The internet, you see, is fuelling a new wave of misogyny. Women are subject to vile, sexist trolling. The objectification of women, once thought to be on the wane, is back and putrid. The internet is awash with tits and arses; undermining women’s fragile body image and fuelling the latent sexual aggression of men. All over the internet there are communities of women-haters. Look at the woman eating on the tube! Isn’t she disgusting? Look at that grey-haired woman talking about Rome? Isn’t she disgusting?
It’s sexism.com and it’s not pretty. In her much trailed documentary, Blurred Lines (Thursday, BBC2), broadcaster Kirsty Wark explores the link between the rise of the internet and the proliferation of a supposedly ironic, banter-based sexism. A line-up of admirable women have expounded on the digital misogyny of late; from Germaine Greer to Mary Beard.
Admirable and righteous, no doubt. But it completely misses the point.
Women are at huge risk from the internet revolution; we are folding ourselves in two like contortionists, ready to jam ourselves back into the boxes from which we sprang in the 1970s, flared and furious. But the risk does not come from the internet’s obsession with our tits, nor from the anonymous trollers sitting in the dark making jokes about Mary Beard. The risk comes from our technological apathy. The risk comes from our happy, willing quiescence in the myth that computers are boys-toys. The future is digital, and we will be sitting on the sidelines, waving pom-poms and whispering to our sparkly sisters: “What’s an algorithm?”
How many girls took computing A-level in 2013, in the whole of the UK? 245. That’s fewer than 7 per cent of the total candidates. More took ICT (38 per cent). But ICT is about the use of the applications rather than about the computers themselves. Be excellent at Excel, girls, but don’t even think about peering behind the app to the programming itself.
What percentage of computer science undergraduates are women? 17 per cent. What percentage of post-graduates? 24 per cent. We are not alone. In the US, 37 per cent of computer science degrees went to women in 1984, compared to 12 per cent now. This unwillingness of girls to study computers is translating to the job market. According to the 2012 Labour Force survey, what percentage of those working in IT are female? 15 per cent.
We are opting out. We make rigid educational choices in our teens, and acquiesce in a cultural perception that adolescent computers smell of boy and dandruff and onanism.
Does it matter? The former number 10 adviser Rohan Silva, has argued compellingly that white-collar jobs are being cannibalised by computers. Legal services, medicine: the types of professions into which women have clawed their way are being taken over by machine. Machines programmed by men.
It is no use being able to write the content, or make a web-site look pretty. Content, online, is pretty worthless. The money and the innovation are created behind the scenes, beneath the shiny easy-to-use application designed by a man, sitting on a computer built by a man. Flash Boys, the new book by Michael Lewis, is a terrifying look under the surface of Wall Street, where all the money is made by whizz-kid programmers doing things with our money that no one really understands but them. They are all men.
It has not always been like this. The history of computers is female: the very first programmer was Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron. Her notes on Charles Babbage’s analytical engine contain the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. The second world war revolution in computing technology was manned largely by women, although the men in charge took the headlines. In the 1960s, computer programming was considered women’s work. A 1967 article in Cosmopolitan called “The Computer Girls” eulogised the female “computer programmers” who were telling the new “miracle machines” what to do. The roll-call of early computer pioneers is strongly female.
But while we were burning our bras, we took our eye off the future and allowed computing to become masculinised. Now, here we are, bleating about the downsides of the digital revolution, and simultaneously locking ourselves and our daughters out of the upside.
The single most useful weapon in the feminist arsenal is, and always has been, financial independence. The rest of it – who hates whom, the cultural significance of tits, pornography, page 3, body image, hijabs, Suzanna Reid’s legs, Mary Beard’s teeth – is all noise.
Misogyny only really matters to the powerless. With a good job, money in the bank, choices and a future, you can rise above anything; laugh in the face of hatred. But if the geeks inherit all the spoils of the revolution, and the geeks are all male, what will women laugh at then?