The No 10 express

The Tories are preparing for office - but quietly, soberly, and with no triumphal champers

Since their local and mayoral election triumph, Tory MPs have been disciplined, obeying orders and not looking excitable or pleased. It's a bit of a shame, really. If they were Portsmouth Football Club, or slightly Continental, they would have taken to the streets last Friday in an open-top Routemaster customised by Jeremy Clarkson, hugging each other, holding Dave aloft, slugging organic Wickham Fumé wine from Hampshire and playing the Ting Tings at full volume. Back to party headquarters for champagne on ice and Ed Vaizey on air guitar.

Alas, not a bit of it. Be they well-lunched or gym-toned Tory hips, they must not swagger. No triumphalism, no sneering, no ducking, no diving, no bombing, no petting . . .

So, what now? The tactics of how to play out the next 18 months are being worked out. Tories are aware that they have to look confident and prepared for government, but not too prepared.

The waste speech and "simple Conservative principles of good housekeeping" were a change of tone and, most MPs agree, a necessary one. A Cameron aide sums it up: "The first two and a half years have been about detoxifying. David's own view was that if he had started talking about waste in 2005, Labour would have said the Tories are all about cost-cutting. The new mood of public gloom about Labour has finally given us the liberty to address real issues." Some Tories wanted Cameron to get on to this ground earlier, but there's time before the election.

This past week, there has also been a historical return to words associated with Lady Thatcher. Previously, Cameron had said very little about her, as he did not want to look like a Thatcher Tory Boy. But, having gained more confidence, and with Labour in apparent meltdown, he can return to subjects he strayed from in the past: Tory themes he knows are still popular.

Conservative Party headquarters knows this will rile the government. The Prime Minister has again described Cameron as "a shallow salesman", using the description as a term of abuse. It's extremely silly of Brown; how many voters in this country could be described as salesman? Are they all shallow, or just Cameron?

One thing the Tories are certain of is that the Labour brand has suffered. Behind closed doors they are all discussing it fervently. "There is much talk of Brown stepping down," says one senior Tory. "We are not convinced he will, though. Not only because he'll have to be dragged out, but because [David] Miliband's not ready. He's quite happy to let Brown ride the storm. James Purnell, no doubt, feels the same."

The real test begins

Members of the shadow cabinet are desperately searching for rhetoric that doesn't suggest they think any form of triumph is in the bag. When I spoke to a shadow minister the other day, he got quite tongue-tied, trying to explain the path from now on: "It will all be about one vision, one direction . . . ehh decision . . ."

It was at this point that he realised he may have been quoting some Freddie Mercury lyrics* and started on about Incapacity Benefit. He looked relieved when I said I'd get us both a stiff drink.

Others are slightly more confident: "We know that Gordon Brown's only hope is to expose us over lack of substance."

The early years of the Blair government have been scrutinised by strategists. "Lab our will be looking at the mistakes we made in the 1990s," says one, "and we've certainly been looking at the mistakes Blair made." He sums up: "We need to make sure that we are not so managed into government that when we get into government we don't manage to govern" - a line that may make more sense on a second reading.

One researcher is prepared to go even further and comment on a Cameron government, though he does, of course, add the complacency clause. "We know where Blair went wrong. I perceive a Cameron leadership as different, rather than a suck-it-and-see, mediocre Blair way.

"We want a brave, progressive government - one we are prepared for."

Cameron was due to travel north to Ayr on Friday. That is where the real test begins; winning back seats in Sunderland is simple compared to Scotland. That is a whole different ball game . . .

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

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.