THERE is an “unconscious bias” against women in the technology sector, according to dot.com entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox.
Baroness Lane-Fox, who co-founded Lastminute.com in the online boom of the early 2000s, said she had originally thought the internet would level the playing field.
She described the growth of the internet as the “industrial revolution of our time” and said that unless women were at the forefront of it, the UK would go backwards.
“All that’s happened is that one bunch of very rich white men have transferred their money to another bunch of very rich white men and, worse than that, they are in a very small concentrated area of the world, in Silicon Valley,” Baroness Lane-Fox, a cross-bench peer, said.
“I still find that really baffling. The absence of women from the teams that are making the internet, the product designers, the coders, the engineers, the absence of women in the venture capital community.
“I think it is really profoundly important because this is where the industrial revolution of our time is. If women are absent from it I think we will go back in time.
“In the Sixties and Seventies there were a whole load of women in the computer industries but something happened in the Eighties that professionalised it and a lot left and it has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said.
“I am perplexed by this as I genuinely thought the internet would be an empowering tool for women.
“There is a cycle of behaviour in the venture capital community which I don’t think is overt sexism, I think there is some, but I don’t think it is the only reason but there is a lot of unconscious bias.
“If you are a venture capitalist and you are looking at risk you are less likely to invest in someone that is not like you.
“I think there is a lot of different angles in the chain and I think it is incredibly important to understand with real data why that is happening.
“I am optimistic because I think there are a lot of things that we can do that is imaginative to get women and girls into the sector right now.”
Baroness Lane-Fox was speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival to outline her plans for her Dot Everyone project, which aims to advance the understanding of the digital age.
“I do feel I am on an evangelical mission about the next phase of the internet,” she said.
“It takes my breath away to think that it wasn’t that long ago there was no Google in the UK and it was just tiny in the US.
“There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no LinkedIn and all these companies have gone ‘boom’ in the last 10 years.
“One of the things I have been amazed by, appalled by and energised by is the very long way we have to go in embedding the potential for life transformation by the internet more widely and universally in the UK.
“In 2009 I got asked by Gordon Brown if I would look at the issue of digital skills in the country. At that time I had no idea that there were around 10 million adults who had never used the internet.
“So I set off on this mission and I wasn’t too sure where it would lead. I have become devoted to the transformation of people’s lives through access to technology, hence Dot Everyone.
“I would argue that we should proceed with pace about skilling up our population.
“We are a very small country and there is only about 60 or 70 million of us and we are basically the size of a large Chinese or Indian city and I would argue that gives us a huge opportunity to really think about how we can be leaders over the next 10, 20 and 100 years.
“Why don’t we just make ourselves the best-skilled nation on the planet?”