My father had an alter ego who rang up women to ask them which of their breasts was the heavier

There are certain people who always have the same thing said to them. Mordecai Richler has written an amusing article (reproduced in the current edition of Prospect magazine) in which he complains about having to go around publicising his books and the various travails, inconveniences and petty humiliations that are involved. He mentions the classic, cliched question that readers ask authors: "What do you write with?"

The article leaves a slightly sour taste. Many writers would respond that Richler should think himself lucky to be limoed around cities across the western world by publishers who consider his books worth publicising. The majority of people who write books can't find anybody to publish their book, let alone publicise it once it has been published.

And I've always thought it a bit unsporting to mock readers for asking the old chestnut about whether you write on a word processor. First, because they've probably reacted the way most of us do if we meet someone we admire, which is to go blank and then blurt out something a bit foolish. Second, authors may well get bored with the details of how they go about their pathetic, lonely business day after day but the way they write happens to be interesting. In a letter to his brother, Keats wrote about how he would like to have witnessed the scene when Shakespeare wrote "To be or not to be". It is worth knowing, to name a few examples I know off the top of my head, that Nabokov wrote his novels on little index cards while standing at a lectern, that Iris Murdoch wrote in pencil in exercise books, that A N Wilson writes his books in bed (I did my A-level revision in bed, which was not so much a working method as a form of nervous breakdown). For better or worse, I find it impossible to read the late novels of Henry James - I was tempted to stop there, but I don't find them impossible to read. They just take an awfully long time, with many false starts - I find it impossible to read them without imagining him walking up and down his study in Lamb House dictating those baroque winding sentences to his secretary, Miss Bosanquet.

There isn't exactly a question that people ask me but there is something that people frequently say to me. I'll make the most routine observation and they'll say in some heavily sarcastic tone: "Ah! I sense a column coming on." I've just discovered that one of the editors at the Good Book Guide magazine is called Julene Barnes and observed to somebody that the similarity between her name and Julian Barnes could be made the basis of a French farce. "Huh! This is next week's column, is it?"

Well, sort of. There is an old myth that each of us has a doppelganger, a double, somewhere in the world and if we ever meet him or her, then we will instantly die. I don't believe that for a moment. However, most of us have a much more banal sort of doppelganger, which is the person or persons who have the same name as us. My own family have a peculiar collection. I once saw a poster for a jazz-funk DJ called Sean French; my brother Patrick French, who is a doctor, keeps being congratulated on his brilliant biography of Francis Younghusband, which was written by another, and even younger, Patrick French.

Best of all, an alter ego of my father, Philip French, once turned up in a newspaper item. He was a pipe-fitter who was arrested for conducting a rather curious confidence trick. He rang up women and claimed to be conducting a medical survey about differing breast sizes. He asked women to remove their bras and hold each breast in turn to inform him which was heavier. I've sometimes contemplated a dinner at which Patrick and my father would arrive to be confronted with the other Sean French, the other Patrick French and the other Philip French.

This would just be the first in a string of surreal, malicious social occasions. I would organise a dinner in order to discuss important cultural policy matters with the prime minister, a leading broadcaster, actor, playwright and director, and only half-way through would Tony Blair, Anthony Clare, Antony Sher, David Hare and Richard Eyre realise they'd only been invited because their names rhymed.

Or I'd invite the film critic Anthony Quinn, the BBC industrial correspondent Paul Newman, the novelist Elizabeth Taylor (unfortunately deceased), the controller of Channel 4, Michael Jackson, the financial journalist Robert Taylor and wait for the evening to go disastrously wrong.

These are either brilliant scenarios waiting to happen, or else I've been sitting alone in my attic for too long. Oh, and by the way, the answer to last week's riddle is "Laura Ashley".

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?

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.