Balls's smart new dividing line with Osborne: a recovery for the few or one for the many?

With the return of the economy to growth, the shadow chancellor seeks to shift the terms of the debate in Labour's favour.

This week's GDP figures (released on Thursday) will further cheer Tory spirits, with the economy thought to have grown by around 0.6% in the second quarter. It may have been three years in coming, but finally, it seems, the recovery has begun.

For Labour, the return of growth represents a political challenge. While welcoming the positive figures, it must avoid letting George Osborne off the hook for what remains the slowest recovery for more than 100 years. In his pre-emptive response in today's Guardian, Ed Balls attempts to perform this balancing act, describing any growth as "both welcome and hugely overdue". In order to make up the ground the UK has lost since 2010, he notes, the economy would need to grow by 1.3% a quarter for the next two years. 

It was Balls who, almost alone among the political class, warned that premature tax rises and spending cuts could strangle growth in his 2010 Bloomberg speech. But as he conceded in another recent speech, the last thing the public "want to hear from any politician is 'we told you so'". Labour must avoid making the error of attempting to re-run the 2010 election and of seeking to prove a counter-factual: that growth would have been stronger had the last government remained in power. 

Mindful of this, Balls wisely uses the piece to stake out a new dividing line with Osborne. The question now is less whether we have a recovery or not (although, as he rightly points, no one should repeat the error of taking growth for granted) but what kind of recovery we have. Is it one for the few or one for the many? While bank bonuses rose to £4bn in April as high-earners deferred their payouts in order to take advantage of the reduction in the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p, real wages are still falling and are forecast to do so until at least 2015. The next election could be the first in modern history that sees the majority of voters worse off at the end of the parliament than they were at the start. 

It's a smart line of attack, which is why it's encouraging that Labour seems intent on developing it. Balls announces that later this week he will launch a transatlantic commission on "inclusive prosperity" with Larry Summers, his former Harvard tutor and Bill Clinton's former Treasury secretary, to "investigate what reforms our countries need to generate more high-wage jobs for the future".

Many on the left have criticised Summers for his role in the 1990s financial deregulation that paved the way for the crash (for which he has since apologised), but he has consistently been on the right side of the austerity vs. stimulus debate, memorably declaring in April 2011: "I find the idea of an expansionary fiscal contraction in the context of the world in which we now live to be every bit as oxymoronic as it sounds. And I think the consequences are likely to be very serious for the countries involved."

He added of Britain: "I have always been a believer in being an empiricist about my convictions. So I would be happy to say that if Britain enjoys a boom over the next two years, coming from increased confidence I would be required to quite radically rethink my view as to how the macro economy operates…and be quite contrite about the seriousness of the misjudgements that I’m making. Those of you who know me can make a judgement about how big a risk I would take of putting myself in a position of great contrition and you might therefore conclude that I’m fairly confident that this experiment is not going to work out well." Unfortunately for the UK, Summers was entirely right in his assessment.

But while Balls and his fellow Keynesians lost the debate in 2010, they could yet win it in 2015. In that task, Summers will prove a valuable ally. 

George Osborne and Ed Balls attend the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.