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Everything Michael Gove touches turns to dust

The Education Secretary has so far avoided the “at risk” list; but with his list of gaffes growing c

Spare a thought for Vince Cable. The disgruntled Business Secretary, whose "nuclear option" turned out to be more of a suicide vest, is the odds-on favourite to be the next minister to leave the coalition cabinet, according to the online betting exchange Smarkets.

Or perhaps it will be Ken Clarke. "Is it time to give this disloyal, pro-Europe old bruiser the boot?" read the headline in the Daily Mail on 12 February. Paddy Power has him as 7/2 fav­ourite on its "next to leave the cabinet" list.

Then there's Tom Strathclyde. Tom who? The Leader of the House of Lords, exposed as an old-fashioned Tory adulterer by a Sunday paper last month, is second-favourite on both the Smarkets and Paddy Power lists.

Away from the betting shops, Tory MPs and peers congregate in the bars and tearooms of Westminster to whisper about the future of William Hague, his personal life and his foreign policy (or lack thereof); about the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman's disastrous decision to sell off the nation's forests; about Cheryl Gillan's "Where's Wally" performance at the Welsh Office and the persistent rumours of her impending departure from government.

But isn't it strange that Michael Gove's name never comes up in conversation, or in the various lists and bookies' odds? That he doesn't appear to be "at risk" or "vulnerable"?

Swooning admirer

By any objective measure of ministerial ineptitude, the Education Secretary would come out near the top. On 11 February, in the latest in a long line of "bad news" linked to the coalition's education reforms, Gove was defeated in the high court over his decision to scrap part of England's school-building programme, and his failure to consult on it.

It is worth quoting from the stinging verdict of Mr Justice Holman: "In my view, the way in which the Secretary of State abruptly stopped the projects . . . without any prior consultation . . . must be characterised as being so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power." Yes, "abuse of power". Strong stuff.

In a sense, Gove was a Cameroon before Cam­eron. He helped to persuade his good friend "Dave" to run for the Tory leadership in 2005, having tipped him for the job in a newspaper column in 2001. Gove continues to exert a huge influence on Cameron. I am told that the Education Secretary, a dyed-in-the-wool neocon hawk on foreign policy and all things Islam-related, was a key driver behind the Prime Minister's recent speech in Munich - though I have yet to understand how his enthusiasm for faith schools fits with a passion for "muscular liberalism" and ending "state multiculturalism".

For now, Gove is Teflon. His membership of the Cameron inner circle, the so-called Notting Hill Set, makes Gove untouchable; so does his fawning constituency in the media - he is a former Times columnist and assistant editor.

In the words of one seasoned observer, he is the "golden boy" of Cameron's cabinet. Gove, however, has the reverse Midas touch: everything he touches turns to dust.

Consider his record at the Education Department since last May. To begin with, he claimed more than 1,000 schools had applied for academy status; it then emerged that only 153 had done so. Under cross-examination by his then Labour shadow, Ed Balls, he was forced to apologise repeatedly in the Commons after giving MPs incorrect information about which school rebuilding projects were to be axed.

Last October, he caused an outcry when he announced that he would no longer fund School Sport Partnerships, only to do a U-turn in December. He announced the axing of a £13m annual grant for free books that benefits 3.3 million youngsters a year, only to perform another U-turn over Christmas, amid accusations of "cultural vandalism".

Despite his gift of the gab, Gove has a habit of making gaffes. In a Commons debate on 19 January, he told MPs that it "would be wise" for people in Hull to vote Liberal Democrat - and not Conservative - in the May local elections.

“He is not as clever as he thinks he is," an irritated cabinet colleague tells me, adding: "But he does have the ability to make the absurd sound intelligent." Gove aspires to be, in the words of the ultra-conservative historian and author Andrew Roberts, "the most radical education secretary since Shirley Williams". (Gove has turned to Roberts for advice on the history curriculum.) "There is a contradiction at the heart of the Tories' policy on education," the shadow education secretary, Andy Burnham, tells me. "They talk about freedom and autonomy for schools and parents but their approach is more top-down and prescriptive than ours ever was."

Relentless pursuit

The Education Secretary, in Whitehall, decides on the status and funding levels of aca­demies and "free schools". Gove's English Baccalaureate takes choice away from students by specifying a narrow range of GCSE subjects that will qualify them for the award. The current Education Bill will grant the Secretary of State more than 50 new powers. So much for people power and the "big society".

Burnham, like Balls before him, has pursued Gove relentlessly, concentrating in recent weeks on the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), the payments of up to £30 a week given to students from low-earning households if they stay on at school.

In opposition, Gove made an explicit pledge: "Ed Balls keeps saying that we are committed to scrapping the EMA. I have never said this. We won't." Gove has since scrapped the allowance - but Burnham has received legal advice suggesting that the earlier pledge may have given rise to a "legitimate expectation" by students that these payments would continue. Those students who are set to lose their EMA midway through a two-year course could have a legal case against Gove. To lose one judicial review might be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two would be careless indeed. "Losing the review last week was a huge error," says a senior Tory source. "If any other minister had, they'd be in serious trouble."

Cameron, however, values loyalty and protects his friends. But he also sees himself as the "heir to Blair". The former Labour prime minister was willing to cut his friend and confidant Peter Mandelson loose in the second year of his government, in 1998. Would Cameron ever do the same with Gove?

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City

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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.