Nun too wise: Tristram missed a chance. Photo: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
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Colour-blind abuse, how to teach children about snow and what Tristram Hunt should have said

Snow blindness, the Guardian hustings - plus left- and back-footedness on Question Time.

Nearly two years ago, I received a curious letter from a senior newspaper executive. (As it was “strictly private and confidential”, I shall not identify him or his paper.) He recalled that in 2010 I had criticised the Daily Mail for a double-page spread about what it called “a sinister taboo”. Nine men in Derby, eight of Asian background, had been jailed for “grooming” schoolgirls for sex. BBC Radio Derby, the Mail lamented, “barely” mentioned their ethnic origins, while the local paper’s reports “failed to use the word Asian once”. Why, I asked, did the Mail think it so important “that we should have it lodged firmly in our minds that these criminals were (mostly) Asian and their victims (mostly) white”?

My correspondent pointed out that the Times’s Andrew Norfolk had just won the Orwell Prize for “highlighting the ethnic and cultural components” of sex-abuse cases in northern towns. Would I now accept that my comments were “misguided”? I would not.

Has the report on Rotherham council from Louise Casey, the government’s troubled families tsar, changed my mind? In only one respect: I accept that some councillors, officers and social workers ignored evidence of horrific sexual abuse partly because, as Casey reports, they feared creating racial tension. Their behaviour deserves to be publicised and denounced.

But I still do not see why the media should highlight ethnic origins of child abusers, particularly when the names of convicted men provide sufficient clues, as they did in Derby. The story in Rotherham and elsewhere is that organised street networks – based on the night-time economy of taxis and fast-food outlets, disproportionately staffed by young Asian men – preyed on vulnerable girls. The girls were stereotyped as worthless slags by those who should have protected them. That is the scandal.

Children were also abused in large numbers by boarding-school teachers, Roman Catholic priests, care workers in children’s homes and celebrities in the entertainment industry. Nearly all the abusers were white but the reporting defined them by occupation – which gave them opportunity and a sometimes justified belief that they were beyond the reach of the law – not by ethnicity. For similar reasons, the abusers in northern towns could be defined by their work as taxi drivers and burger fryers. The only reason for making their ethnicity a central issue is that it plays to white stereotypes about the uncontrollable sexual appetites of dark-skinned folk and therefore, no doubt, sells a few extra papers.


Bribe the aged

I wouldn’t normally find myself on the same side as a free-market think tank. But the Institute of Economic Affairs is right to criticise George Osborne for giving the more affluent over-65s a windfall in the form of pensioner bonds. These pay 4 per cent interest if held for five years or 2.8 per cent if held for two – a rate of return far beyond any offered by banks.

The Chancellor tells us the country must reduce the cost of borrowing. That is why the deficit must fall and why families with young children lose benefits and tax credits, and the NHS struggles. Yet here is Osborne borrowing an estimated £15bn from Britain’s pensioners at (once he’s taken back tax) 3.2 and 2.2 per cent, when he could
borrow on the gilt markets at 0.3 per cent. Even the Spanish, Portuguese and Italian governments aren’t paying as much as he is. It is just a bribe to persuade pensioners to vote Tory in May.


Snow blindness

Here is a Daily Mail story that sums up English education as remoulded by Michael Gove. When snow began to fall in the playground of a Norfolk primary school, a teacher of eight- and nine-year-olds lowered the classroom blinds so they couldn’t see it. The teacher acted to ensure “children focused on the tasks in hand”, the school explained.

In 1967, the Plowden report on primary education in England, regarded as the bible of progressives and trendies, considered the merits of “flexibility in the curriculum”: “When a class of seven-year-olds notice the birds that come to the bird table outside the classroom window, they may decide, after discussion with their teacher, to make their own aviary . . . paint the birds in flight, make models of them . . . write stories and poems about them.” Now, it is left to a Norfolk parent, “mother-of-six Shelly Betts, 43” (as the Mail calls her), to suggest that “they could have turned the snow into a science lesson”. Make that woman education secretary, I say.


Hacks’ hustings

Though the final decision will not be made by them, Guardian journalists ballot later this month on who should be their next editor. The candidates have not been named but are said to include one external applicant, probably Ian Katz, a former deputy editor who is now editing BBC2’s Newsnight without (if we believe the ratings) conspicuous success. The world, the hacks clearly believe, waits with bated breath: they spent much of their last meeting discussing whether the hustings should be streamed live over the internet.


Where do left-footers stand?

British Roman Catholics often seem reluc­tant to relinquish the victim status they held for several hundred years. During a debate about unqualified teachers on BBC1’s Question Time, Cristina Odone, the former NS deputy editor and professional left-footer, protested when Labour’s education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, mentioned nuns. Poor Hunt, accused of denigrating Catholics, was caught in a mini Twitter storm. But what Odone had just said was that unqualified teachers at Catholic schools she attended “taught values, not British values . . . real values”. Hunt, I think, was trying to say that these teachers were nuns who taught Catholic doctrine. A good point, but he would have done better to ask why Odone was denigrating British values. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

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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.