George Pitcher: The week I was fired by the nicest man I know

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s outgoing PR adviser, George Pitcher, writes the NS diary.

Can of canapés

Journalists and friends - and sometimes friends who are journalists - have been calling, asking if I've been defenestrated from Lambeth Palace, where I've been secretary for public affairs this past year. The line is that I'm returning to journalism, which is true, but the suddenness of my departure has attracted attention, and I've told colleagues I won't lie.

I feel like Stig, the spiv in Monty Python's extended Piranha Brothers sketch (not the boring Top Gear driver). George, we understand the Archbishop of Canterbury has fired you? "Nah, never." But we have a video of the archbishop sacking you. (Pause.) "Yeah, well, 'e done that. But I had to beg 'im to do it. After all, I'd transgressed the unwritten code."

In this case, the unwritten code is that you don't work for the Archbishop of Canterbury and get quoted in a national newspaper diary column saying that he physically attacked a female Catholic commentator at a drinks party, even in jest. Actually, especially in jest. It suited some coalitionistas to suggest that I'd been fired for organising the archbishop's guest edit of this magazine. But that was a triumph (as anyone who read it will attest).

Here's the truth: I got stitched up by the Telegraph's Mandrake column, which reported my schoolboy allusion to the archbishop's drinks-party ruck over the canapés with Cristina Odone (google it if you must). I was the archbishop's placeman with No 10 and he can't live in fear that I might say something similarly stupid about the way the PM runs the country (as if). So, to coin a phrase, this time my resignation was accepted.

Give me the Self-Preservation Society
That Mandrake column appeared a year to the day after I was fired by the new regime at the Telegraph. A pattern is developing: every third week of June, the Telegraph shafts me. Next year, I'll try to be with our Italian family in the approach to the summer solstice. I'll look forward to the relatively civilising influence of Berlusconi's newspapers.

Last November, Will Lewis, who had hired me at the Telegraph but then moved to News International, phoned to chew my ear off over the Church of England's opposition to his new employer's bid for BSkyB. Nigel McCulloch, Bishop of Manchester, and his fellow "media bishops" had taken the highly unusual step of opposing the takeover, citing concerns about media plurality. Talk about ahead of the curve.

Back in those days, it was a brave and foolhardy thing to do - indeed, by an amazing coincidence, the News of the World ran a story the following Sunday about the Church's "secret list of sinning vicars". A few days later, I told Gordon Brown about this at the foot of the grand staircase in Lambeth Palace, when he was in. He looked grave and said there could be no proper political discourse until News International was sorted out. Job done, Gordon.

Garden of plinthly delights
To Highgrove for a little light relief from squashed canapés, tagging along with Shona and Ian Anderson, the enduring composer and conductor of the folk-rock legend Jethro Tull, and his fellow musicians and their partners. The band played Canterbury Cathedral last Christmas and, despite ten inches of snow in an hour and a half just before the gig, they packed the place and made a pretty penny for its restor­ation appeal. So HRH, as patron, wants to say thank you. We tour the gardens, full of nooks and crownies, reaching parts that other tourists can't reach because we have one of the prince's confidant-insiders hosting us.

At one point, we admire the Gate of the Worthies, which has busts of people the Prince of Wales admires across its plinth. I recognise one as Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, because I'm a lowly priest under his authority. Asked to identify his bust, one of our number offers: "Lenin?" Back in London, I relate this to the bishop, not best known as a Bolshevik, and he tells me he was once offered work as a Lenin lookalike. Which just goes to show, as the coalition keeps telling us, you can't judge a person's politics by what they look like.

The human touch
I'll miss being close to Rowan Williams. Everyone talks about his intellect, but there's so much more that flows from that, which is what my friend and colleague Tim Livesey, who worked at the Foreign Office before moving to Lambeth Palace, calls "world-class". I've seen him deliver an hour-long lecture to hundreds without a single written note or a beat of hesitation.

In Kenya recently, he was struggling to be understood at a press conference, so he switched to French. He writes faster than any journalist
I know, and better than most. He says deeply unfashionable things - viz: sharia, Osama, his critique of British politics here in the NS - and in doing so makes unpopular opinions respect­able. But the human stuff, too, is impressive. He replies personally and at length to very many of the letters that arrive from the lonely, sad and desperate. He connects most readily with young people. When the Telegraph thing blew up, his first concern was for me. He is sparse, unsentimental and very funny.

And the word was God
So it was with heavy heart that I went to the Garrick Club for supper after we'd terminated. Opposite me were Tom and Harry. They asked why I had a long face. I said I had my son's speech-day speech to deliver at Battle Abbey School in Sussex, where I'd just been made a governor, and I didn't know what to say (which was partly true). "I've got one for you," said Harry, whom I suddenly recognised as Harry Hill. "What's God backwards?" "Dog," said Tom Courtenay (for it was he). "What's Jesus backwards?" We blanked. "Susej!" said Harry. "Dog. Susej. Coincidence? I don't think so. Up yours, Richard Dawkins!"

So I used it as my opener at Battle Abbey. The children laughed, but I don't think the dean of Battle was amused. Story of my life.

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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.