Why are some university debating societies havens of misogyny?

The heckling experienced by female debaters at Glasgow University Union is an unwelcome reminder of a previous age where personal insults were fair game. And anyone who disagrees is a dickless baboon.

Today, the Spectator published an article by Gerald Warner, defending the conduct of a bunch of idiots who heckled female speakers during a debate at the Glasgow University Union debates. According to Warner, women should just laugh off being discussed salaciously in terms of their looks, and being booed for even mentioning feminism in a speech - his solution is that they should have derailed their speeches, and heckled back. "The problem is today’s politically correct debaters... cannot tolerate contradiction or ridicule. It simply is not in the script."

Of course, Warner misses the point - these women have advanced to the final of a national debating competition, and deserve to have their speeches heard, without interruptions from people without the intellectual capacity to get to that level. Would Warner support racist hecklers at the sidelines of the Olympics, booing Mo Farah for being black? Tell him to just toughen up, deal with it?

Gerald Warner is living in the past, in more ways than one. He seems to think minority groups just need to toughen up, to take the banter. As one of the debaters in question, Rebecca Meredith, says here, not only does the Glasgow Union regularly boo and heckle women, but ethnic minorities too - for nothing more than the temerity to be not born white and male. Is that ok, Mr Warner?

Warner goes on to lionise the rowdy, laddish banteriffic culture of the Glasgow University Union, and then goes on to tell us of the illustrious history, of competitions won, of presidents who have advanced on into politics, of 1960s occasions where ANC leaders were voted in as rector. An illustrious past does not make up for a shameful present - a quick look around the Facebook profiles surrounding the GUU swiftly uncovers that as recently as 2010, a GUU Secretary "follow[ed] tradition with a joke about raping freshers whilst blacked up. No means yes, yes means harder." I wonder what the former ANC rector would make of "blacking up to rape" gags?

It looks more like there is something sick within the Glasgow's debating society - the Everyday sexism in the GUU page makes for distressing reading. On it, anonymous commenters talk about "games" like "fat girl rodeo" - where you grab a girl in a club, tell her you are going to rape her, and then see how long you can hang on for. Board members allegedly proposition freshers with lines like "You look like a fucking slut who is gagging for it". The men who blocked women from being members of the Union are looked on as heroes. The shameful exclusion of women from the Union until the 1980s has been taken up as a rallying cry by misogynists within the Union - which might explain why it has done so badly at debating for years.

Gerald Warner's assessment of the quality of the GUU is years out of date. As he rightly points out, they used to be good. But they haven't won the national debating competition (the Mace) or even reached the elimination stages of the World Championships in over a decade. Maybe if they were less hostile to women or people of colour, that might change?

The truth is, 14 years ago, when I was regularly debating, this sort of revolting, discourteous booing and catcalling and generalised misogyny was the norm; I distinctly remember a Glasgow judge grabbing my debate partner's breasts and saying "If you'd showed more of these, we might have let you win". At the time, Oxford and Cambridge were almost as bad - I recall speeches where a Cambridge debater divided up an audience into "sluts" and "frigid girls you'd marry", and a president of the Oxford Union told me that the fact a speaker from my "toytown former polytechnic university spoke on the floor of the Oxford Union denigrated the whole institution of debating".

The rest of university debating has moved on since - particularly through the efforts of charities like DebateMate, Idea, and the English Speaking Union, debating has been democratised, and is now a much more welcoming and pleasant place. I hope that women and ethnic minorites feel welcome - indeed, women have been the top speakers in the world several times in the last few years. Contrary to Gerald Warner's assertion that "as with politics, fewer women want to debate. The rough and tumble of a dialectical free-for-all is not for them", female participation is at an all-time high - and a large part of that comes down to people refusing to tolerate misogyny, and it gradually being stamped out.

What Warner wants is a return to a misogynist free-for-all, where any insult, no matter who delivers it, counts as a valid argument to be rebutted. He laughably characterises any attempt to stand up to that culture as "Stalinist".  In which case, I'd like to say that if Gerald Warner thinks misogynist insults are a valid part of debate, then he's a paranoid dinosaur, with all the writing grace of a dickless baboon. Is that a valid argument, Mr Warner?

Willard Foxton was once the 7th best speaker in the world for "toytown polytechnic" the university of the West of England, and twice won the world's funniest debater prize.

A moody baboon. Photo: Getty

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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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.