The Camilla Parker Bowles of Fleet Street, Robinson has seen off the younger, prettier competition

Whatever else you may think of Anne Robinson, she gives good headline. In the course of the Daily Telegraph's serialisation of her autobiography, Memoirs of an Unfit Mother, she managed to hit every tabloid button.

On sex: "Waking up in a strange bed with my knickers round my neck." (I am still puzzled as to exactly how this could happen.) On addiction: "I would drink anything, even aftershave." On being an unfit mother: "The agony of watching another woman raise my daughter." On love: "Charlie never stopped loving me. Nor did Johnny." On eating disorders: "I weighed less than six stone and had less than two months to live."

You could make it up, actually, but anyone who has ever worked alongside Robinson during her long career knows she didn't have to.

It is as though, in writing this book, she started with the headlines, knowing that to get the six-figure deal she would be required to produce at least five front-page write-offs. But why, when you are one of the most high-profile, highly paid journalists in the country, do you want to expose yourself and your family to this degree of navel-gazing?

Celebrity and money, that's what drives Anne Robinson. And she can't get enough of either, as she proved when she bragged to Michael Parkinson on a recent edition of his show that she would be richer than him. Former colleagues at the Mirror can remember her making boasts on similar lines. That was just before she wrote her eulogy to Robert Maxwell and immediately before it was discovered that he had stolen hundreds of millions of pounds from the pension fund.

The same question - why did she do it? - was asked of Marjorie Proops, the Mirror's famous agony aunt, when she wrote and then serialised her biography. After decades of holding her secrets close - the long and passionate affair with the Mirror's lawyer throughout her marriage, the problems with her son - she, too, revealed all. However many times I asked her, Marje was never able to explain why - and I suspect the same is true of Robinson.

Part of the answer lies in the generation of journalists to which Robinson belongs. These women were constantly having to prove themselves in a hostile world. Every paper had its token woman. It was impossible to rise to the top executive jobs. As Robinson discovered, it was hard for women, and only hard women succeeded.

There is an anger in her generation of female journalists, and understandably so. It was not so much a world of misogyny as simply a place where women did not fit. The hours, the drinking - this was men's work. The career path for a woman began at the secretary's desk and ended writing fashion or social notes, or, for the lucky few, as the paper's agony aunt.

Robinson, like Wendy Henry and Eve Pollard (who became editors of national Sunday papers), became a mould-breaker and a ball-breaker as a result. I know a lot of female journalists who respect Robinson and envy her pay packet, but few who either like or want to be like her, which is a shame, really, because we all owe her and those like her a great debt.

Completely at odds with the typical profile of an alcoholic, she always displayed an absolute confidence in her own abilities and their commercial worth, a quality still rarely found in women. I can remember being told, when I joined the Mirror as managing editor after Maxwell's death in the early 1990s, that Robinson's "deal" was top secret. An old-timer said to me: "Let's just say that Annie's expenses and perks would pay the salaries of the entire back bench."

After fighting hard to keep Robinson at the Mirror, she was finally lured away by News International and took her weekly column to Today. Executives at the Mirror were deeply worried about the effect her loss would have on sales. Both newspapers were surprised that not a single copy was lost by her defection and Today failed to put on a single sustained sale .

The shine started to wear off the "quarter-million-pound Annie", as she was then known, and also the value that editors would place in future on such high-cost, high-maintenance women writers. But, almost single-handedly, she took women into a new pay league. For that, the likes of Julie Burchill, Jane Moore, Carole Malone, Sue Carroll and other highly paid female bylines should be eternally grateful.

Anne Robinson has become the Camilla Parker Bowles of Fleet Street. She is non-negotiable. She sees off the younger, prettier competition, we love to hate her and there's a grudging respect because of what she has achieved and what she has survived.

How much has really changed for women in journalism? Yes, we now have two editors, in Rebekah Wade on the News of the World and Tina Weaver on the Sunday Mirror, but there is no woman editor on a national daily, or on a broadsheet. Current events show that there is still no parity even in the byline stakes. Glance over the front pages of any newspaper during the past month, and the ratio of male to female bylines is still two or three to one. How many women political, diplomatic or defence editors can you name? Most newspapers have "their woman on the front line", but she is usually there to interview the families and get the colour. Women may be at the front line, but they are still not in front-line jobs.

And I would bet Anne Robinson's weekly expense allowance (circa 1990 - I am being paid by the New Statesman, after all) that there is not a single national paper that has even a third of its "war cabinet" - the special desk that co-ordinates the reports - made up of women journalists. When it comes down to it, wars and newspapers are still a man's game.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world

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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.