Notes from Notting Hill: a Labour councillor's view of one of London's wealthiest boroughs. Photo: Getty
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Notting Hill notebook: a Labour councillor doing politics in the Royal Borough

Andrew Lomas is new to the borough of Kensington and Chelsea as a Labour councillor. Here are his first impressions of canvassing in one of London's wealthiest areas.

Save money, buy a Bentley

Kensington and Chelsea has the reputation of being a playground for the wealthy global elite. As a new Labour councillor in the borough, it sometimes seems that the ruling Tories enjoy playing up to the image: this is, after all, a council that funds the only municipal opera company in the country and saw its (now former) leader justify his extensive use of the Mayoral Bentley on the grounds it saved on taxi fares. There is also no reticence from the Mayor about cracking open the bubbly when the occasion merits it, something that this particular Bollinger Bolshevik can only applaud. That said, decanting new members to the Mayor’s parlour for champagne in the aftermath of May's local elections – directly after an induction talk from the council's legal officers warning about the pitfalls of accepting free hospitality – was not entirely without irony.

Getting elected, getting the beers in

Getting out the vote on election day can be a slog and sometimes fate intervenes to tell you to have a break. So it was this year: mid-afternoon approaching, I started down a new street.

First Door:           Can I speak to your wife?”

                 “She died six months ago…”

                 “Oh God, I am so sorry”

Undeterred, I pressed on.

Second Door:      Rings doorbell, baby starts crying, door opens

                “Are you kidding me? I just got her off to sleep, what do you want?”

Avoiding the temptation to say I was the Conservative candidate, I apologised profusely and scurried away.

A few steps from the third door, I looked down at my clipboard to see a previous canvasser had written “BIG DOG” in red biro as a warning. This was quickly confirmed by basso profundo notes barking out a message that seemed to say, “go have a pint and a sit down.” Five minutes later, I was sitting in the Earl of Lonsdale contemplating the supreme wisdom of man’s best friend.

Maiden speeches and multi-millionaires

In Foote’s Nocturnal Revels, a brothel-keeper remarks that a maidenhead was “as easily made as a pudding.” If only maiden speeches were as easily made. However, the planning system – while not exactly providing a rich seam of comic potential – did provide the opportunity to break my duck and speak against plans to allow a hospital wing to be turned into luxury flats. Such a position was apparently controversial: indeed, readers may not be aware that there is a grave shortage of luxury properties in Kensington and Chelsea for dodgy foreigners to launder hot money much-needed inward investment. That one proposed alternative use would create a wing for cancer patients only added to the controversy. Who will speak up for the poor, oppressed oligarchs being denied the chance to own a multi-million pound pad of their own?

That said, rather than rush to make a maiden speech I could have instead followed the example of one of Foote’s companions. George Augustus Selwyn was famous for a 44-year parliamentary career in which he managed to avoid making a single speech. (Selwyn was also a cross-dressing bisexual who dabbled in necrophilia. Visiting a dying Henry Fox, he was refused admission. When Fox learned of this he joked: “If Mr. Selwyn calls again, show him up. If I am alive, I shall be glad to see him, and if I am dead, I am sure he will be delighted to see me!” On second thoughts then, perhaps not an ideal role model...)

Irritable Vowel Syndrome

On the subject of maiden speeches, there was a degree of sympathy for the new Conservative councillor for Earl’s Court Fenella Aouane following an otherwise solid debut. While most members were quick to congratulate Cllr Aouane’s effort, there was unfortunately less consensus from those gathered on how one actually pronounces “Aouane”.

Andrew Lomas is a Labour councillor for Kensington and Chelsea (Colville Ward). He tweets @andrewlomas

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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.