New figures show that women labourers make up the majority of zero hour contracts in the UK. Photo: Getty
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Why women are the worst affected by zero hours contracts

Zero hours contracts are widely used in the care sector, where women make up the majority of the workforce.

The measure of a society is found in how it treats its weakest and most helpless citizens, we often say.

But how about the way it treats those looking after its weakest citizens?

New figures show that women labourers make up the majority of zero hour contracts in the United Kingdom. To a large degree this can be explained by how wide spread the use of this form of employment has become in the care sector, a part of the labour market dominated by women. 

Research for the Low Pay Commission found that nearly 60 per cent of domiciliary care sector workers are on zero hour contracts. This form of employment requires you to be available for work, but your employer is under no obligation to provide it.

In domiciliary care zero hour contracts have been common for over a decade and is currently the predominant form of employment. It’s often a matter of no choice for workers.

You either accept it, or you don’t have a job. 

Receiving the National Minimum Wage for care work is also not guaranteed since employers do not always adequately cover travel time between clients.

Interestingly it seems that it is employers in the voluntary sector (34 per cent) and the public sector (24 per cent) that are more likely to use these contracts, not private sector employers (17 per cent). However private companies that deliver publicly funded services, mainly in health, social care and education, also commonly use them.

Zero hour contracts are not just about businesses trying to make more money and have flexibility on their terms, but charities with mission statements about doing good and the public sector which cares for our parents, our children and our sick.

Austerity is naturally part of the explanation for the rise of these contracts but not the whole story, as mentioned before they have been common in care for over a decade.

The fact that women are the majority of workers on zero hour contracts should however not come as a surprise. Care work, in almost any labour market in the world is performed by an insecure, vulnerable and largely female work force.

Traditionally care was conducted in the home. Based on empathy, love and nurturing, it was seen as a complement to the harsh male world of market competition and money.  Care was something women did out of love and because they simply were female. It was their gentle nature in action. It had nothing to do with money, the story went.

When care moved out of the home and into the hospitals, nurseries and retirement homes, this idea remained strong. To take care of others was something one did because one was a good person. Not because one wanted a career or to earn a living.

It is telling that many of the first nurses were nuns who had sworn an oath of poverty.

The logic remains with us today.

Professional nurses, carers and child minders are simply extending their natural family role as nurturers, we believe on some level. Therefore they do not need to be paid very well for doing it.  It’s not a real job, at least not in the same way as many men’s jobs. It doesn’t require training or skills in the same way.

“Anyone can do it.”

At least any women.

The problem is that care is a real job. A very important one. Just look at the research into children’s early years: about how brain sensitivity to language, numeracy, social skills and emotional control all peak before the age of four. The care children get during the first four years of their life determines their success more than most other things. How can we know this and at the same time treat child care as a job anyone can do? How can we not make the investments in steady, consistent and well-educated members of staff? We know it will save society money down the line. It costs a lot more to try to make up for what children lose during these early years later, than to simply fix it then.   

To look after the elderly and the sick also requires skill and it requires time. The rise of zero hour contracts means that vulnerable and disabled people increasingly receive care in short fragments, sometime just fifteen minutes. It’s not enough to meet basic human needs. And not being able to do a good job puts tremendous stress on the work force in this sector.

Zero hour contracts is a women’s issue. It’s also an issue about what we value in society and why. What is seen as a real job and what is not. Who’s contribution is considered important and who’s considered doing something “anyone can do”.

Should this really be how we treat those who look after our most vulnerable citizens?

And what does that say about us?

Katrine Marçal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?: A Story About Women and Economics is published by Portobello Books today (5 March).

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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.