Martha Lane Fox, who delivered this year’s Dimbleby Lecture on the theme of “Dot Everyone,” is the co-founder of lastminute.com, a website that spawned many just like it. Created in 1998, it was an unreserved success for her and co-founder Brent Hoberman, as it was sold in 2003 for £577million surviving the Dot Com Bubble Crash.
During the pitching of the business plan for lastminute.com, she was asked by an investor, “What if you get pregnant?” Clearly, this question has stuck with Ms Fox all these years. The internet and the tech industry has rapidly become part of our everyday existence and back in 1998, there was no Google, Facebook or Instagram and we still had dial-up internet (I remember a phone bill which completely freaked my dad out coming up to £600 plus with hundreds of charges from Freeserve!) It seems the attitudes to women’s involvement in the tech industry has stayed back there in 1998 , despite the fastest technological revolution ever experienced.
Ms Fox mentioned the first computer programmer Ada Lovelace, the women coders who worked at Bletchley Park and the original programmers who operated the Colossus Computer, during her lecture, highlighting the important role that women have played in the development of this industry but also lamented that the big tech conglomerates and the fact that “…the cultures they spawn do not reflect the diversity of their users.”
One cannot argue too much against that when looking at the statistics. There is usually a vociferous group of people who believe that women are just “not interested” in programming, coding or understanding how the various technologies work but this simply cannot be true for all of women. For every Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Evan Spiegel and Jack Dorseys there are very few Sheryl Sandbergs and Marissa Mayers, and there are many more Ellen Paos that have chosen to not air their concerns out loud for fear of further stunting their career paths.
Ellen Pao lost her appeal against Kleiner Perkins, for gender discrimination with a jury delivering the verdict against her. The assertion was that Ms. Pao was overlooked for promotion with her male counterparts being promoted over her. Incidents were recalled such as not being invited to a skiing trip because all the men were staying in condos and that it would cause Pao to feel uncomfortable as the lone female. The trip went ahead and justified with the promise of adding 4-8 women in next year’s trip. The closely watched case, is touted as a seminal moment for women in tech even before the verdict and the general view is that it is time for women who are working within the industry to come forward and make themselves heard publicly. This is still a win in a male dominated industry. The glass ceiling that women are butting against is constantly layered with more and more male counterparts every year and without public and private initiatives, to help smash this ceiling, change will be incremental and not apace with the speed the tech industry is revolutionising all other industries.
Here, at TSR Select, when we are recruiting for a role, we are slave to the resource pool, if there are not enough women coders and programmers out there then we cannot put them forward, further enhancing the problem, but by the recruitment stage it is already too late isn’t it? To ensure we achieve a real and holistic balance this must be addressed at the primary education level, where the real difference can be made.
Initiatives like the BBC’s Micros giveaway, to a million kids is a huge step in the right direction as is the emphasis to add coding to the national curriculum. The main thrust of Martha Lane Fox’s lecture was to ensure that the internet and the digital age is for everyone, not just “male, white and able bodied,” men but for everyone from 5 to 90 years old and initiatives like this will go a long way.
Gender discrimination can be pointed to in lots of industries, from music and film to the public sector where women are make up only 24% of the House of Lords, reflecting the discrimination and lack of opportunities of the past. A recent report on the FTSE100companies shows that women accounted for 23.5% of board members, doubling from the 12.5% figure in 2011. FTSE250 companies accounted for 18% of women among its board members, up from 8% in 2011. Steps in the right direction but as our recruitment consultants know, you have to work on developing and maintaining a pipeline as it could change the future and unfortunately this report also indicates that there are not enough women in executive or managerial positions that will go on to board level appointments.
Companies have reacted and responded, such as Facebook and Apple offering, in response to female employee requests, the chance to freeze their eggs. Vodafone have offered a minimum worldwide maternity pay for its employees, but as many on the other side of the argument have pointed out, the work life balance is not exactly achieved, as then some will feel obliged to carry on working, irrespective of their desires.
As technology revolutionises the way we communicate, consume and interact and make life that much easier, here at TSR Select we also join the call to ensure that the gender balance is not too skewed to one side at the cost of the other in the industry for which we recruit. The question shouldn’t be “What if you get pregnant?” It has hopefully moved on from that, despite the statistics, but hopefully the question the investor is asking now is “How can we accommodate?