The next Fame Academy

. . . on a celebrity parliament, cold-calling Labour and the Mongoose

I suppose, when you think about it, government by celebrity is sooner or later inevitable. All parties seek celebrity endorsements at elections, and the other day Gordon Brown attached his name to a letter signed by the likes of Ross Kemp, Eddie Izzard and Phil Neville, imploring people not to vote BNP. It has also become impossible for anybody to consider action on world poverty and disease without assistance from Bob Geldof, Bono, Geri Halliwell, Angelina Jolie or someone similar.

So why not cut out the middleman and just let celebrities get on with it? It is frequently objected that we wouldn’t know what we were voting for because celebrities don’t put forward a programme. But nobody knows what the main parties stand for these days either, and the only reason for supporting David Cameron or Nick Clegg is that they look vaguely like the man next door (if you live on a Barratt estate, that is).

As well as Esther Rantzen and Joanna Lumley, the names mentioned include Terry Waite, Richard Branson, the thriller writer Robert Harris and, as an electrician in Bromsgrove rather rudely put it to the Guardian, “even Mark Thomas”, once an NS columnist. None is in the first flush of youth, though my old friend Harris may think he still has a couple more thrillers in him. But retired or disgraced politicians frequently embark on new careers as celebrities, as Neil Hamilton did after his defeat in 1997. I don’t see why celebrities, with their best days behind them, shouldn’t make the reverse journey.

Brrng! Brrng! It is Harriet Harman, not, as I thought for a self-aggrandising nanosecond, ringing to seek the advice of an NS columnist, but in the form of a recorded message. For another nanosecond, I wonder if she will congratulate me, as recorded messages usually do, on winning a prize, perhaps a second home for which an MP has no further use and which I can claim by ringing a premium-rate telephone number.

But she wishes to thank me for my “continuing support for Labour”, assure me “tough action” is being taken on expenses, and command me to get out canvassing. I feel guilty about it – because, on the whole, I approve of her politics – but Harriet has always reminded me of a Stepford wife and her disembodied voice only reinforces this shameful prejudice.

If she does it too often, I fear, she will remind people who had forgotten they were Labour members to cancel their standing orders. Apart from attending the odd constituency meeting, where I keep quiet, I haven’t bothered the Labour Party for years. It would be wise for it to leave me alone, while gratefully banking my £6 monthly subscription.

I have always found the names of building societies – West Bromwich, Stroud, Bradford, Bingley, Skipton, Cheltenham, Halifax, and so on – oddly comforting. Like the names of football teams read out on Saturday afternoon radio, they suggested stable landmarks, historical continuity and regular habits. I envisaged men in Burton suits and solid spectacles carefully entering cash transactions into big black ledgers before travelling home, brown briefcases in hand, to semi-detached houses where they ate fresh meat and veg bought at the town’s weekly market.

My first savings account, as well as my first mortgage, was with the Leicester Temperance building society, which my friends thought hilariously inappropriate. Now, half a dozen or so mergers later, it has been subsumed, without trace of the Leicester name, into Santander, along with Abbey and Bradford & Bingley. It is small consolation that Santander – unlike Aviva, which has axed the Norwich Union name – takes its name from a real Spanish port. Thanks to my ancient association with the Leicester Temperance, I now own Santander shares and a small savings account there, but I don’t like to think of my money being an overnight ferry-ride away. I also suspect, being a multinational, they’ll be doing something funny with it.

At least Leicester City Football Club still exists, even though it is owned by a Serb and might as well be called Red Star Belgrade, for all the connection it has with its locality.

Here is my proposal for saving the car industry while also helping the planet. First, abolish tax on all car sales and insurance. Second, subsidise sales of new cars, provided they meet with green requirements, which should be increased annually. Third, reduce the annual road fund licence fee to £5. Fourth, recoup lost revenue and the cost of subsidies from increased fuel duty and congestion charging.

The cost of owning a car would then be far lower, but the cost of using it would be much steeper. In considering a journey, motorists would first ask themselves if it was really necessary and, second, see public transport more often as a rational alternative. Whereas, at present, if you have gone to the expense of buying, licensing and insuring a car, it is economic madness not to use it as often as possible, rather as it would be for an MP to own a second home but put in no expenses claims for it. The more I think of my proposal, the more elegant it seems. But, then, I am a lifelong non-motorist.

A new cricket bat called the Mongoose offers 20 per cent more power, according to the manufacturers. It has already been used in a county Twenty20 match and will no doubt be seen again in the Twenty20 World Cup, which has just started.

I hope it can be confined to the shortest form of the game, where crowds live in the hope of seeing the ball hit out of the ground. In Test matches, it would make the struggle between bat and ball even more unequal than it already is. The game’s authorities have long favoured the batsmen, mainly because they don’t like matches to finish early, requiring them to refund ticket sales and leaving their TV paymasters with unfilled schedules. But I am convinced that it is also because, historically, most bowlers came from working-class backgrounds.

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.

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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.