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Parminder Nagra: “Los Angeles oozing Indian culture? No way”

The actress talks to Alice Gribbin about ER, East London and planning for the future.

Before you made your new film, Twenty8k, did you have any connection with east London?

I did one of my first jobs at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It’s changed beyond recognition; parts of it are becoming very gentrified, and I hope this is going to generate a good experience for people all across the board. But – as the film shows – it’s a really difficult one.
Did you follow the riots last August?
I first saw news about it on Twitter and then some videos. Even though I live in Los Angeles, I’m still part of that culture, and to see that happen, kids behaving that way, made me really sad. I remember sitting here trying to debate why it was happening . . . If you’re going to do something for a cause, surely there’s another way? The video of the [Malaysian] boy with the guys surrounding him made me feel sick.
There’s an important thread in Twenty8k about corruption within the establishment. Do you think that resonates at the moment?
I want to believe people are genuine, but that may be the naive optimist in me. It’s so disappointing. I wanted to be able to trust these figures, but even your doctors . . . these institutions that you should believe in.
You acted in six series of ER – a long time to stay with one character. Did you watch the show before you were on it?
I did, and I absolutely loved it. I said “yes” right away; there wasn’t even a question.
Did you ever forget you didn’t have any medical knowledge?
The good thing about my character is she went in as an intern, so when you see me looking like “what the hell is going on?” that’s just me. Unfortunately I got very good at saying the medical terms so they kept flinging more jargon my way.
You were in a modernised version of Twelfth Night on Channel 4. Would you like to act in classical Shakespeare?
Do you know what? I’ve not thought about it. I was scared of doing Twelfth Night because I never had any formal training and here I am playing Viola. Thank God someone like Tim Supple was directing, because we worked hard delving into it, researching and rehearsing to pull it off. I’d go back and do it if I was given the opportunity. It was a different muscle.
You recently played a character in Alcatraz, a sci-fi series. Is comedy a genre you haven’t tried?
I just did something for a comedy show in the US called Psych. There were times on ER where you got to exercise being quite dry and I loved those moments. Pure comedy is a nice break.
Is Hollywood an easy place for you to live and celebrate your Indian heritage?
No. If I want to experience that, I almost have to go and find it, unlike somewhere such as the east coast or London, or even Vancouver, where you’re almost forced to interact with the city. The first few years in LA weren’t easy. It’s home now, but in terms of oozing Indian culture – no way.
Has that lack of integration been trickier since you became a mother?
You have to make the effort. Recently I went and found a Sikh temple but it’s going to be a lot harder for me to be here and raise my child in the way that I was. I spoke Punjabi in the house and English when I left; that came naturally. [In California] I don’t even have all my family, so it becomes more difficult to do bilingual things. My son understands English; he’s three now. And it makes me a little sad because it was natural for me to speak in two languages.
How has your heritage affected your professional life?
When I first arrived there were not many roles but now there are a lot more Indians on TV in the US. But not only am I an Indian, I’m an Indian Brit going on American TV shows. Sometimes people wouldn’t automatically think of me. The producers have to think, “Actually, we can fly with this and give it a much more interesting backstory.”
Is it true that the plot for Bend It Like Beckham was written with you in mind?
I believe so. Gurinder [Chadha, the writer/dir­ector] says she saw me in theatre. I remember her coming up to me and saying she was writing this football film. I thought: “Why would you want to do that?” Then lo and behold, a few months later, the script lands on the doorstep. Later there were references to my home put in.
When did you last kick a football around?
You know what, on this comedy show I just did they have me kicking a football. I’ve not played for so long . . . I think maybe they were expecting “oh, she’s going to be fantastic”.
Do you vote?
Yes. When I can.
Was there a plan?
No. I plan for short bursts, but as a career it doesn’t really allow for planning.
Are we all doomed?
Oh no! We’re just misguided for a little bit. 

Defining Moments

1975 Born in Leicester
1994 Moves to London, acting for small Indian theatre companies and on radio/TV
2002 Stars with Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham, a surprise box-office hit
2003 Joins cast of ER, playing the physician Neela Rasgotra. Is longest-term actor in the series when it ends in 2009
2012 Her latest film – Twenty8k, about gang violence in London – premieres in the East End Film Festival
  • Twenty8K will be released 1 October 2012, courtesy of Cine-Britannia

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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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.