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The Mr Men game

Richard J Evans challenges Michael Gove’s history agenda.

On 9 May, I had the dubious privilege of being mentioned by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, in a speech in which he attacked critics of his proposed national curriculum for history. Launching his argument, he listed 12 distinguished historians who, he said, supported the changes he wanted to introduce. Three of them live in the United States. Others are freelance writers. Only three of them are actually involved in teaching students history at British universities, and two out of those are associated with an obscure right-wing Conservative think tank called Politeia, on whose board of advisers sits none other than Gove. Another of these historians, Chris Skidmore, is a Tory MP and former Gove adviser.

As for myself, David Priestland and Sir David Cannadine, the only three critics of his proposals he chose to name, we were accused of failing to appreciate “how history is being taught in many of our schools now”. However, Gove neglected to mention the best account available of this subject – the March 2011 Ofsted report History for All, which was based on an inspection of history teaching in 166 schools across England. It found that history was in good health and that its popularity at GCSE was not in meltdown, contrary to what Skidmore has repeatedly alleged. Students, the report went on, particularly liked the opportunity that classes gave them to find things out for themselves and to make up their own minds about particular issues.

None of this is palatable to Gove: he condemned “group work in which students talk to each other”, because such “outdated” ways of learning are, he contended, designed to “conform to a particular pattern to pass muster with the inspectors”. And, he insisted, “. . . facts, stories, chronology, a connected narrative and a focus on great men and women can inspire and engage students of all backgrounds”.

In March this year, in an article in the Mail on Sunday, Gove complained that “survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance” among schoolchildren. What were these surveys? A retired teacher, Janet Downs, obtained details through a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Education. It emerged that Gove’s sources included only one properly conducted poll, carried out by Lord Ashcroft to mark the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in London. The rest, including a poll carried out by the hotel chain Premier Inn, was either amateurish, politically biased or irrelevant. “Premier Inn’s survey,” Downs noted, “was a marketing exercise taken at face value by gullible journalists. The Politeia study wasn’t a survey and the final two were articles about surveys. An internet search found no details of either.”

Gove devoted another part of his speech to attacking the way in which children are being “infantilised” by teachers who encourage them to learn history through Mr Men characters and Disney films. He went on: “I may be unfamiliar with all of Roger Hargreaves’s work, but I am not sure he ever got round to producing Mr Anti-Semitic Dictator, Mr Junker General or Mr Dutch Communist Scapegoat. But I am familiar with the superb historical account Richard J Evans gives of the rise, rule and ruin of the Third Reich and I cannot believe he could possibly be happy with reducing the history of Germany’s darkest years to a falling-out between Mr Tickle and Mr Topsy-Turvy.”  

Thanks for the compliment, Michael. But is this stuff being taught in British schools? It is not. The Mr Men material was dug up, no doubt by one of Gove’s staff, from the website of the International School of Toulouse, where a teacher, Russel Tarr, taught a course on the rise of Nazism, culminating in a 1,000- word essay. After this, students were asked to imagine that they were teaching the topic to much younger students, perhaps by asking: “If the Weimar Republic was a Mr Men character, which one would it be and why?” I have no problem with this imaginative and challenging use of analogy and metaphor in teaching. As Tarr observed, Gove’s “criticisms betray a lack of knowledge, understanding and interpretation that would make a GCSE history student blush with shame”.

Subjected to precisely the kind of source analysis that Gove wants to banish from history lessons in our schools, his allegations turn out to be a tissue of misrepresentation. If anything’s infantilising, it is Gove’s proposed curriculum, which wants to reduce students to passive recipients of unexamined facts and stories about great men and women. Why, too, does the Secretary of State feel it necessary to keep denigrating the dedicated people who teach history in our schools? Where is his patriotic pride in the historical profession in our country, the best in the world? The recently released QS rankings of university history departments across the globe put Cambridge top, Oxford second and other British universities such as the LSE, UCL and Warwick only a little way behind. We in the universities teach students who overwhelmingly come from the British school system, some of whom in due course become lecturers and researchers, too. So the schools must be doing something right.

At the annual conference this month of the Historical Association, where hundreds of schoolteachers debated the latest educational issues in the field, I noticed a photographer taking shots of participants. As she pointed the camera, she would say a word and her subjects would burst out laughing. I asked her what that word was. “Simple,” she replied. “I just say, ‘Gove!’ ”  

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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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.