Plastic bags, BST and Tina Brown

Have you noticed in recent months that plastic carrier bags are more readily available at supermarket checkouts? That, at least, is my experience. Instead of asking if I need a bag, checkout operators automatically start packing my goods and look hurt when I ask them to desist. There is a reason for this. When the coalition took office in May, it dropped Labour's monitoring regime and supermarkets got the message that threats to tax the bags had been lifted. Plastic bag use fell 48 per cent over four years but, in May, was already rising again. So much for leaving the corporate sector to tackle environmental damage by "voluntary agreement".

The same will happen with health damage. As the Guardian reports, the government has delegated policy-making on diet-related disease to "responsibility deal" networks comprising companies such as McDonald's and PepsiCo, assured them it favours "voluntary not regulatory approaches" and asked them to identify legislative "barriers" they want removed. I wonder if it has occurred to ministers to set up "responsibility deal" networks with the unemployed, homeless, working poor and disabled of, say, Liverpool and Glasgow. They could be invited to reform welfare and identify barriers to claiming benefits.

Putting the social into housing

Here is a little tale that casts light on these supposedly austere times. It comes from Tim Leunig, reader in economic history at the London School of Economics. Over the past year, he tells me, he has spoken at three commercially organised conferences for social housing professionals. The cost for each person attending (or, rather, for his or her employer) ranged from £576 for two days to £1,200 for three days, including accommodation in posh hotels.

Since social housing has only two revenue sources - the government and tenants - Leunig wonders whether it was really necessary to engage, for example, Armando Iannucci and Janet Street-Porter as after-dinner speakers, and announcers to introduce conference speakers as though they were rock musicians. He also asks if social housing folk could possibly stay in Travelodges.

I doubt many such conferences were held when we had straightforward council housing, owned and run by local authorities. Leunig raised this matter in his column for a housing magazine owned by an organiser of such events. You can't read it, though. Mysteriously, its publication seems to have been delayed.

Taking the Michael

We can expect more lavish conferences in education, too, as the private sector's role increases. It is reported that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, plans to strip local auth­orities of their role in funding schools. Instead, money will be distributed by a new Education Funding Agency. Schools will be ­allowed, among other things, to save sufficient money to build or rent new buildings.

Even the more stupid Tories can see this doesn't fit with policies of devolving power and scrapping unelected quangos. But there's more to it than that. Landed with management functions previously performed by local councils, most schools will outsource to private "edubusiness" companies. (For examples, read last week's New Statesman supplement on education policy.) These companies will run chains of schools and will be well-placed to use revenue streams to raise loan capital for new buildings. In other words, they will act rather like local authorities, except they will take hefty profits, pay their executives even better salaries - and organise much more expensive conferences.

Dawning realism

I have always hated getting up in the midwinter dark - birds wait for sunrise, so why shouldn't I? - but at least I know dawn is at worst an hour away. Now, a private member's bill, on which ministers apparently look favourably, proposes to keep British Summer Time all winter and make mornings even darker. I am old enough to remember 1968-71 when we also stayed on BST. Everybody I knew hated it and celebrated the end of the experiment. Figures about how road casualties fell in those years struck me as spurious, since the breathalyser and 70mph speed limits were both introduced shortly before 1968.

But what puzzles me most is the suggestion that a change in the clocks must make sense ­because it brings us into line with the rest of Europe. Look at the map: most of Europe is east of London. At this time of year, sunrise and sunset times in London and Berlin are almost
identical. If lighter winter evenings bring such benefits, why don't other Europeans also want them?

Tina Turnover

The media industry defines success in peculiar ways. Consider Tina Brown, who has just become editor-in-chief of the ailing US weekly Newsweek, following its merger with the online Daily Beast, which she launched two years ago. Brown, appointed editor of Tatler at 25, has also edited Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and Talk magazine. Her latest appointment, like all her others, prompts admiring newspaper profiles. The Independent quotes an American journalist describing her as "the best magazine editor alive". How so? At Tatler, she "electrified the British media by spending the money of its wealthy new owner" on star writers and photographers. Smart thinking, huh? The Independent further notes that, when Brown left the New Yorker in 1998, it "was still making massive losses"; that Talk folded after three years; and that the Daily Beast has "no demonstrated ability" to turn a profit.

So has "the best magazine editor alive" ever run anything that, er, made money? Or isn't that important?

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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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.