19th January 2016
Imagine the developers we could train from UK’s unemployed women, writes Martha Lane Fox in the Financial Times, January 18 2016
The “internet industry” is only 30 years old. It is considerably younger than our broad societal acceptance that women should have an equal place in the workforce. The soft rhetoric now is all about the internet enabling “disruption” and “sharing”. Yet what is supposed to be a democratising force is built on a platform of profound gender imbalance.
The internet economy is driven and dominated by men. Women occupy just 17 per cent of tech jobs in the UK. This percentage has reached a plateau in the past five years while the sector has grown in importance to the economy.
Worse still, fewer than one in 10 of these women are in leadership positions in the sector. Women make up just 3 per cent of partners in venture capital firms, 20 per cent of tech founders and perhaps most shockingly, 4 per cent of software engineers. The people building the internet, the services we all use, are overwhelmingly men.
This gender imbalance affects us all. We have a national digital skills crisis. There are 600,000 vacancies in the sector, forecast to rise to 1m by 2020. If we do not understand why, and try to rectify it, we are missing out on half the talent pool.
We can even look backwards to come up with imaginative solutions. In 1962 Dame Stephanie Shirley started a software engineering company where almost all the staff were women. Many of them had children and worked flexibly from home. Her company programmed the black box for Concorde. At its peak in 2000, her business was worth £2.6bn.
Products, services and ideas that are not founded on diverse thinking will never be as competitive as those created by gender-balanced teams. I may be biased but I believe the company I founded in 1998, lastminute.com, was more successful with Brent Hoberman and I as co-founders.
When Apple launched its health kit in 2014, touted as a monitoring system for every aspect of physical wellbeing, there was no capacity to track a menstrual cycle or menopause. This was perhaps unsurprising. There were, reportedly, no women on that development team.
Similarly, if there had been more women involved in its creation, Twitter may have avoided many of its issues surrounding blocking and abuse.
Think of the new product areas and untapped markets that the internet has yet to improve: maternity, end of life care, mental health. In all these areas women are the main consumers and potential drivers of the next global economy. Any company — or, more boldly, country — that dramatically improves its tech diversity will have enormous competitive advantage.
So what can we do to make sure that the technology sector underpinning our economy and society is not a replica of the male business establishment built at the start of the 20th century? Plenty. Changing the education system is an important starting point but other things should happen in parallel.
Why is the corporate sector, which urgently needs to fill jobs, not running programmes offering coding skills to unemployed women or mothers wanting to return to the workforce? It takes six months to train a novice with some basic maths in the programming language, Java. How many developers could we train from the 800,000 women unemployed in the UK?
Or we could offer stipends to cover women’s expenses while they build their ideas or business plans. Pre-seed funding could also be an effective mechanism to help those women who do not have the risk appetite to leave their job but who do have a great idea.
Let us all help to realise the original promise of the internet as an empowering, universal and democratising force by making sure its leaders, investors and entrepreneurs come from the widest pool of talent.
The writer is chair and founder of Doteveryone.org.uk
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