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Leader: A caged princess, media hysteria and a culture of absurd deference

The most telling part of Hilary Mantel’s comments on the monarchy was not her descriptions of the former Kate Middleton’s appearance, although those were crafted with the precision we have come to expect of the Booker Prize-winner. Rather it was her description of the future of monarchy. “I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not?” she told the audience at her London Review of Books lecture. “Pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.”

Ms Mantel captured the perversity of the British media’s – and the public’s – relationship with the royal family and the oddness of our continued deference to a set of people who occupy their position purely through birth or marriage. We love the royal family and hate it; most of all, we seem to need it, despite our rhetoric of democracy. Although we sneer at foreign dictators, decked in medals they did not earn, barely a whisper of republican sentiment is permitted in the public sphere.

Throughout the lecture, Ms Mantel returned to the idea that royalty’s greatest duty is to be seen. Although this is a burden on the Queen and Prince Charles, she said, the weight falls most heavily on the younger women of the royal family. Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, is photographed topless. Princess Beatrice is pictured on the beach in an unflattering bikini; she promptly loses several stone in weight and is embraced again by columnists. Even Zara Phillips, whose mother refused her a title in the hope that she could escape the gilded cage, made the front pages when she had her tongue pierced as a teenager.

As with all of these women – and Diana before her – the Duchess of Cambridge’s body is public property. Since she began her relationship with Prince William, the questions have been constant. Is she too thin? Are her clothes too expensive – showing her profligacy – or too cheap or recycled, showing disdain for her adoring public? Most of all, is she pregnant yet?

The duchess is by no means alone in being discussed in such terms. We appear to have an insatiable appetite for praising or denigrating women’s appearance and life choices. The same newspapers now castigating Ms Mantel for cruelty have spent years profiting from the most minute scrutiny of celebrities and their changing bodies. They also know the commercial value of a “catfight”, in which two women can be pitted against each other and the audience is invited to take sides. Some will argue that any discussion of the Duchess of Cambridge is trivial. Yet that is wrong on two counts. First, she is our future queen. She has a lifetime of dinners with politicians and handshakes with dictators to look forward to on our behalf. Absurdly, both David Cameron and Ed Miliband proffered their opinion on the row: the former said that “Prin - cess Kate” was “bright” and “engaging”, while Mr Miliband trilled: “Kate Middleton is doing a brilliant job in a difficult role.”

Second, the episode demonstrated the regressive standards by which we still judge women. The duchess is one of the most photographed people in Britain; her face has launched a thousand newspaper front pages. Yet she is, as Ms Mantel noted, valuable to the country most for her ability to produce a future monarch. We value her body – particularly her womb –more than her brain.

The Daily Mail’s front page described Ms Mantel’s words as a “venomous attack”. If the author did launch a venomous attack on anyone, it was on the excesses of the press and on us for devouring them so eagerly. “I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes,” she said. We have failed.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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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.