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The NS Interview: Polly Harrar, founder of Sharan Project

“Honour killing is murder in cold blood”

Why did you set up the Sharan Project?
I left home about 20 years ago. I was very young, and realised there is a huge gap for women who have left home and would like someone to help them to get back on their feet and build their confidence and independence.

What led you to leave home?
Cultural conflict. Being brought up in Britain, living in a very strict family environment, having my opinions and wanting to be independent. It was just the natural thing for me to do.

What kind of problems do the women who you encounter in the project have?
There's a range of reasons why women would leave home - things like cultural pressure or conflict and violence at home, perceived dishonour, getting pregnant, having a boyfriend.

How do you help them?
We're largely a web-based organisation, so a lot of our work is done through accessing support and information on our websites.

What is the demographic of women you see?
It's usually second- or third-generation immigrants, although there is a minority of women who have been forced to come to the UK [and are living] under oppressed conditions.

As communities become more settled here, will we see less of a cultural clash?
We have to talk about some of the taboo subjects such as sexuality and incarceration of spouses. The problem won't be addressed if nobody will talk about it.

Is enough being done to tackle honour killings?
More needs to be done. In essence, it is murder, taking someone's life. It is killing somebody in cold blood, for whatever misguided reason.

Does the discussion of honour killings and forced marriage risk reinforcing prejudice?
It's everyone's responsibility to look at the range of issues and ensure that Asian women are not just seen as victims. Forced marriage, honour killings and other violence are not the only problems to be addressed.

What are the others?
A lack of role models - women who are successful, who have had a challenging history. Within the culture, accessing support is not encouraged. Providing information to women reduces the barriers.

Do south Asians who are not affected by these matters have a responsibility to help those who are?
Absolutely. It's easy to say it is somebody else's problem, but everyone knows somebody who has been affected by some level of abuse or conflict. There is a culture of hiding behind closed doors. It's important that we engage in a conversation on a community level, and also as a society.

Why do we need to go outside the community?
Today, there are lots of strong women, many born in this country, who have the capability to be more than they've been brought up to be. Going out of the community for support, if the support within that community isn't available, is something we need to consider.

David Cameron made a speech last year about the failure of multiculturalism. What did you make of that kind of rhetoric?
It's a contentious area. The definition of what is considered multiculturalism has changed so much over the years. I prefer to look at the multicultural society within London, for instance, which is something we're all very proud of.

What do you think about the coalition's tightening of immigration laws?
I welcome the changes around protection of women. Hopefully it will reduce the number of women brought here at a young age as brides, then incarcerated in their marital homes and not allowed out, or to learn English, or to speak out if something is happening in the home.

Are issues which affect women taken less seriously?
Two women each week are murdered as a result of domestic violence. One in four women will be affected by domestic violence in her lifetime. The UK is doing a lot on this agenda but more could be done. This is an epidemic that has been going on for generations. Education is key, but we must educate boys as well as girls.

Is there anything you would like to forget?
Every experience takes you to where you are today and where you will be tomorrow. I wouldn't want to forget a thing.

Was there a plan?
The plan was just to help one person - to let one person know that there is someone else out there that understands their experiences and is there to support them.

Do you vote?

Are we all doomed?
Definitely not. No.

Defining moments

1974 Born at New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton
1991 Leaves home aged 17
2007 Sets up Sharan Project
2008 Launches the first online support network for women who have been disowned
2010 Sponsors Best Online Business category at the Precious Awards
2012 Sharan Project is granted official charity status

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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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.