No nation broker

Gordon Brown hopes the G20 summit in London will restore his and Labour’s fortunes. He should be so

Global summits matter a great deal to the politicians, advisers and journalists who attend them. But the public pays little attention, which is understandable, as most summits make little impact on their lives and are soon forgotten. Which of the 34 G7/G8 summits since 1975 can you remember: Gleneagles in 2005, perhaps, with its commitments on Africa and, less effectively, on climate change? Houston in 1990? I was there in the intense Texan heat, but I cannot remember a single pledge or phrase in the 6,000-word communiqué. My only memory is of Margaret Thatcher attending a rodeo dressed as if for a Home Counties garden party.

The artificial and often ephemeral nature of summits is Gordon Brown’s dilemma, in the run-up to the G20 meeting in London early next month. He is investing a large amount of energy, time and political capital in a meeting that will last just one day. It dominates his already full diary, with phone calls, bilateral visits, and even a trip to Chile later this month. He has deployed his best and brightest: Baroness Vadera, Jeremy Heywood, Jon Cunliffe and Stewart Wood. They have been engaged in super-networking with the Obama administration and round the world.

At one level, this reflects one of Brown’s great strengths: his grasp of international economic issues. But that is linked with an almost naive belief that a self-evidently unanswerable logical case must lead to agreed solutions. Hence his argument for reform of the international financial institutions and for closer co-ordination of regulators, made long before the onset of the banking crisis, is obviously right, so they must happen.

But it is not enough to be right, as Brown is about international co-ordination. Countries may sign up to grandiose objectives, but not to specific commitments unless it suits them. They are not going to do anything that is against their national interests and/or politically unsaleable at home. Professor David Reynolds notes, in his recent book Summits: Six Meetings That Shaped the 20th Century, that a study of the first 15 G7 summits showed only a third of the 209 promises had been implemented, with the US and France particularly delinquent.

What matters is the balance of power between the participants. Brown has talked about a new Bretton Woods, matching in ambition the July 1944 agreement which led to the creation of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the successful postwar financial system that lasted until the early 1970s. It is easy to be starry-eyed about that meeting because of the magnetic personality of John Maynard Keynes. But as Robert Skidelsky points out in his magisterial biography of the great economist: “Keynes gave the Bretton Woods agreement its distinction not its substance.” The agreement “reflected the views of the American, not the British, Treasury, of [Harry Dexter] White, not Keynes”.

The British team secured amendments to safeguard national interests. The two key players were the US and Britain. But it was ultimately the American vision that prevailed: of updating the gold standard as a means of regulating trade and creating a rule-based, postwar financial order which reinforced the shift of power from the City of London to Wall Street.

Now it is the United States and China that really matter, with Germany next. The European Union has so far been too cautious and disunited to be an effective player in its own right. Thus, Brown is not a dominant player himself, but is more in the role of the respected honest broker. (Or, as Peter Cook said in his 1961 satire on Harold Macmillan: “No nation could be more honest, and . . . no nation could be broker.”) The paradox, and inherent drawback, of the London meeting is that while the old G7/G8 was too small, excluding as it did China, India and Brazil from full membership, the G20 is too big to be an effective negotiating group.

Brown’s energy should, however, receive some reward. The international financial system is too precarious for the meeting to be allowed to fail publicly, as the Westminster conference did in 1933 amid mutual recrimination between Europe and the United States. But President Obama seems more sensitive to international interests than FDR was then. And the draft communiqué, which Brown’s advisers are already carrying around, should contain enough to enable Brown to claim progress in a long-term process.

Yet, on the critical issues, such as further fiscal expansion, convergence of financial regulation (facing strong resistance in Washington), curbing bankers’ bonuses, blacklisting offshore tax havens and recapitalising the international institutions, all we can expect are good intentions: principles rather than binding rules. But the real precondition for recovery is unlikely to be agreed in London, given that it involves Washington and Beijing discussing a greater Chinese contribution and representation in international financial institutions, and more agreement between the two on exchange rates.

Forget the theatre of the event. Brown needs some visible success to validate his repeated claim that this is a global crisis requiring global solutions. A public failure, or disappointment, would undermine his internationalist explanation for Britain’s economic problems, and part of his case for a further fiscal stimulus in the Budget on 22 April. He and Alistair Darling need to be able to say that they are doing the same as other countries. Managing expectations will be very tricky. Grand talk of a “grand bargain” and “global new deal” risks a big let-down.

Not that British voters are expecting much. A Populus poll for the Times published on 10 March showed that a mere one in 20 has “a great deal of confidence” that the G20 meeting would either help the recession here in Britain or help the global economy to recover. A big majority had just “a little confidence”. And they are probably right. The G20 meeting is likely to be remembered as a staging post, rather than a turning point, on the long road to economic recovery.

Peter Riddell is chief political commentator of the Times and a senior fellow of the Institute for Government

Kevin Maguire is away

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd

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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.