By Martha Lane-Fox
This month we are delighted to have Baroness Martha Lane-Fox – founder of lastminute.com, chair of digital skills charity Go ON UK, and the UK Government’s Digital Champion – writing for us on women entrepreneurs and digital skills.
In all the excitement of the late 1990s, I thought the dotcom boom would lead to an incredible redistribution and democratising of the world. In many ways it has, and in many ways unexpected things have happened, for good and for slightly less good.
Of course, there is much to be positive about. To give two examples: there is a company called Samasource, which was started by a brilliant female entrepreneur in the US. It employs women in developing countries to do outsourcing and data collection and to work for companies all over the world. I was amused to read on its website that one of its key employees—she is also called Martha—said of working for Samasource: “It’s been a dream, me having my own place, paying my own rent, buying my own food. Being independent”.
I feel much the same about the internet, I should add.
On the one hand, we have brilliant companies such as Samasource being built and giving opportunities to women all over the world in new ways. At the other extreme, I recently met a woman at the launch of the Lloyds consumer digital index, which is benchmarking how we are progressing towards being a digital nation. She is called Lisa and used to be a bus driver. Now she makes her own financial products online and has been quite astonishing in building her own business. It is smaller scale but I am sure it will be as big as Samasource soon enough.
I would be telling a terrible untruth, however, if I described any situation other than an internet that is controlled, run, funded, made and used predominantly by men. It is an extremely serious situation. If we look through any cut of the numbers, it is profoundly upsetting. About 4% of the world’s software developers, the people controlling and building the internet, are women. About 9% of businesses founded on the internet are run by women. About 10% of venture capitalists in the internet space are women. In the total technology sector here in the UK, 13% are women and there are 17% of women in management positions.
This is in an industry that did not exist 30 years ago, and that has grown in parallel with the general acceptance that men and women should be treated equally. We have effectively replaced the establishments and hierarchies of the Industrial Revolution of the last century with hierarchies that look exactly the same. It takes my breath away.
However, I am an optimist and I believe that there is much that can be done.
There are three big areas we should grab as a country because if we do not, we will not be able to compete economically and for the better.
The first is to address the enormous skills crisis that we have in our tech sector, using creative and new ways. In the UK alone, there are 600,000 empty jobs right now, and there are forecast to be 1 million by 2020.
At one point, my colleague, Lady Wheatcroft, was hiring 2,000 women who were all working from home and all doing coding and software design on hard-core government contracts, such as the black box for Concorde or the Polaris submarine. That was hardly a walk in the park or about flaky projects.
But over the years, we have lost that capacity to engage women in the incredible design and use of software. Why can we not take some of the 800,000 women who are currently unemployed in this country and train them to fill our skills gap? How much more imaginative could we be by matching some of the challenges that we have? I recently worked on projects that took women who had no understanding of computer science, just basic maths, and in six months they became Java-ready and able to go into work. We should be much bolder in addressing these challenges. We will not have a shot at competing globally if we do not fill these jobs. Let us use the widest possible talent pool that we have.
Secondly, we will design much better products and services if we engage women in their original conception and creation. To reference a well-known example, Apple released an app across all their iPhones some 18 months ago; a health kit that it was touting globally. Of the app, Apple said: “This will track every single thing you can possibly need to know about your health”. That was true—as long as you did not have a baby, had never had a period and were not planning on going through the menopause. There was not one single woman on that development team.
How much better products are when co-created with women at their heart. The former CEO of Twitter, Dick Costolo, said as much when he talked about how Twitter had mucked up completely when it had not considered the issues of trolling, bullying and online abuse. Again, you can bet your life that if there had been one woman on that development team, Twitter might have foreseen that.
This is not just about economic empowerment for the individual but about economic empowerment for the country. I feel so strongly that there is so much more that we can do to address these challenges. No country in the world has put gender balance in the technology sector at the heart of how it builds that sector, and I believe there will be huge economic gains if we do so. The internet is growing— it is not going away —and becoming a more, not less, important part of our global economy and the way we work with each other. It is already bigger than our manufacturing industries and is growing to be as big as our services industry. It is very important that we take action right now to make sure that the widest pool of talent is involved in the world that I love and have been so lucky to be part of.
Find Martha at https://twitter.com/Marthalanefox