Swings and narrows of outrageous fortune

The Conservatives have stalled in the polls again and a hung parliament is more likely.

Cross-country running

After a bit of a boost in the polls before Easter, the Conservatives have stalled. They are generally hitting around 37 per cent now - and Labour are just 6 or 7 points behind (see graph, right). On a uniform national swing, these numbers would almost certainly signal a hung parliament, although that projection has to be treated with care: there are strong indications of significant variation across the UK.

Perhaps the most useful indicator has been a regional breakdown of the aggregated data from YouGov, based on nearly 10,000 responses from the firm's polling during the first week of the campaign. On this evidence, Labour is doing particularly well in Scotland, holding on to almost all of its 2005 vote share.

In England, the Liberal Democrats face a swing of half a per cent against them in the south-west, where the party is defending a number of seats against the Conservatives. There is also a huge differential between the north and the south. Draw an imaginary line from the Severn to the Wash. Above it, the average swing from Labour to the Tories is 7.5 per cent; below it, just 5 per cent. This could be good for the Conservatives, given the heavy concentration of marginal seats throughout the Midlands, Yorkshire and the north-west. In the West Midlands, for instance, the data suggests a swing of 9 per cent.

Personality politics

In the opening phase of this election campaign, the polls of voting intentions have been at odds with numerous other indicators which suggest that things are going well for David Cameron. His approval ratings have increased markedly while Gordon Brown's have stood still. Most surveys considered Cameron the "winner" of the campaign's first week, and ICM is still finding that almost two out of every three voters believe that it is "time for change". Yet this success does not translate into a better rating for the Tories when questions about voting are asked. Although voters like the party leader and many of them want a different type of government, there seems to be a reluctance to take the next step and support the party.

Camera on Cameron

But more generally it seems that the election is still not really engaging the public. Interest is relatively low and just 55 per cent of those surveyed for the latest ICM poll said they were certain to vote.

Clearly, everything could change after the leaders' TV debates, which seem certain to have an impact on a far greater number of people than just those who watch them. The sheer novelty of the event will result in extensive coverage and this could alter perceptions of any or all of the three leaders.

For Cameron, the challenge will be meeting expectations that are running high.

Moving the margins

It looks as if tactical voting could have a big impact in some closely fought seats. In ICM's latest poll of marginal constituencies, nearly one in three voters surveyed said that they would be ready to vote tactically to keep a party they opposed out of power (see chart, below left). Among Liberal Democrat supporters, this proportion rose to 42 per cent. And they are likely to be squeezed very hard in the next three weeks.

Polls we can believe in

An interesting discovery by the Independent on Sunday, which asked eight leading pollsters for their 6 May predictions. Seven went for a Conservative majority; the eighth went for a hung parliament - then changed his projection to match those of his peers. So how come, you might ask, the latest surveys by all but one of the pollsters' firms contradict these views?

Mike Smithson is the editor of

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice

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.