you believe women are just their breasts. And I don’t think you’re saying that…are you? 

Actually celebrating women – as fully rounded, human type creatures – would mean celebrating the bits of them that aren’t turning you on. Can we expect to see a few pages dedicated to a campaign for equal pay for women as you celebrate their place in the workforce? No, that would be stupid. That is not the point of a lads’ mag. 

You like looking at and making money off of naked women. That’s okay (well, sort of). You are not doing a national service. You are not the new face of female empowerment. The MBE for services to women is not in the post. 

Anyone wanting lads’ mags covered hates women 

You’re right. The people wanting women to be treated with the same respect as men are actually the misogynists here. We hate women. And by extension, quite inconveniently, we hate ourselves. I particularly hate breasts. I look in the mirror most days and shake my head, consumed with the shame and self-loathing of having two awesome fun bags stuck to my torso. Thank you for getting me to face this, at last. Thank you.  

The Diet Coke man is proof of (more) double standards 

Sure, it says a lot about the strength of "the men are objectified too" argument that the reference used is generally one from the 1990s – but it’s said so often, I felt I couldn’t end without covering it. 

Did the Diet Coke man exist in a society in which men are routinely objectified through every facet of the media, advertising, and day-to-day life, where sexual violence is prevalent, in language, imagery, and attacks – and where men are paid less, represented less, and their non-sexual contribution to society therefore marginalised and dismissed through most aspects of life? No? Then it isn’t the same. Stop it.

Some capybaras in a zoo. Zoo is also the name of a lads' mag. We prefer this zoo. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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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.