Why everyone should wear a veil in court

Humans are terrible lie detectors, but we believe ourselves to be practically flawless. That's why banning the veil in court will never lead to better justice.

This week, a judge at Blackfriars Crown Court in London ruled that a Muslim woman can wear the veil, or niqab, in court, but must remove it when giving evidence.

Some immediately said he should have gone further. For instance, the redoubtable Janice Turner of The Times declared on Twitter that the decision makes “an awful precedent”. She argued that being able to observe a person is important when coming to a decision about their guilt. Janice’s views echoed those of the National Secular Society, which told the BBC it’s “vital” that defendants’ faces are visible “at all times”. In other words, veils should be banned from court, tout court.

I agree that the judge’s compromise is unsatisfactory, and I too would like to go further, but in the opposite direction. I think we’d have a better justice system if all witnesses were made to wear a veil.

In the course of researching my book Born Liars, I spent a lot of time reading the academic literature on lie detection, and talking to scientists who study interrogation techniques. I found a surprising scientific consensus: people are less good than they think they are at judging a person’s truthfulness by observing their demeanour. Humans, it turns out, make erratic lie detectors. But here’s the funny thing: we think we’re great at it.

In a landmark study from 2006, the researchers Charles Bond and Bella DePaulo asked 2,520 adults in sixty-three countries how to spot a liar. Most people confidently explained that liars stutter, squirm and avert their gaze. The same preconception persisted in every culture studied. The trouble is, it’s not accurate. As a result, it leads us astray.

A person telling a lie may look their interlocutor in the eye. They may well – especially if they have had time to prepare – be just as fluent, if not more so, than a truth-teller. Conversely, some people, even when they’re telling the truth, appear shifty and uncomfortable, especially under pressure.

We’ve all encountered successful liars. So why, Shakespeare’s warning notwithstanding, do we continue to believe that we can “find the mind’s construction in the face”? Emily Pronin, a psychologist at Princeton University, points to a fundamental imbalance in the way people relate to each other.

When you physically encounter me, there are two things that are more prominent in your mind than in mine: my face and your thoughts. As a result you give too much credence to what you think you can tell from my face, while remaining confident that your own thoughts are entirely private.

Studies have found that people consistently over-estimate how much they can learn about others in job interviews, while at the same time believing that others can get only an unreliable glimpse of what they’re thinking or feeling. The model we work with is something like this: I am never quite what I seem; you are an open book. Pronin calls it “the illusion of asymmetric insight”.

It’s an illusion that sits at the heart of our justice system. The lawyer and fraud specialist Robert Hunter, whom I interviewed for the book, calls it “the demeanour assumption”: this assumption that we can read others’ faces like a book. Hunter believes that the demeanour assumption regularly misleads interrogators, judges and juries.

When a jury is trying to come to a decision, they need to take all sorts of information into account. What a witness is doing with their face while talking is, to a large extent, noise in the data, a hindrance to the search for truth. In their study, Bond and DePaulo found that “people are more accurate in judging audible than visible lies”.

Critics of the veil like to refer to the long traditions of our justice system. But if niqab-wearing women make us pay attention to this flaw in the system for the first time, isn’t that a good thing?

We can stop witnesses wearing veils. Or we can make all witnesses wear them. Either way, let’s not pretend that banning the veil in court will lead to better justice.

Two women wearing the niqab in London. Image: Getty

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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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.