Following the coup, dinner was brought forward somewhat, to 5pm

Returning to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, following my fact-finding, joint EU-ACP mission to the Solomon Islands, I was amazed by the coverage my visit had been given. I have been greeted warmly by friends and colleagues and received lots of stern lectures about "being more careful in future". I do promise to try, but predicting what might happen is not easy - as I discovered when our mission coincided with a coup d'etat. News of the coup - during which the democratically elected prime minister was taken from his bed at gunpoint - reached us as we ate breakfast in our hotel. There was an eerie atmosphere as we all tried to work out what would happen next. Most of the hotel staff had obeyed the orders to stay at home. We were told not to leave the hotel, that the sale of liquor was banned, and that dinner would be at 5pm. Such logistical advice seemed strange when the situation was potentially so dangerous. The hotel felt relatively safe, but there was always a sense that anything was possible. Neil, I know, was keen that I should avoid saying anything likely to ruffle the feathers of the coup-makers. The prime minister came to see our delegation at the hotel, and certainly the sight of that small, gentle man being led in, flanked by armed militia, sent a shiver down my spine. The hotel receptionist said to me, with tears running down her cheek: "I cannot believe what I am seeing. It is his dignity, and the dignity of our country which they take away. What hope can we have now?"

I have many memories, but none more distinct than how it felt to stand among the armed rebels in their flak jackets made of tree bark and wild ginger. Some were as young as 12, clutching home-made weapons with wooden butts attached to bits of old piping; they used bullets dug out of old US Second World War arms dumps. I just smiled benignly at them, in the hope that they would concentrate on keeping their guns away from where I was standing.

Throughout the discussions after the coup, I was struck by the total absence of women. They had had no involvement with all of those who "cooked up" the coup. Women in the towns and in the rural areas told me they wanted peace, so that their kids could go to school, so that they could find medicines in their clinics, and sell produce in the markets.

This is the week of the month in which the European Parliament decamps from its new building in Brussels to its very new building in Strasbourg. There's impressive symbolism in meeting in the Rhineside capital of Alsace that was fought over by French and German armies for centuries. That's why the heads of EU member-state governments will probably continue to insist unanimously on having a peripatetic parliament, I suppose. But the time and money wasted by the monthly - some would say lunar - move is prodigious. Strasbourg, despite its stately setting, is not exactly at the hub of Europe's transport system, and the parliament building is impractical and badly designed.

That's not all: on the Thursday of last month's session, the parliament's administration coolly e-mailed all MEPs to say legionella had been found in the machine rooms - but that we shouldn't worry. Filled with something less than supreme confidence, I went for a cup of coffee with colleagues. The milk wasn't so much "off" as decomposing. Sipping our black caffeine we speculated on whether the legionella or the salmonella would get us first.

The Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, is 55 on 19 June and, as a patron of the Burma Campaign UK, I helped host a celebration of her birthday last Sunday evening at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. Our guest of honour couldn't be there. Aung San Suu Kyi continues her years of virtual house arrest in Rangoon. She smuggled out a video message, which was screened on the night.

Her enforced absence serves to increase our awareness of the tragedy that is continuing to unfold in Burma, and her voice communicates irrepressible determination to secure freedom for the people of her country. The epic struggle taking place in Burma has gone unnoticed for too long. But the world's attention is shifting. As it does, we can see, coming into sharp focus, a military dictatorship that, despite its military might, is terrified of a small, gentle woman and the people who she leads.

The regime controlling Burma is as despotic and secretive as any in the modern era. I have seen the tragic effects of its slaughter, rape and economic exploitation for myself. Every day, thousands are risking their lives, thousands are suffering in prisons, and millions are enduring desperate poverty. Exiles work hard for the day they can return home to a free land. They won't give up until this struggle is won - and it will be won. It is a matter of when, not if.

We can all help to hasten the day, with funds and campaigns to intensify the pressures on the Burmese junta. Aung San Suu Kyi has appealed for support in her crusade: "Please use your liberty to promote ours," she asks. Tyrants do tumble, people do eventually gain their liberty. Making a donation helps those working to rid Burma of tyranny.

For donations to the Burma Campaign UK, contact Yvette Mahon on 020-7281 7377

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - the matriarchs

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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.