Gender diversity in UK tech industry ‘still terrible’ says Lastminute.com founder

The businesswoman and peer Martha Lane Fox has criticised the lack of gender diversity in the UK technology industry, saying it has not progressed in 25 years.

Lady Lane-Fox of Soho shot to prominence in the late 1990s as the co-founder of Lastminute.com, a travel booking website that became one of the symbols of the UK’s 1990s internet boom. However, she said many of the same issues she had experienced then are still prevalent in the tech industry.

“I never imagined that now in 2022, some of the dynamics of the industry that I was enjoying building my business in would still be so terrible,” she said, in a speech at an event held by WorkL, a company that works with businesses to track employee welfare.

Lane Fox, who described herself as a “dot-com dinosaur”, has served in the House of Lords as a crossbencher since becoming the youngest female peer in 2013. She said the industry still had problems with hiring enough women, as well as people from different class and racial backgrounds.

She pointed to the example of Dame Stephanie Shirley, an entrepreneur who started a software company that employed programmers who were almost exclusively women. They worked on code for uses ranging from the Concorde jet to UK military submarines. Shirley signed her name as "Steve" on letters pitching for business in order to avoid being rejected on the basis of misogyny.

“Nowadays, we would be absolutely astonished if we had seen so many women engaged in those areas of technology,” Lane Fox said. “They’re not associated right now, those deep tech areas of technology, with such a gender balance.”

The technology industry has long failed to hire enough women, and misogyny is still endemic in online culture. Only 21% of IT professionals and 12.5% of engineers were women, compared with more than half the population, in a survey for the Wise campaign, which pushes to increase the number of women in science and technology roles.

Racial diversity in the UK technology industry better reflects the broader population, according to data from lobby group Tech Nation, but separate data from the recruitment agency Inclusive Boards in 2018 found the proportion of people of colour in senior tech leadership roles lagged behind the broader population.

Lane Fox said the coronavirus pandemic has brought some welcome changes to the use of technology. She said that if someone had told her in advance of the pace of the House of Lords’s switch to online meetings during lockdowns, “I’d honestly have thought you were smoking an enormous spliff.”

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