Dave Prentis: Our time has come

Jonathan Derbyshire meets Unison's leader, Dave Prentis.

I meet Dave Prentis, who has served as general secretary of the public sector union Unison for the past decade, on the day that Tony Blair's memoir, A Journey, is published. The former prime minister once complained, notoriously, that his attempts to reform public services had left him with scars on his back. How does Prentis remember his union's relationship with Blair?

“In the early years [of the Labour government] there was a common agenda, and there was a feeling that floors would be put in place to protect the lowest-paid and the most vulnerable. So we had the minimum wage, which is something we had campaigned on for decades. And going on from there, we got agreements with the government - directly with Tony Blair - on the two-tier workforce, ensuring that people coming in on contracts couldn't be paid less than people who had been transferred [from the public sector to the private]."

Prentis's assessment of the latter part of the Blair premiership (after the 2001 general election) is much less forgiving - this was the period, after all, in which "public sector reform" became the principal measure of New Labour's "modernising" zeal. "I think the Labour government was pulled far more into the hands of multinational companies and into believing that, if the wealthy do well, then the rest of society will do well. But that has been absolutely blown apart by the banking crisis."

The political economy of Blairism is not the only victim of the global financial crisis, of course. "The rich have looked after themselves and it's the poor who will be paying," Prentis says. And low-paid public sector workers - his members - are especially vulnerable to a coalition government that plans not merely to "reform" public services, but to cut spending on them drastically.

“The Tories are implementing the agenda that they've always had, which is to cut public service provision. And they're using the excuse of the recession to do it. I have no doubt whatsoever that public sector workers will lose their jobs when there is no need for them to do so."

Where does George Osborne's assault on public spending leave union leaders such as Prentis? In 2008, Richard Balfe, the former Labour MEP chosen by David Cameron to be his point man with the trade unions, said that the Tories regarded Prentis as "someone that can work with them if they win the next election". Now that the Conservatives are in power, albeit cohabiting with the Liberal Democrats, have they been in touch?

“There's been dialogue with our union, in fact with all unions. But it hasn't been at my level with Cameron," Prentis reveals. "I sit on the Public Service Forum with the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, so I've talked to him, but other than that, nobody else."

In any case, in Prentis's view, the coalition's commitment to the sort of "social dialogue" between government and the unions encouraged under the previous administration is flimsy. "The terms of reference are different," he says. "They are saying: 'What we want to talk to you about is how you will help us to implement the cuts', not whether or not they should take place."

Although he insists that representing the interests of his 1.3 million members means talking to the government (and he points out he has "dealt with the Tories for decades" at the local level), Prentis says unequivocally that Unison will not offer a "helping hand to make the cuts". And he dismisses a suggestion made by Balfe in June this year that the union would abandon its opposition to cuts in exchange for a deal on public sector pensions. "He's flying kites. The idea that we'd accept the cuts in return for pensions just . . . came out of his brain! We will not seek agreements with the government which allow for cuts to take place."

In the run-up to the Chancellor's Comprehensive Spending Review in late October, Prentis has been travelling the country, mobilising his members for the battles that are sure to come. He clearly enjoys addressing the troops. "It's evangelical. The early trade unions were evangelical in their approach. A lot of my work has been to get over to our activists that this is why trade unions came into being. They came into being to represent working people against all the might of capitalism, and that is what we're going through now. I'm making the point very strongly that our time has come."

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

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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.