Tesco schools, the market in prime ministers and giving up Radio 4

Peter Wilby on the big issues of the week.

How can the "big society" work, when voluntary bodies are being cut so harshly? You may get a clue from the title of a book out this month: The Road from Ruin: a New Capitalism for a Big Society by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, both writers for the Economist. Writing in the Times, the two explain that we don't need an "obsession with volunteering" or a "fetishisation of mutual societies". Rather, "the big society should be an opportunity to harness capitalism to make Britain a better place".

Bishop and Green pooh-pooh the idea that "local community activists" such as the writer Toby Young could start successful free schools. They "manifestly lack the ability or expertise". Instead, "chains of new schools" should be set up by Tesco. Supermarkets, with their track record of life-enhancing, mind-expanding, culturally uplifting activity and their scrupulous regard for pluralism, are ideally suited to such a mission.

Oh, all right, Bishop and Green didn't write that last sentence. They refer instead to Tesco's "large-scale ambition and business thinking". You couldn't have it stated more plainly. Even if David Cameron denies it - and even if he believes his denials, as I suppose he may - the big society is just an opportunity for big business to take over more public services. This is well illustrated by the likely fate of the Community Payback scheme, currently run by probation officers and due to be "competed" (as the government now calls "privatised") in 2012. The shortlist of preferred bidders includes Serco (annual profits: £194m), Sodexo (£648m) and Mitie (£80m).

Level paying field?

More than 220 local authority executives, it is reported, earn more than David Cameron. Why is this comparison relevant? The idea that nobody in the public sector should be paid more than the PM is bizarre. The figure always quoted is £142,500, though Cameron is entitled to another £55,000 that he doesn't take because he's a multimillionaire. His real earnings - rent-free housing plus various allowances - have been estimated at more than £500,000. He can also look forward to vast sums from lectures and memoirs after he leaves office.

I do not believe that the chief executives of Suffolk or Wandsworth councils have similar prospects or, indeed, private fortunes to fall back on. Council executives operate in a competitive labour market. Good people won't be recruited or retained unless they are paid something near the going rate, which has been absurdly inflated by the private sector. There is no market in prime ministers or politicians generally; Egypt and Italy may have leadership problems, but neither is likely to make offers to Cameron, George Osborne or Eric Pickles.

Wage slips

Do not be surprised that the government, aided and abetted by the Bank of England, is allowing inflation to rip. Inflation gives everybody an automatic annual wage cut while deflation delivers an automatic annual rise. That's why the boss class was so fearful of the latter.

At one time, the workers, through annual collective bargaining, negotiated a wage rise to cover inflation and often quite a bit more. Thanks to anti-union laws and the decline in union membership, that no longer happens over large areas of the economy. For the bosses, inflation does not hold the terrors it did in the 1970s, when the unions were much stronger. They reckon employees won't resist a cut in the real value of their pay. But if they attempted a cash cut during a prolonged spell of deflation, it might just revive union militancy, as happened in the early 1920s when prices fell by nearly a third and employers tried to slash wages correspondingly. Nearly all economists will disagree with my heretical analysis. So I'm pretty confident it's right.

Radio blah blah

After I left salaried employment, I resolved to give up listening to Radio 4's Today programme. What increasingly irritated me was the sound of the ruling class talking to itself. On any given morning, all the people who run the country are either being interviewed on Today or list­ening to it. Though millions of other Britons eavesdrop - presumably to discover what the ruling class is up to - nearly everybody on the programme is addressing fellow politicians, decision-makers and media folk.

Much of Radio 4's output is similar. It is self-consciously the top people's station in the sense that the Times used to call itself "the top people's paper". The BBC Trust wants Radio 4 to seek a wider audience, with more listeners from ethnic minorities, lower social groups and the north. But the problem isn't really with Radio 4. It's with the narrow social and geographical base of the British ruling class.

(That's enough consolidation, ed)

Here is an example, from a report in the Guardian, of how big business thinks differently from the rest of us. Lamenting that the UK's 1,200 local papers are published by 87 different companies, Georgina Harvey, head of Trinity Mirror Regionals, says: "A problem for the industry is that competition authorities actively discourage consolidation" (she means mergers). Well, yes, that's what competition authorities are supposed to do, particularly in an industry where diversity is usually deemed in the public interest.

In fact, 38 out of those 87 companies own just one title. Twenty publishers control 97 per cent of audited circulation, and that explains why your local paper probably contains mostly bland, standardised features and very little local news. That's quite enough "consolidation" for most of us. Never forget: the natural tendency of capitalism is towards monopoly.

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.

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.