Baroness Martha Lane-Fox was one of the first to stand up in parliament to welcome the ‘brave new world’ of the internet - a world that offered a level playing field for entrepreneurs and democratised business opportunities for men and women alike. So why are there so few women?
“I genuinely find it baffling,” says Martha Lane-Fox, co-founder of Lastminute.com and digital services pioneer in parliament.
“I thought women would have much bigger role, because technology, or the internet, was a level playing field and its profound that did not happen.”
When you compare gender diversity amongst parliament with the newer, modern technology industry, the figures are surprising. Around 22 percent of the House of Lords is female, but tech is made up of around 14 percent, Lane-Fox says.
It’s hard to pinpoint what is causing the disparity. “It might be time for an upgrade of the computer science course," she suggests. Lane-Fox herself did not have a technical background, studying classics. She found herself in the dot.com arena chasing after business opportunities.
Current teaching methods and computing courses could be key, she says.
“Is it fit for purpose? Is it being presented in a way to girls that is compelling. Is it about solving problems?
“It might be time for an upgrade of the computer science course,” she says. While a new computing curriculum has been put in place to deepen understanding of computing, rather than ICT skills, gender has not been taken into account.
More generally, Lane-Fox thinks it will take “large leaps of the imagination” to settle the gender question.
“There is a national urgency around female technologists - we need to be a lot bolder about it. Let’s do things like pay unemployed women how to code...We should be the best country in the world for female technologists.”
On setting up your own business
At 25, Lane-Fox had embarked upon her first internet business, Lastminute.com, with co-founder Brent Hoberman. During that time she was often “the only person in the room" talking about how exciting technology was from the early days.
“We were really trying to convince people that the internet was going to blow up. Explaining the idea of putting your credit cards on the internet and trusting it to buy stuff meant people thought you were nuts. It was completely unheard of.”
Lane-Fox thinks the secret for her success “was about giving off an optimistic and inspiring view for people within the company, and the wider world. You have to encourage your staff, but also investors and the media. When you’re running something, or are the boss, you are always in sales mode. You have to switch on something in your brain that says ‘I can do this’. I still have to keep doing it even now,” she says.
Further, she adds that “being a fully signed up member of the human race” is crucial in business. “I don’t like the apprentice view of the world. Lastminute.com allowed us to create a good culture amongst our staff. If you have to make decisions, err on the side of generosity - life is too short.”
On technology in government
“The fascinating thing about parliament is the challenge of working in a sphere that is being wrecked, changed, improved, disrupted by technology but has no technical understanding itself.”
Lane-Fox gives a nod to the counter-terrorism and security bill passing through government right now. It will determine what personal information the government and private companies can hold on individuals, but due to the slow pace of bills, technology is out of date before a policy surrounding it is signed off.
“It’s extremely hard to legislate in an area that is moving so fast,” she says.
Like many businesses, the public sector is beginning to embrace digital as a overarching value, not just a linear strategy achieved by implanting a digital officer and creating a variety of apps.
“Digital is not about having Twitter and having an iPad, but how things can be fundamentally designed around the internet,” she warns.
Baroness Lane-Fox was speaking at the Everywoman in Tech forum in London this month.
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