Smurthwaite, whose comedy gig at Goldsmiths University was cancelled yesterday.
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Why did Goldsmiths comedy society cancel Kate Smurthwaite's gig?

Safe spaces and security concerns. 

On Sunday evening, a London university's comedy society cancelled a gig. The organiser had received some complaints about the chosen comedian, and there were rumours that a feminist society might picket outside the event. So the organiser posted a cancellation notice on the group's Facebook event. Only around 35 people had clicked "attending".

Is this newsworthy? On its own, no, not really. But the Goldsmiths comedy society's decision to cancel the show of feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite fits neatly into an ongoing debate about universities and who they allow to speak there, and for that reason, Twitter went mad:

So what actually happened?

The event was to be the last stop of Smurthwaite's tour, "Leftie Cock Womble", which focused on the subject of free speech (the irony of which hasn't escaped the cancellation's critics). On Sunday afternoon, Smurthwaite mentioned the possiblity that students may picket the event to the head of the comedy society. That night, the gig was cancelled.

In her message to the event's attendees, the head of the comedy society cited complaints from students about Smurthwaite's "position on sex work, religion and Trans issues," and the "possibility of a picket line".  In a separate statement released today through the Student Union, she says:

Despite many complaints from students about the content of Kate’s act in the past we were planning to go ahead with the gig until Kate told me 24 hours before that there was likely to be a picket with lots of students and non students outside the venue. I couldn’t verify this. Up to this point we had only sold 8 tickets so I decided to pull the plug.

There is some confusion here. According to Smurthwaite, the organiser said the Student Union's security raised concerns about their ability to deal with protesters, but this hasn't made it into any of the comedy club's statements about the cancellation (we have approached the organiser and SU President for comment on this). Equally, while only eight tickets were told, the event was offered free to members of the Comedy and Feminist societies, so it's reasonable to assume that more than eight would have shown up.

That aside, Smurthwaite's politics and the content of her comedy seems to have been the main bone of contention. Smurthwaite is vocal about her support for the Nordic model of sex work, in which paying for sex is criminalised. When I spoke to her today, she said this was probably the "main disagreement" she had with Goldsmiths students (this particular show didn't actually contain any mention of prostitution). However, the organiser also cited her views on "religion and Trans issues", which Smurthwaite is far less happy about:

I have never performed at, hosted or organised an event that excluded trans people.  I've been working on a sitcom about trans people with a friend who is trans. I'm very involved in trans rights... I think countries that force women to wear the burqua are an absolute outrage, and I will fight back against them all day, but I don't have a political view on women who choose to wear a scarf - I don't think that's any of my business. 

In the organiser's cancellation notice, she notes that given Smurthwaite's views, and the potential picket line, "there is a likeliness that the Safe Space policy we abide by could be breached". Here, she's referring to a Student Union policy stating that societies' events must be a "safe space" for all students. This means that all students must be able to attend, but it also, the policy continues, means societies must create "an accepting and safe environment in which people can experiment with what they do and who they are".

In fact, the Smurthwaite gig was organised jointly by the feminist and comedy societies, and the feminist society held a meeting to decide whether they should cancel the event long before the final cancellation. The head of the society says that they voted against cancelling the gig, but decided to film the event to make sure it didn't violate the Union's safe space policy (the society has since tweeted that it had "nothing to do with" Sunday's cancellation).

In line with National Union of Students policy, most UK student unions now have "safe space" policies, and this is perhaps what marks universities out in the long-running debate about free speech and how far it stretches. Alongside the NUS's "no-platform" policy (in which it can assert that no student union or officer may give a platform to a specific person), it implies that on campus, students and student societies do more than host guests: they endorse them.

A recent spate of apparent "no-platformings" in individual universities has swung the spotlight towards these policies. In late October, Cardiff students successfully petitioned against a performance by comedian Daniel O'Reilly (better known as Dapper Laughs); shortly after, his ITV show was cancelled. In November, a debate on abortion at Oxford University co-hosted by Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley and organised by a pro-life group was cancelled due to a planned protest by feminist groups - later that week, the Spectator ran a long essay by Brendan O’Neill on the “The Stepford students- the new enemies of free speech”. 

The cases of Smurthwaite, O'Reilly, and the abortion debate  were all beset by similar misconceptions: most commonly, that the universities themselves cancelled  the speakers. In fact the stories are of a society cancelling its own event, a Student Union cancelling a show following a petition, and an Oxford College changing its mind about providing a venue. Each is a case of a small group deciding to cancel an event - not of a university banning an event, or even a no-platforming. 

So students aren't, in any organised or concerted way, enemies of free speech: but there is enormous pressure on event organisers to avoid offence, or even violence, in student-run venues usually governed by NUS guidelines. Smurthwaite argues that she would have loved it if her critics showed up to the show: "Then we could have talked about it, and had a lively discussion". Yet that ideal also relies on enough security to prevent matters getting out of hand, and event organisers happy to deal with controversy and criticism in the pressure cooker that is student politics. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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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.