Childhood has gone completely out of fashion

I was walking down the King's Road the other day, past window displays of silver lycra bodices and tight black leather jeans, and wondering who would dare expose their midriff and thighs so blatantly, when the answers materialised beside me. A gaggle of pre-teen nymphettes sashayed forth, in those very same bodices and jeans. These "tweenagers", as they are known in market-speak, spend squillions on manicures and makeovers, Morgan hipsters and Monsoon bags. They don't want to play with dolls; they want to look like Britney Spears. It's a scary prospect - and it had Bryan Appleyard recently bemoaning the end of childhood in the pages of the New Statesman.

Childhood has gone out of fashion. Hamley's does a roaring trade, and Disney World is swamped with families, but the children being treated to a Lego set or a visit to see Minnie Mouse are already impatient with the infantile stuff and panting for their first bra or their first mobile phone.

Of the seven ages of man, childhood was the one that inspired Romantic reveries about the age of innocence and Freudian explanations about Electra complexes. Now it is something kids are in a rush to leave behind; and many adults are in a hurry to help the little mites do just that.

How else do you explain the way laws are changing across Europe? In Spain, you can have sex with a girl of 12 without fear of ending up in the slammer. In Denmark, you can go for it at 15. "Underage" is a category that looks set to shrink here, too. The House of Commons wants to bring down the age of consent for all sexual activity to 16 - even though the Lords has just voted against the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill.

Boys of 16 today, girls of 12 tomorrow - pretty soon, only the toddler with a pacifier will be considered a child. Everyone else will be up for grabs.

In the developing world - and in some first-world communities rent by either vice or poverty - they always were. Childhood was no insurance against incest or prostitution; and it was regarded as a purely functional status, rather than some special perch wrapped in the mists of innocence. A child supplied you with an extra pair of hands on the farm or around the home, a roof and pension in your old age, and childcare for younger siblings. In the first world, however, we hung on to the luxury of thinking that childhood was a magical time before our nasty, short and brutish real life took over.

No more. Everyone from divorcing parents to MPs conspires to prize children out of their little nest of security. Even in America, the land that loves fantasy and sentimentality, childhood has been brought up short. In certain states - often the same ones where a teenager can wind up in jail if he has practised oral sex - an 18-year-old can purchase and play with a Smith and Wesson.

The worst of it is, women no longer believe in childhood, either. One in five women in the US has not had a child by the age of 40; and in Britain, those who claim they want a child in Britain are at a record low. As for Italy, Ireland and Spain, they have sub-zero population growth.

Defiantly unmaternal, women are saying that to bear offspring is either a selfish act (propagation of me, myself and I) or a truly boring one (endless articles by child-free bachelorettes hail the pleasures of eating chocolates in bed after the kind of noisy love-making you wave goodbye to once you have had those little pitchers with big ears). In women's eyes, childhood is a state of being from which it is right to progress - and men, poor hairy things, are accused of suffering from a Peter Pan complex when, all too frequently, they try to hold on to it.

And so, real children are a thing of the past. We'll have to make do with precocious tweenagers who can spend lots of dosh, shoot and have gay sex.

Our loss. And theirs.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Falconer

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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.