On tap

Drink - Victoria Moore is on the search for the purest, safest water in town

It's a Friday morning and I'm sitting at home waiting for the man from Thames Water Authority to finish taking samples from our kitchen tap before I can go out. My cousin called him because she says that when she washes her hair it goes a bit matted and it didn't used to. She thinks some vile chemical has infiltrated the system, although she doesn't (yet) believe it has anything to do with Osama Bin Laden.

I ask Keith if he'd like a cup of tea. He hesitates. "Or would you prefer to test the water first?"

"No," says Keith. "I trust our water implicitly. It's very good."

So I put the kettle on. It's filled with Vittel anyway, but Keith doesn't know that. It's 34 days since, in a delayed reaction to 11 September, I decided to stop drinking tap water. Just in case. Like a vegetarian who wears leather shoes and eats caviar, I've been boiling broccoli in mineral water at home and drinking office tea and eating in restaurants as normal. And cleaning my teeth with water straight from the tap.

I tell Keith about not drinking tap water and he doubles up with laughter. "I wouldn't touch bottled stuff," he says. "Our water's tested for 1,500 chemicals. Theirs isn't. I saw a TV programme about it once. One French water was found to have twice the level of radioactivity we allow in ours."

I take this opportunity to ask Keith how easy he thinks it would be to introduce pathogens or toxins into the water system. "Well, it'd have to be done at the treatment plant. There's no other way. And that would be very difficult. Apart from the fact that you'd need to put a lot of something in because of the dilution factor, our security's been stepped up a lot recently. Before, anyone who was driving a Thames Water van would pretty much have been nodded straight in. Now you have to sign in, your ID's checked . . . the lot."

So you couldn't, say, hijack a van and sneak in that way?

"Nah, and there are lots more people on security, too. Anyway, if the water was infected at the treatment plant, it'd be picked up in tests straightaway."

But couldn't you access the supply in the city? What if someone lifted up those little flap things in the street and . . .

"The only access to the water in the street is via fire hydrants, and it's a positive pressure system. As soon as you open them up, water shoots out. You wouldn't get anything in."

As soon as Keith has gone, I decide to conduct some more checks. I phone the Thames Water emergency and inquiries line and am transferred straightaway - no music, no waiting, no automated answerphone or anything - to a very calm lady who asks me for my postcode. I hand it over, but refuse to give my house number. I don't want her to know who I am.

She tells me that the water is checked at "lots of points along the supply zone". Yes, even after leaving the treatment park, and that if any irregularities were picked up, customers would be notified immediately by letterdrop. By letterdrop? "Or via the local media." She says I'm not the only one to have called to ask about this sort of thing.

I call the man in the press office. He laughs so loudly I fantasise that this is his standard response to journalists with questions about safety. I picture him sitting at his desk, his voice splintering as he barks laughter into his phone receiver all day long. Obviously, he says, he can't discuss security specifics such as whether or not there are any more security guards than before, because that in itself might compromise the security. But he can tell me that the security is very good.

Perhaps Keith is right. I'm a bit worried about the bottled water now. I've been drinking Vittel because that's the only brand they stock in the Iranian shops across the road, and it therefore seems like the safest bet. But what if someone decides to target yuppies? Wouldn't that be the easiest way? Choke them all on their stupid designer water. I'm going back to getting it straight from the tap.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And now the trouble really begins

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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.