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Leader: The Prime Minister’s posturing on Europe threatens our future

There is no evidence that any EU member is willing to allow Britain to pick and choose which laws it obeys.

“England is, indeed, insular and maritime, linked by her trade, her markets and her food supplies to diverse and often far-flung countries . . . How then could England, as she lives, as she produces, as she trades, be incorporated into the Common Market as it was conceived and as it works?” – Charles de Gaulle

It was in the belief that the United Kingdom could never be a good European that Charles de Gaulle vetoed its application for membership of the European Economic Community in 1963. Since it belatedly joined the EEC in January 1973, the UK has often appeared determined to fulfil his prophecy. Unlike France and Germany, the country has never subscribed to the principle of “ever closer union” and has sought to limit integration at every turn.

Yet, for decades, whatever their reservations, Conservative and Labour prime ministers alike have argued that Britain’s national interest lies in sustained engagement with the European project. It was Margaret Thatcher, now lionised by Eurosceptics, who signed the integrationist Single European Act in 1987 and declared in her speech in Bruges the following year, “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.” As the Conservative former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd observed in last week’s New Statesman, “It has been an unspoken principle of British foreign policy since the days of Castlereagh that we should be present whenever Europeans discuss matters that could affect vital British interests.”

This tradition of patient, pragmatic engagement is now threatened by David Cameron’s crude unilateralism. The Prime Minister did not want his premiership to be defined by Europe. In 2009, he declared: “The to-do list for the next government is long and daunting. That is why I know that if we win that election, we cannot afford to waste time having a row with Europe.” Yet under pressure from his restive backbenchers and the increasingly popular UK Independence Party, he has lurched into rejectionism.

As we went to press, Mr Cameron had not delivered his long-delayed address on the EU but his strategy was already in evidence. On the assumption that he wins a majority at the next election (an outcome that is increasingly unlikely), the Prime Minister will seek to use the negotiations over the future shape of the eurozone to repatriate powers from Brussels. Once this process is complete, he will hold a referendum offering voters a choice between what he calls “a new settlement” for Britain and withdrawal. The promise of a referendum may succeed in temporarily assuaging Conservative MPs and in limiting the electoral threat from Ukip, while also putting Labour and the Liberal Democrats under pressure to match his offer. But the Prime Minister’s strategy, driven by partisan, rather than national considerations, risks great losses for uncertain gains.

Even if the changes to the eurozone are formalised through a new treaty, an option that Germany appears increasingly reluctant to pursue, there is no evidence that any EU member is willing to allow Britain to pick and choose which laws it obeys. The UK enjoys opt-outs from the single currency (rightly so, as we have long argued) and the Schengen Agreement on free movement. As Britain was never a member of either to begin with, however, this is not a precedent for repatriation. Were the EU to grant the UK special treatment, the single market would soon unravel as other member states made similarly self-interested demands.

The danger for the Prime Minister is that, having promised a “fundamental change” in Britain’s relationship with the EU, he will struggle to persuade his party and the public that it is in our interests to remain a member if he fails to deliver. Withdrawal from the EU would, as Mr Cameron concedes, damage our economic prosperity and diminish our global influence. Economists have estimated that the UK would suffer a permanent loss of 2.25 per cent of GDP and the US has declared that it wants to see “a strong British voice” in the EU. The wishful thinking of those Eurosceptics who have long cited the “special relationship” with Washington as an alternative to active EU membership has been exposed. Indeed, the former is increasingly dependent on the latter.

We have no illusions about the flaws of the EU. It is too opaque in its decision-making, too wasteful in its spending and too remote from its citizens. We have never supported UK membership of the eurozone. Yet reform will be secured through sustained engagement and shrewd alliance-building, not bald demands for repatriation.

Mr Cameron is sincere when he says he wishes the UK to remain a member of the EU but the path he has chosen risks leading to withdrawal.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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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.