Students are leading the way on international development

The Warwick International Development Summit provides a platform for the spread of innovative new ideas.

International development nowadays often appears to be a topic that many governments profess to commit to but few actually act in a way designed to meet the needs of the people that they claim to be trying to help. Such non-committance is displayed by the fact that only 5 developing nations have yet to reach the donation target of 0.7 per cent of GNI set out by the UN in 1970.

Funding problems have only worsened following the recent economic crisis and the resulting austerity measures pursued by western governments have tightened public purse strings. Although a few countries such as the UK have committed themselves to maintaining their aid budget despite cuts to other areas of expenditure, such ring fencing has been pounced upon by longstanding opponents of aid. Extreme examples such as India’s receipt of aid despite its pursuit of a space capability are used to attack development budgets in general.

It doesn’t help the development cause that aid has had a problematic history. While there has been a move away from the top down, Western led approach followed in the past in favour of a recognition of localised specific and unique circumstances in developing areas, the pursuit of targets such as the Millennium Development Goals established in 2000 have so far met limited success.

Furthermore, aid has often had a (some may say inevitable) focus on the national interest of donor states. Favoured nations often receive significant grants to the detriment of poorer regions, which according to Oxfam undermines “the effectiveness of aid in meeting humanitarian needs and maximizing poverty reduction.”

Despite these issues with development, there is still a determined drive in the global community to improve the lives of the many millions of people who live in desperate conditions around the world in the 21st century. One increasingly recognised way in which development objectives can be met is by engaging young people.  Young people often have the passion and curiosity to be willing to tackle head on the problems that face developing nations. Such enthusiasm is displayed in the thousands of students that choose to travel the world during their gap year or summer holidays, often taking part in projects in deprived regions to improve the lives of others.

The UK is in an exceptional position to foster such engagement. UK universities are ranked second only to the US in demand by foreign students, fuelled by the prominent position that our nation’s institutions feature in international league tables. Last year there were 428,225 full time undergraduate international students studying in the UK, making up 14 per cent of the student population. Nowhere but in universities is there such a multinational mix of people that have a desire to improve the world as well as the backgrounds to offer a truly global perspective on development. This provides UK universities with the unique opportunity to promote engagement in development issues and ensure that both UK and international students have the ability to learn from each other.

One example of this is the establishment of student societies dedicated to culturing such connections. At the University of Warwick, the Warwick International Development Society is preparing for its 7th annual development summit, organised by students from all over the world. With past speakers including WTO Chief Economist Patrick Low, Under Secretary of State for Development Michael Foster MP, BBC reporter Jon Sopel and World Bank lead economist Branko Milanović, the Summit has attracted the attention of significant individuals within the field of development. This year it is due to feature among its speakers Mahmoud Mohieldin, Managing Director of the World Bank and Jeffrey Sachs, the prominent development economist and UN advisor.

The summit has proved exceptionally popular, with attendees including not just students from Warwick but those from other universities around the UK and Europe as well as members of the public. With such a wide audience, the summit has been able to provide a platform for the spread of innovative new ideas and engage young people from a variety of backgrounds. This year’s summit coordinator, Aleksandra Katolik, explains that “by presenting a large variety of topics and making the content of our conference accessible to attendees new to international development, we will be able to show fellow students, activists and members of the public the immense opportunities and ways of making a difference in development.”

The society has also demonstrated how it can engage students in development work. This year it expanded its reach abroad, forming a partnership with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines to provide the opportunity for students to contribute to improving sustainable agriculture techniques and policy. Through these opportunities, the society hopes to demonstrate that students can contribute to development in a variety of ways.

Solving development problems such as food scarcity, lack of clean drinking water and rampant disease in the developing world will not be achieved in a short time. While the Millennium Development Goals have made progress, it doesn’t appear that they will all be completed by 2015. To steal a tag line from the 2012 Olympic Games, to solve international development problems we need to ‘inspire a generation’ to continue the progress that has been made over the past years. Encouraging greater engagement in our diverse universities is one way of ensuring that the issue of development is firmly in the minds of future generations.

Farmers planting rice in Cavite, south of the Philippine capital Manila. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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.