Blowing the whistle on phone pests

I keep a family heirloom in front of me on my desk in Washington which was used in the streets of Luton in the second world war: an air-raid warden's whistle. I find I use it most between the hours of 6pm and 8pm, because that is when one of the dreaded curses of living in America in the nineties tends to strike: the phone rings, and a "telemarketeer" is on the other end, trying to talk you into opening a new bank account, enrol for a new credit card, have your chimneys swept or donate funds to your favourite charity.

These unwanted calls have driven me to distraction since I've lived here, so now each one (they always arrive, naturally, just as you are up a stepladder changing a light bulb or sitting down to a meal) gets a very loud blast indeed - last heard, for real, in Luton more than half a century ago. They always ring at that time because the callers can expect the man of the house to be in by then - and men still tend to be the main breadwinners and financial decision-makers in most households.

You can't win, though: in the last fortnight I've had two (non-traceable) professional phone solicitors dial me straight back to complain that I had damaged their hearing. Every day, more than 30 million Americans are subject to such calls in what has become a $500 billion business - clearly indicating that not everybody dispatches the telemarketeers in the same way as I do.

It doesn't take long, though, to realise that the culprit is computerisation.

Earlier this year a friend who had been living in New York before moving home asked if he could use my DC address for US mailing purposes; now I find I'm receiving calls not only for him but for his wife, too.

Computerised mailing lists (and there is nobody in America who isn't on one of those) earn big bucks these days - typically, I'm told, changing hands at between 60 cents and a dollar for every name and address; the phone number to match the address will automatically be located by the computer.

Those computers then narrow down an individual's interests and hobbies: the name and address of somebody who has a subscription to a right-wing magazine, for example, is valuable to the Republican Party or other right-wing causes. A sports enthusiast will be singled out by sports goods companies and so on.

As I have subscriptions to just about every magazine known to mankind, my name, address and phone number has clearly shuttled profitably to and from literally scores of commercial mailing lists. I was a regular donor to WETA, the Washington-area public broadcasting radio and television station - ie, a blessedly non-commercial one - but stopped giving them donations when they kept soliciting for more ("surely you can afford more than that?" I was asked contemptuously). Then this summer, someone discovered that WETA had sold its mailing lists to the Democratic Party (donors to public broadcasting stations tending to be Democrats rather than Republicans), which explains why I've since been bothered by Democratic candidates seeking campaign funds. And so the spiral continues, keeping my air-raid warden's whistle busy.

I feel guilty each time I blow it, because the person at the other end is usually some desperate person trying to earn a buck or two; it's just that they've been seduced into a pernicious business.

Typically they operate in droves out of backwood states such as West Virginia and manage to avoid leaving caller ID numbers so that they cannot be traced; friendly Mary-Jo or Bob (fictitious names, of course) may be working for Citibank one evening, WETA the next and a kidney research foundation the next. And, naturally, they are on commission - hence their high-pressure sales techniques, which make the elderly, in particular, vulnerable.

I therefore don't feel too sorry for them, especially now that they are subject to the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which is meant to crack down on the menace. If asked not to call back, they are supposed not to. They mustn't call before 8am or after 9pm, and so on. But it is an act without teeth and most telemarketing companies merely laugh at attempts to combat their methods.

The large and supposedly respectable Citibank Corporation is a major offender which has repeatedly called back when I've asked it (or its telemarketeers) not to; it was also among those who traced my New York friends to my Washington phone number.

The co-founder of a public interest group, Michael Jacobson, received a call from Citibank and told them to place him on their "not-to-call" list. Eight weeks later, his wife answered another call from them. Nearly three months after that, they received a third call - and this time Jacobson took both Citibank and its telemarketeers (an outfit called CUC International) to court under the 1991 act, seeking $2,000 in damages.

Citibank bluffed its way along until a date for a court hearing was set up, at which point the Jacobsons heard from lawyers seeking settlement.

In the end, Citibank agreed to pay them $750 without admitting it had violated the law; Jacobson had to agree not to accuse the company of wilfully breaking it. It therefore took an awful lot of bother - far more than most Americans are willing to take - to achieve only a partial victory.

But I constantly keep my air-raid whistle at the ready. Take this as a warning, Citibank and your agents: next time it will not just be a blast in your eardrums, but a court hearing, too.

And much of America would, I suspect, be cheering me on if I made my small contribution to helping rid the country of this curse in this way.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.
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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.