How we feed asylum-seekers

Despite the instances of racial attacks, and the evidence of racism in institutions such as the police service and the education system, most people, and not just the liberal chattering classes, now accept blacks and Asians as part of Britain. The murder of Stephen Lawrence was greeted with almost universal horror, and leading politicians of all parties fall over one another to deplore outright racism. Talk of repatriation has faded into the memory, along with the urban riots of the 1980s. A black or brown Briton is not generally regarded as any more peculiar or surprising a person than a Scottish, Welsh or Irish Briton. More important, as the Daily Mail so cleverly intuited over the Lawrence affair, middle-class, law-abiding, industrious whites now find it perfectly possible to identify with similarly inclined blacks, who share their hatred and terror of the yobbish underclass. There is not only a Black Britain but also a growing Middle Black England.

And that is the clue to the present national panic about asylum-seekers, and to Jack Straw's handling of it. Open prejudice against blacks is no longer acceptable in polite society - who now would complain about the smell of curry or repeat urban legends about West Indians and pet food? But open prejudice against asylum-seekers - with tales about aggressive child beggars, women masturbating in public and money going to luxury mansions in deepest Transylvania - is entirely acceptable and, paradoxically, all the more so if these people are not so much black or brown as rather swarthy white from eastern Europe. Besides, blacks and Asians have votes in British elections; asylum-seekers in general, and Romanian gypsies or Albanian imposters in particular, do not. Thus, racism, largely defeated in one guise, re-emerges in another, rather as it does from time to time over Muslim fundamentalists or as it has just done over Turkish football fans.

Fear and suspicion of outsiders and foreigners, of people not like ourselves, are basic to the human psyche. So, to take another example, is the desire for immediate vengeance against those who have harmed us or our families. But it is the mark of a civilised society that, one way or another, it rises above such primitive emotions; and it is the mark of a progressive and liberal political party that it should appeal to people's finer and more generous instincts, not to their baser and meaner ones. In these tests, our contemporary politicians fail miserably. The Home Secretary's handling of the issue suggests that new Labour is not just popular, but populist, in the worst sense of the term. William Hague's latest response - to lock up every asylum-seeker on arrival - simply takes the Tory party even further into the English laager mentality on which it now seems to pin its hopes of salvation.

As the NS has argued before, the issue of refugees is far more complex than either side is apt to acknowledge. The real need, as Mr Hague himself has said, is to reconsider international conventions on refugees that were designed for a world where most applications for asylum came from the victims of totalitarian states, whose rulers strove as mightily to keep them in as our rulers now strive to keep them out. The conventions are inadequate for a world where people are more often driven into exile by state weakness than by state oppression. In these circumstances, it is all the more important - particularly in a government that claimed, only a year ago, to wage war for humanitarian purposes - for ministers to encourage cool heads and rational language. That, however, is not the temper of the times. This is the age of zero tolerance, of "crackdowns" on "welfare scroungers", of ministerial sermons against the "something-for-nothing" society. It is hardly surprising that the poorer sections of British society, who are so often on the receiving end of all this "toughness", feel it unfair for outsiders to be treated any less harshly.

It has been well said that we should watch carefully how governments treat refugees because, given the opportunity, that is how they would treat the rest of us. Nothing better illustrates the present meanness of mind and spirit than the food voucher scheme for asylum-seekers, which goes to elaborate lengths to avoid a few stray pennies falling into Albanian hands, and costs more to administer than a cash benefits scheme. Can it be very long before we have similar voucher schemes for the unemployed, single mothers and others on benefits? Our rulers may eventually get rid of the asylum-seekers, but they will still want someone to kick around.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Are the loonies coming back?

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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.