A love-in with the luvvies

The celeb-on-celeb interview is back, and as you'd expect, it's a cosy affair

Chain Reaction Radio 4

Imagine: the Secret of Life BBC1

How's this for a joke? Alan Yentob on self-help books. Yes, I know. I was in hysterics, too. Like he needs them. But I guess it was one way of dealing with the whole "noddie" controversy: rather than sending someone else to do interviews on his behalf and then naughtily inserting shots of himself later, this film (broadcast 19 February, 10.35pm) gave him a perfect excuse to appear in every frame.

Even when he wasn't actually talking to a guru, there he was, staring at the London skyline, acting mildly bewildered, or sitting on the floor surrounded by piles of paperbacks. I do think, however, that he might have tried to make these "at home" scenes a little more convincing. At one point, a look of studied befuddlement on his cherubic face, he pondered a copy of He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. Alan! This book is for girls: the clue is in the title.

Am I being mean? Not really. Let's leave Yentob, the super-networked creative director of the BBC, out of it for a moment (though I bet I wasn't the only viewer who read it as a statement of fact rather than intent when he wrote "I am connected" on a Post-it note and stuck it to his mirror). Self-help books are hardly unfamiliar territory; if you're going to make a film about them, you must either be madly incisive and witty, or deliver some hot new angle. This was just a greatest hits.

Yentob and his team used as their peg the success of The Secret, a DVD and subsequent book that has sold five million copies in the United States (the secret in question is the "law of attraction" that runs like a "golden thread" through the universe; open yourself to this law, and you'll attract success like fluff to a dark sweater). Yentob met one of the 24 contributors to The Secret, pronounced himself smitten with "positive vibrations", and then set off on a US tour, during which he wore sunglasses and met all the usual suspects, including Susan "Feel the Fear" Jeffers and Anthony "Fire Walker" Robbins.

These encounters drove me nuts: first, because Yentob was so uncritical, and second because he appeared to be trying out their techniques ("I can handle it," he wrote in the sand of a California beach after Jeffers told him her exceedingly dull mantra) without ever explaining why. Is he anxious? Demotivated? Searching for meaning in his life? And if so, what implications does this have for the bit of our licence fee that goes on his whopping salary? He wasn't saying.

Worse, when he got round to interviewing someone who really does use self-help books, who should it be but Amy Jenkins, writer of This Life. Why couldn't Yentob have talked to someone non-media? Perhaps there's no one non-media in his address book. Jenkins, with whom he wandered on what looked like Hampstead Heath, wittered on about how much she loves the first line of M Scott Peck's The Road Less Travelled - "Life is difficult." She might just as well have been talking about Jilly Cooper or Jane Austen. Her dog was nice, though.

The psychotherapist Adam Phillips was predictably down on self-help, though he was not much cheerier about analysis; when it comes to dealing with life, said Phillips, "nothing works". David Burns, the cognitive behavioural therapy pioneer, also put in an appearance, but we never got to the bottom of how CBT works, despite Yentob telling us that Burns's books have even been prescribed to psychiatric patients by doctors at the Maudsley Hospital in London.

By now, the water was not just muddy, it was as silted as the Thames itself. Lumping together the work of a professor of psychiatry, such as Burns, with that of a motivational speaker like Robbins is not only dumb, it's probably dangerous, too. And what conclusions did Yentob draw from his odyssey? "There's more to it than I thought," he announced, on his return from a Buddhist retreat. He did not elaborate on this, but he did unfurl a very nice scroll given to him by his Zen master. "I have arrived," it said. "I am home." Oh, Alan, dear: you arrived years ago. Everyone knows that.

Pick of the week

The Woman Who Stops Traffic
Starts 26 February, 9pm, Channel 4
Gridlock in a market town, and one woman’s crusade against it.

The Hard Sell
Starts 26 February, 10.30pm, BBC4
Series showing what 50 years of TV has done to us. It’s not good.

27 February, 10.35pm, ITV1
(Mildly) controversial US import whose hero is a serial killer.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn

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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.