What does it mean to be a “British citizen”?

The Tories make heavy weather of wanting to cut down on immigration –– yet there seems little eviden

I went to a citizenship ceremony at the Weald and Downland museum, which showcases historic buildings from the 13th century onwards, dismantled and painstakingly reconstructed by volunteers. The buildings - a smithy, a Victorian schoolroom, a 15th-century farmstead and a working watermill that makes very good flour - nestle amid rolling downs, grazing farm animals and working shire horses.

To this most British of places came the 40 new citizens, from China and Slovakia, from South Africa and Bangladesh, in suit and dress, niqab and Monsoon sparkly top. From Gambia to Brazil, from India and Pakistan, they had travelled, via Worthing and Crawley, East Grinstead and Bognor Regis. The ladies wore jewels; all the little boys wore suit and tie. Everybody's shoes were very clean.

The Queen looked a little incongruous on her low easel, perched at the front of the cavernous Gridshell - a light, wavy shell constructed from oak laths, within which the old houses are rebuilt, like a giant Lego game. Down the Gridshell processed a deputy lord lieutenant and a county council chairman with dangly things on. There were speeches, a swearing of oaths, a cream tea. It was a fantasy of olde England: ". . . I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen . . ." As the three-dozen new citizens trilled along to the opening verse of the national anthem, I couldn't help thinking that these people are not the ones we need to be swearing citizenship pledges today.

Joyless jobless

The ceremony took place on the same day the unemployment figures were published, showing the numbers of economically inactive (those not even seeking employment) at a record 8.19 million high, more than a fifth of the working-age population. Among the unemployed, almost a fifth of 16-to-24-year-olds are jobless, and nearly 780,000 people have been out of work for more than a year.

So what had they been doing, these new citizens who had lived and worked here for at least five years, and passed difficult citizenship tests? (Sample questions: "At what ages do children take key stage tests in England?" "What are the roles and powers of the main institutions of Europe?") There was a doctor, a taxi driver, an IT specialist, a man who worked in recycling, a woman from a tax office. What did they offer that the millions of unemployed and economically inactive Brits did not? Ambition, perhaps. When a local post office closed a couple of years ago, the villagers wailed and moaned, because the accompanying shop would have to shut, too. The post office was indeed just an expensive public subsidy for a crap village shop, so when it did shut, the dismal shop swiftly followed, despite the villagers' attempts to form committees and fundraise to keep it open.

Then a family from Sri Lanka arrived. They bought the lease, reopened the shop. The (generally white and wealthy) villagers patronised them, and the Sri Lankans smiled back. The shop is thriving. It sells fresh, locally sourced meat and fish, and good bread; it offers dry-cleaning, seedlings, fruit and veg. And the family is about to open a little café outside.

It's only one shop in one village, but it is a lesson in what immigrant enterprise can do. The white people just gave up on it when their subsidy was withdrawn. This is the other side of the currently fashionable, anti-immigration bleat from some Labour leadership candidates, and from the Conservatives.

The Financial Times of 18 June calculated that David Cameron's proposed cap on immigration will cost £9bn a year in lost tax revenue -
or £300 for each British family in higher taxes. The calculation is based on forecasts from the new Office for Budget Responsibility which assume that net immigration will remain stable at 140,000 a year - about 40,000 higher than the Tory estimate.

“It is just not possible to keep bringing more and more people into our country to work while at the same time leaving millions of people to live a life on welfare," Cameron said in a recent speech. The Tory policy assumes that all those jobs no longer taken by immigrants will be filled by British people; but why weren't they filled with British people in the first place? Why was an Indian man better placed to start his own taxi business, a Gambian woman best suited for the job at the tax office? Why did it take a Sri Lankan family to save a village shop?

Big scrap

I hope the government has an answer to these questions, because at the same time as it cuts immigration, it is ending the funding aimed at enabling the underqualified or underenthused British unemployed to fill those jobs. When the Liberal Democrats' Danny Alexander announced the government's first cuts to public-sector projects earlier this month, there was a huge fuss about Sheffield being hit hard, it being the political home of Nick Clegg.

There was little comment about the other constituency that was badly hit: the young and long-term unemployed. Four separate programmes aimed at helping one or other of the two groups were scrapped. I wouldn't automatically defend all these "back-to-work" initiatives - my experience is that such schemes can amount to little more than paper-shuffling - but I do wonder how ministers think a long-term unemployed young person morphs into something employable.

No such concerns disrupted the ceremony at the Weald and Downland museum, as the new citizens walked through ancient woodland towards a display of maypole dancing, the admonitions of the county council chairman ringing in their ears: "Welcome! Join in! Pay your taxes!" It wasn't necessary. They already do.

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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.