Trains and classes

During the Second World War, the novelist J B Priestley was seen as the national voice of common sen

The New Statesman

25 July 1942

During the last two years I have made an enormous number of train journeys all over the country. Except on short journeys, I usually travel first-class, not because I think of myself as belonging to a section of society that needs special carriages, but for the following reasons. I am a fairly bulky man and find the space allotted to me in a third-class carriage painfully inadequate after the first hour or two; I have as a rule some tiring job to do immediately I arrive at my destination; and I am pressed for time, and wish if possible to spend some of my hours in the train doing some necessary reading, making notes, preparing a speech or a broadcast. There may be an element of self-indulgence in all this, but on the whole I think my choice can be defended on functional grounds.

All this travelling has made me into an authority on the present wild muddle about first- and third-class compartments. I have seen the first-class carriages on empty trains successfully invaded by unchallenged holders of third-class tickets. I have seen people who had- no white tickets kept out of half-empty firsts when the rest of the train was packed. I have stood for hours in the corridor, holding a first-class ticket, when the firsts were obviously filled with green-ticket holders. I have seen, in one compartment on a single journey, one person compelled to pay the extra fare, and another person left in peace without any such demand. I have seen people put into firsts and other people turned out of them. I have overheard hundreds of people telling each other that now in wartime there is no difference between firsts and thirds. I have also heard much argument, a great deal of bewildered or bitter comment, and mutterings that suggested that the class war was in sight.

Notice that this does not happen elsewhere. The half-crown seats at the cinema are not suddenly invaded by people who have bought shilling seats. There are no bitter arguments at the entrance to the grandstands of football grounds. Grocers do not find themselves handing over three-shilling tins of salmon to customers who have paid for one-and-sixpenny tins. The haberdasher who sells two different qualities of shirts, collars and socks is not made to feel that he is exacerbating the class struggle. It is only in trains that there is this trouble. And it is only since the war began that the railway companies have had to face it.

What is the reason? First, of course, that there is a genuine muddle, due to the working of an uneasy compromise, no definite line having been drawn between first- and third-class travel. But this does not explain the bitterness. We must find another reason for this resentment, and after much observation and some thought I feel that I have discovered it. And it seems to me to have some importance because it shows what is happening in the public mind.

Briefly, then, I believe that the trouble is caused by the particular terms that are used. If the railway companies sold Big Seats and Little Seats (which is what the difference really amounts to), I do not think there would be any of this resentment, just as there is no resentment at the differently priced and situated seats in the cinema. What does the mischief is simply the use of the term Class in this connection. It suggests that first—class carriages are reserved for a different kind of people, just as in our army we still suggest that officers are a different kind of men from those in the ranks. It is this—and not the fact that some persons are ready to pay more for bigger seats—that so many of our people resent. They do not say so, of course, and probably do not know exactly what it is that is arousing their resentment, but after overhearing hundreds of mumblings and mutterings, I am convinced that this is the reason. There is, for example, a certain sort of large, loud- voiced, well-to-do woman who arrives majestically, almost bellowing that she is First-Class, who instantly becomes the target of their criticism. They feel instinctively that she considers herself to belong to another and higher order of humanity, and that the railway company is encouraging her in that belief.

It is worth noticing here that concerns that cater most successfully for the people are careful to avoid any suggestion of this class difference. Thus in all but the very newest theatres there are carpeted stairs for the stalls and dress circle, and horrible stone steps and grimy walls up to thç gallery, plainly suggesting two different kinds of patrons. But in the large cinemas, run by men who understand the contemporary public, thi suggestion is carefully avoided. Seats are sold at different prices, to suit individual tastes and pockets, but the arrangements are such as to suggest that all the patrons are roughly the same kind of people. It is the same with the popular catering establishments, big stores, and so on. They already have the air of existing in a classless sdciety, socially if not economically.

This railway affair is comparatively unimportant, except perhaps to ticket inspectors, who always look worried. But it shows how the wind is blowing. This growing resentment of Class by the men in the Forces and the industrial workers is a fact. It remains a fact whether you approve or disapprove of it. You cannot argue it away, any more than you can argue Rommel out of the Libyan Desert. And there is an obvious danger in pretending it is not there.

The people who more and more resent this idea of Class have no particular passion for equality. They are not on the look-out for other people’s privileges. Most of them are born hero-worshippers. Mr. Churchill can have a couple of special trains, for all they care. But they seem to me to have suddenly decided—and, I fancy, once and for all—that they are heartily sick of class divisions that have no relation to personal merit or public responsibility. The old evidence for inequality and privilege is not good enough. The assumption that it is makes them angry or derisive. Neither of these moods is good for the war effort, nor for that national unity we hear so much about from the Tory back benches.

Meanwhile, what about Big Seats and Little Seats, Wide and Narrow, Hard and Soft, anything but First-Class and Third-Class?

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire

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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.