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The culture that permitted Savile's abuses goes far beyond the BBC

Look at the crimes that were committed by one man under cover of a dangerously misogynistic permissiveness, and wake up to the fact that this is exactly what all those tedious feminists mean when they talk of “rape culture”, says Deborah Orr.

In the absence of Jimmy Savile himself, the British Broadcasting Corporation is being made chief culprit for his alleged abuses. It is bearing the brunt of widespread dismay that a predatory paedophile could have claimed so many vulnerable victims over such a long period, and without being held to account. Fair enough. The BBC afforded Savile the fame and status that gave him such power over, and access to, his victims. The staff of the BBC were best placed to put together a coordinated narrative that produced a pattern of evidence against this creature. But they never did. Even a Newsnight investigation conducted after his death by reporter Liz Mackean was canned. Instead, ITV broke the story, in a documentary made by former police detective Mark Williams-Thomas, which culminated in the presentation of harrowing testimony from Savile’s victims being presented to BBC star, friend of Savile, and founder of Childline, Esther Rantzen.

Now, as it turns out, Rantzen, the BBC’s world and the BBC’s wife, had all “heard the rumours”, although the BBC says it has no record of any complaint about Savile’s sexual behaviour, from employees or from members of the public. What’s interesting is that there’s something of a gender divide when men and women who worked at the corporation explain why the rumours were never acted upon. Michael Grade appeared on Channel 4 News to place Savile’s abuse in the context of “groupie culture”. Janet Street Porter, Sandy Toksvig and others prefer to cite “gropie culture”. 

Women at the BBC, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were used to being left to fend off their predatory bosses themselves -- bosses who apparently believed that “groupie culture” excused taking advantage of minors. It’s as obvious now as it was obvious then, that their complaints would have fallen upon unreceptive ears. A former BBC producer, Wilfred De’Ath, spoke of meeting Savile at a restaurant as he “entertained” a 12-year-old, who he’d “picked up” at Top of the Tops. Savile had made it obvious, when De’Ath called him the next morning, that he was in bed with the child. De’Ath says that he felt “demeaned” by this, but was too young and powerless to “speak out”. It’s wrong to be too hard on the man. He was young, and Savile must have been deliberately taunting him and rubbing his nose in the situation. Hitler’s maxim was that if you wanted to get away with a lie, then a big lie would work best. Savile’s evil genius was in understanding that the same could be applied to a “big truth”. De’Ath felt intimidated by Savile – he says he was afraid of him. It rather looks as if sexual intimidation of younger, less powerful people – not only women – was endemic – pandemic - at the BBC.

I’ve never worked there, but I’ve experienced the culture. At 18 I briefly worked in a pub frequented by technicians working at Thames Television's Teddington Lock Studios. One evening a cameraman offered to “get me on TV” as one of Benny Hill’s “Hill’s Angels”. I told him it wasn’t my kind of thing. During the course of the evening, half a dozen of his middle-aged friends asked one by one if they could “see me home safely”. At the end of the evening, they came to the bar and asked me who the hell I thought I was, to turn all of them down. In Edinburgh, in the 1980s, a former Mirror journalist who was my first boss turned up at my home insisting on giving my driving lessons, then booked a holiday to Spain – I’d never been abroad – and demanded that I accompany him. When I worked at the Guardian in the early 1990s, a colleague in his sixties put a hand on each of my breasts in the pub after work, and asked if I fancied coming back to his place. When I declined, he offered that it was “only round the corner”. I laughed at him. But complaining to anyone in authority about him didn’t occur to me. You just had to learn to deal with it.

So, it’s important to remember that this wasn’t a culture confined to the BBC. Savile’s victims, after all, approached other adults in authority – people who had a duty of care over them at school, for example, and police officers from three forces, to have their complaints dismissed. Naughty nurses, secretaries being chased round desks, “jailbait” girls of St Trinian’s torturing their hapless teachers with their sexual power, Young Mr Grace on Are You Being Served, with his “appreciation” of Miss Brahms among a bevy of other young females  – all these were accepted portrayals of the assumption of young female availability. Page 3, of course, still is.

But there is a respect in which liberal cultures were most susceptible to such sexual incontinence. They were most keen to shrug off the repressive orthodoxies which decreed that nice girls didn’t have sex before marriage, and embrace the win-win bargain of free love, and in this liberal men saw themselves as kindly assisting females in their much-needed sexual liberation. When feminism started telling them that this could not be on their terms alone, they were indignant and contemptuous. Thus was created a nasty set of attitudes, in which it was reckoned that it was the women who were not leaping at the liberating chance to be constantly sexually available who were the problem. BOOM. If you didn’t want to have sex with a man, then there was something wrong with you. 

That attitude, however, was not confined to liberals. Indeed, it shored up long-protected ideas about droit du seigneur. Sexual harassment in the City of London is reportedly rife, along with visits to lap-dancing clubs for “business”. The sexual revolution provided a shot in the arm to many long-standing expressions of sexual contempt for women. Pointing out the obvious – that this was an abusive and corrupt use of power – well, that just proved that you were a dried out, frigid, man-hating ball-breaker.

To the people who say that understanding why Savile got away with his crimes is useless because he is dead; to the people why say it’s a BBC problem, not a societal problem, I beg this: Look at the crimes that were committed by one man under cover of a dangerously misogynistic permissiveness, and wake up to the fact that this is exactly what all those tedious feminists mean when they talk of “rape culture”. I beg this: wake up and look at the damage these attitudes did, as the whole of a nation watched. Wake up and see that these attitudes are by no means entirely of the past, not yet.

This article was updated at 15.50 on 9 October.

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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.