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Leader: Beveridge 70 years on - the welfare challenge

The welfare state was much more than an artefact of one man’s genius.

Few reputations in British political history are as apparently unsullied as that of William Beveridge, whose report Social Insurance and Allied Services was published 70 years ago this week. In a newspaper article in February, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith,  defended his Welfare Reform Bill (the bill passed into law on 8 March) thus: “Beveridge’s vision of the welfare state was one of a safety net, a system that prevented people from falling into poverty at times of difficulty, but that expected people to do all they could to work. Want and squalor were giant evils, but so too was idleness.”

Mr Duncan Smith claims that the new Universal Credit, which will replace the current and complex system of benefits and tax credits with a single benefit phased out gradually as earnings increase, will “make work pay for the first time”.

The architect of the postwar welfare state, Beveridge was also a skilled promoter of his own plan. He understood that the energies and unity of popular purpose harnessed in wartime could be put in the service of a just peace. “We shall be united in combined attack on tyranny and savagery abroad,” he declared in one public address, “and on Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness at home.” The Labour MP Richard Crossman, editor of the New Statesman from 1970-72, was right when he said, in 1952, that the welfare state (and the National Health Service in particular) was a “by-product of the Blitz”. What it wasn’t, however, was an artefact of one man’s genius.

Beveridge’s vision for a national system of social security that would offer protection to all citizens “from the cradle to the grave” built on the achievements of the great reforming Liberal government of 1906-11 (Beveridge was a Liberal), which introduced health and unemployment insurance and old-age pensions. It owed much to the work of the founders of this publication, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, particularly the former’s contribution to the Minority report on the Poor Law in 1909, which argued that it was the duty of the state to “secure a national minimum of civilised life open to all alike”. For the Webbs, the Poor Law undermined the very qualities of independence and self-respect that its proponents claimed to want to foster because it demanded that the recipients of public assistance be poorer than the poorest person in work. Such was reality for those condemned to the workhouse. Beveridge excluded means tests from his social security plan for the same reason.

Beveridge and Clement Attlee, whose Labour government passed the National Insurance Act of 1946, regarded welfare entitlements as being earned through contributions made. Speaking for the legislation in parliament, Attlee said that it was “designed not for one class” – not just for the poor, in other words – but “for all”. However, decades of “reform” have undermined the contributory principle and with it the idea that the welfare state is an expression of common citizenship rather than a pot from which people take as much as they dare.

The new Welfare Reform Act entrenches means testing, which Beveridge abhorred. In cutting tax credits and child benefits, it affects those very “strivers” whose readiness to “play by the rules” the government’s reforms are supposed to reward. Mr Duncan Smith was right that Beveridge regarded idleness, as well as want, as an evil to be overcome. That is why he insisted that “employment security” is as important as “income security”. But the failure of the government’s Work Programme, shown in figures released on 27 November by the Department for Work and Pensions, suggests that we are a long way from slaying that particular “giant”.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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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.