Canada’s Genghis Khan, newspaper regulation and Ukip’s “bastard” vote

Has George Osborne appointed a closet lefty to run the Bank of England? According to the Mailand Telegraph, Mark Carney’s British wife, Diana, has expressed support for the Occupy movement, described inequality as “the defining issue of our time” and called global financial institutions “rotten or inadequate”.

In reality, in the article from which these charges are derived, she is a bit sniffy about Occupy and its highlighting of the 1 per cent (“The grass is always greener on the other side”); quotes Barack Obama on inequality as a defining issue and says that, to her, climate change is bigger; and merely states that she “perceives a fear” about the global financial system. So not terribly left-wing – New Labour-ish at most, I’d say. Besides, she met her husband on the hockey field. They probably talk sports at breakfast, not politics.

As for Carney himself, he’s looking forward to “ensuring that the rebalancing of the UK economy . . . is seen through over the next five years”. In other words (unless he means “seen through” in another sense), he’s right behind public-sector cuts. On another occasion, he stated: “Globalised product, capital and labour markets lie at the heart of the new world order to which we should aspire.” Which suggests he not only wants money to continue sloshing around the world – leaving large deposits in bankers’ pockets – but would like it to slosh a bit more.

It’s true that, as Chrystia Freeland vividly describes in her book Plutocrats, Carney once clashed publicly with Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase, putting him in what Freeland calls a “radical” position. Yet only in the sense, I think, that Genghis Khan may have been more radical than Vlad the Impaler.

Small wonder

Carney’s appointment presumably puts him into any list of top ten well-known Canadians, probably alongside Lord Beaverbrook, Roy Thomson, Conrad Black, Margaret Atwood, J K Galbraith, Marshall McLuhan, Michael Ignatieff, Céline Dion and Leonard Cohen. That doesn’t seem a bad list for a country that had a population of less than ten million in the 1920s (34 million now) but, in the leagues of dullest countries, Canada is usually up there with Belgium. I once discovered a “free school” in Toronto, long before Michael Gove had thought of such things. It held classes in museums, parks and other public spaces and its pupils spent many hours on the subway. I filed the story to my then editor. “What a very interesting story,” he gasped. “In Canada of all places!”

Pineapple express

A competitive market, we are told, is our best guarantee of a press that is both free and responsible. If we don’t like a newspaper’s behaviour or opinions, we can buy another. Suppose, then, that you’d like to read a newspaper that favours either independent regulation with statutory underpinning or direct statutory regulation (which are different things, though you wouldn’t believe it from most of what you read). Sorry: though polls show that the overwhelming majority of Britons don’t trust the press to regulate itself, all national newspapers oppose any form of statutory involvement. As greengrocers used to say when asked for a pineapple or something similarly exotic, “No demand for it, guv.”

Ukip if you want to

Is the removal of three children from Ukipsupporting foster parents by the Labour-controlled Rotherham Council part of a clever plot?

Labour must be tempted to do everything it can to strengthen the party, albeit in a very discreet, roundabout way. Ukip routinely takes votes from natural Tory supporters who don’t consider David Cameron right-wing or anti- Europe enough but, in 2015, it will also get the “bastard” vote, which is the term I use for those who want to protest against “all those bastards” in power. That vote usually goes to the Lib Dems but, to many voters, they are now the biggest bastards of all.

The bastard vote is particularly large when a government seems unable to control events but the failings of its predecessor are still fresh in the public mind: the Liberals (as they then were) got the biggest leap in their vote (from 7.5 to 19.3 per cent) in February 1974, when Edward Heath called an election during miners’ industrial action less than four years after ousting Labour from office.

Labour has long suffered from splits on the left. A split on the right is rare – you’d have to go back to 1918 for a precedent – and, I should think, very welcome to Ed Miliband.

No fair cop

I rarely meet police officers socially but, when I do, I am usually alarmed. It was no surprise when one told me the other night that she favoured capital punishment. However, when I put counterarguments that I thought would appeal to her – juries would be more reluctant to convict, for example – she interrupted: “I don’t just mean for murder.” Gulp. Who else would she hang? “Shoplifters.”

As I understood her, she would extend mercy to first- and even second-time offenders. So I don’t think she was joking.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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.