Mourning: it's a minefield

Mourning ends. And however much the tabloids seek to shake life into the corpse of the Diana story at this tag-end of summer, the fickle public has moved on, which, as more coherent cultures than ours understand, is the purpose of ritual grief.

Thus the plan for a memorial garden at Kensington Palace including a 300-foot statue now seems faintly ridiculous and has been abandoned by the Diana Memorial Fund, whose committee of worthies seldom meets. The tabloids report her mother's distress, while her brother is said to be disappointed at the public's loss of interest. Shame on him and on the tabloids. Why, other than for financial profit, should they seek to wring out of us any more mawkish tears? If Diana's family wish there to be a permanent memorial, that is up to them. Her place in the memory of her family is not our business - it never was. Moreover, her public legacy may turn out to be more lasting than mausoleums and museums - greater, too, than the cynical republicans among us may care to admit.

Earlier this year, on 1 March, the Ottawa treaty on the prohibition of anti-personnel mines came into force as the 40th nation ratified its provisions, banning the use, manufacture and sale of landmines. As part of her work for the British Red Cross, Diana played a significant role in bringing the scourge of these weapons to public attention, infuriating politicians as she went and bringing a hitherto unglamorous cause under the spotlight.

Her visit to Angola, in January 1997, seven months before her death (and four months before the fall of the Tories), was a turning point in the campaign - first, because of the powerful pictures of Diana with limbless children and the unnerving image of a usually heavily guarded royal walking through a minefield, and second, because her comments put the Tory government seriously on the spot. Despite careful briefing, Diana spoke artlessly of the urgent need for a total, immediate ban. The government had supported only a policy of "working towards" such a ban. Her widely publicised remarks angered the government and provoked Lord Howe, then junior defence minister, to call her "a loose cannon" - a weapon that sounded benign, compared with the life-threatening landmines to which Diana's visit was drawing attention.

Now, two and a half years on, few doubt that her death speeded up the treaty process by several years. In October 1997 the six original founders of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines received the Nobel peace prize. By December the treaty was ready for signature. The United States (while quaintly persisting in announcing its full support for the treaty) remains the only major nation not to have signed up. Its "special security concerns" - South Korea - have prevented them, officials say, but a date has at least been set, albeit the year 2006.

But clearing the world of landmines requires far more than signatures. There are believed to be around 110 million anti-personnel landmines in the ground around the world and a further 100 million stockpiled for future use; their removal will cost upward of $33 billion (more if landmines continue to be placed). Worse, at the present rate demining would not be completed before the year 3000. It is ludicrously cheap to make and place landmines, while their removal is disproportionately dangerous, time-consuming and expensive. A mine can cost as little as $3 to make and place but around $1,000 to remove.

Every day 70 people are killed or injured by landmines, an average of one every 15 minutes. Half of all adults who step on a mine die before they reach hospital. Children, because of their size, are even more likely to die. Injuries are horrific, routinely requiring amputation of limbs. Some 300,000 children have been left severely disabled.

These are shocking statistics. In some countries the reality is even more shocking. As Antara Dev Sen reports on page 14, in Angola there are more landmines than citizens. They add to the existing tragedy of a country ravaged by war, preventing farming and even the transportation of food aid.

It would be wrong to be too optimistic. But the Ottawa treaty now has 133 signatories and has been ratified by 84 states. Among them are past producers of mines such as Britain, France and Italy, as well as nations that have suffered from their use, including Angola, Cambodia, Bosnia and Mozambique.

Every landmine that isn't laid is a better legacy than a saintly statue or a ramped-up display of grief.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Gordon Brown, the great feminist

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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.