This is an article I wrote for the FT comment section.
The ‘internet industry’ is only 30 years old. It is younger than the broad societal acceptance that women should have an equal place in the workforce. It’s rhetoric is all about disruption and redistribution, it is supposed to be a democratising force. And yet it is built on profound gender imbalance.
From whichever angle you approach it, the internet economy is driven and dominated by men. New data gathered by Doteveryone.org.uk shows that women occupy just 17% of tech jobs in the UK. This percentage has plateaued in the last five years whilst the sector has grown in importance to the overall economy.
Worse still, only 9% of women are in leadership positions, which is 20% less than the equivalent number of women in parliament – a well known bastion of modernity. Women make up 3% of venture capitalist partners, 20% of female tech founders and perhaps most shockingly only 4% of software engineers – so the people building the internet and the services we all use every day are overwhelmingly men. We need to address this gender imbalance urgently for three major reasons.
Firstly, jobs in the sector are highly paid and influential. The relative absence of women is increasing the well documented pay gap between the genders. Currently women earn 13% less than men in this sector, which works out as an average of £120 a week.
Secondly, we have a digital skills crisis. Right now in the UK there are 600,000 vacancies in the tech sector – this is predicted to rise to 1m by 2020. If we don’t understand and then try to rectify the low levels of women in tech we are missing out on 50% of the talent pool. In the 1960s Dame Stephanie Shirley started a software engineering company employing only women – all of whom worked from home. Her company programmed the black box for concorde and the first polaris submarine. Maybe we have to look back to look forwards and come up with imaginative solutions to address the way we approach gender equality in the tech sector?
Finally, products, services and ideas with a lack of diverse thinking at their core will never be as competitive as those created by gender-balanced teams. I am probably marginally biased but I believe lastminute.com was more successful with Brent and I as co-founders and the research bears this out. On a global scale, women entrepreneurs are poised to lead the next wave of growth in global technology ventures, and the high-tech companies women build are more capital-efficient than the norm. The average venture-backed company run by a woman can achieve comparable early-year revenues, using an average of one-third less committed capital. Women entrepreneurs also bring particular sets of skills that not only set them apart from their male counterparts, but also lend themselves to being successful entrepreneurs including a more nuanced view of risk and greater ambitions to become serial entrepreneurs.
When Apple launched its health kit in 2014 touted as an all singing, all dancing monitoring system for every aspect of your physical wellbeing there was no capacity to track any part of a menstrual cycle or menopause – perhaps unsurprising as there were no women on the development team. What a missed opportunity when it is well documented that women are the next global emerging market – controlling 65 percent of global spending and more than 80 percent of U.S. spending. Similarly, would Twitter have built-in different blocking and abuse reporting functions if there had been one woman involved in its creation? Think of the new product areas and untapped markets that the Internet has yet to improve and change – maternity, end of life care, mental health. All areas women are consumers and potential drivers. Any company or more boldly country, that dramatically improves its 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 industrial establishment built at the turn of the last century? Plenty. Yes, education is an important starting point, but in my experience, changing the education system is the default solution to complex questions. It’s not enough and other ideas can and should happen in parallel.
Why haven’t the corporate sector, who are urgently recruiting to fill jobs, not built programmes to help train out of work women in much needed coding skills? Research shows it takes about six months to train a total novice with some basic maths in the programming language java – why don’t we see how many new developers we could train from the 800,000 women currently unemployed in the UK?
Or how about stipends to cover women while they build their idea or business plan? Pre seed funding could be an effective mechanism to help women who might not have the risk appetite to leave their job, but who do have an idea. More women would have the confidence to find their feet during the transition from business idea to execution if there were access to very early stage and different models of funding.
It is a step backwards that the new global hierarchies replicate so entirely the old ones. Let’s ensure the original promise of the Internet as an empowering, universal and democratising force is fulfilled and that the leaders, investors and entrepreneurs creating its future come from the widest pool of talent.