Sam gets ready to stand by her pram

There's no escape from media obsession for modern political wives. But it seems they're only too wil

In 1992, a year before her husband became president of the United States, Hillary Clinton accompanied him to a TV interview in which he was quizzed about his alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers. Hillary wore a demure turquoise suit and a black Alice band to hold back her long blonde hair. Then she spoke: "You know, I'm not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I'm sitting here because I love him." She spoke without even the slightest insinuation of a smile.

Hillary appeared to be the ultimate political wife - forced, contrary to her defiant statement, to stand humiliated by her man as the world picked over his "relations" with a string of women. But then she embarked on her own political career. Take that, Tammy!

Perhaps Wynette, if she were still alive, would find more to sing about in Britain. As the leaders' wives are pushed on to the election stage - stepping through the red curtain in their decoratively unobtrusive outfits - you can hear her bawl: "Stand by your man, and show the world you love him."

All this showing. It's why we get "My husband, my hero", courtesy of Sarah Brown. Or, from Samantha Cameron: "So much of the Dave that I first met and fell in love with is Dave the politician." Apart from inflicting a small but persistent wave of nausea on the casual listener, these statements are Wynette enacted, spoken to show the world the full glory of their wifely devotion (note, however, the exception of Miriam González Durántez, wife of Nick Clegg, who deserves a cheer for her response to the label of political wife: "I dislike that name . . . I don't have a role, I'm just married to him."

Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron are intelligent and successful, but for some reason they feel obliged, in the face of a moralising press and a hungry public, to toe a stultifying line. We are loyal wives, they say, proud of our brave husbands. I love him, so you should, too. And the best way of expressing your love, in case you weren't sure, is through the romantic gesture of a vote.

Socks appeal

Although the tender affirmations of affection are squirm-inducing, they are more tolerable than the other trick - the one where the spouses disclose the details of their husbands' naughty habits. These "family life admissions" (or FLAs - as in, Andy Coulson: "Dave, the polls are down again. Can you get Sam to do a couple of FLAs over the weekend to give us a boost?") give us Dave the channel-flicker and BlackBerry-fiddler, "not good at picking up his clothes". As for Gordon, he's messy, noisy and up in the morning "at a terrible hour". They assume a thought process: "Oh look, Gordon Brown is messy. So's my husband. I'll vote for that one, then."

In their portraits of their wayward husbands, Sarah and Samantha morph from doe-eyed idol-worshippers into doughty matrons, ticking off their charges as they crash through the house with their toys and their politics. The wives are the strong ones, binding the family together as the husband saves the world, leaving the inevitable but charming dirty socks in his wake. Strategists in campaign headquarters imagine women across the land (particularly in key marginals) shaking their heads in benevolent recognition and sighing, "Ah, men!"

Oh, spare us all this, can't you? Admittedly there's no escape from media obsession for modern political wives: they make for a better picture than their husbands (how many times can you do an outfit analysis of a suit?). But it seems they're only too willing to feed the monster: the strategic appearances at appropriate fashion shows, the gentle statements of support. Some say it's patronising - a calculated way of appealing to a female voter who is supposedly more interested in shoes than the deficit. Others suggest that it's yet another example of the Americanisation of our politics - hung up on personality and image.

But I'm not sure about this high-minded disapproval. My problem is that it all seems so studied, so dull. It almost makes me miss Cherie Blair with her nightie and poor choice in property advisers. But it's thanks to Cherie, and her outspokenness, that the new tone was set for the modern leader's wife. She wrote the guidebook: How to Make a Prime Minister's Life More Difficult Than It Needs to Be. Having studied it, and burned it, the wives are now carefully hemmed in, speaking only when adulatory and avoiding what Sandra Howard called "the minefield".

New labour

That is, until 22 March, or Magic Monday, as it may from now on be known: the day that Samantha Cameron's saucy attic photos popped up in the Daily Mail and she revealed she was pregnant. The pictures, styled by the fashion writer Alison Jane Reid in 1997 or 1998 (she couldn't remember which), would "leave the Tory old guard spluttering", said the Mail. They show Samantha in her late twenties, cavorting with kittens and posing seductively in a small white dress. It's all a bit of a wince and probably not quite what Coulson had in mind for his secret weapon.
Despite the cringeing, or because of it, the photo affair was oddly refreshing. For a few hours, before the beautifully orchestrated announcement of the Cameron pregnancy, there was some respite from the honed appearances, the controlled stage management. The pictures will disappear in the wake of the baby news, but for that brief moment, with their republication, the rulebook was set aside. (On the baby: is it cynical and absurd to entertain the idea that it was conceived, in all senses, as an election strategy? Yes. But.) Now all we need is for Sarah Brown to come out of the closet as a former motorcycling Goth or the lead singer in a punk band. Wishful thinking, I suspect.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!

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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.