Sexism in Silicon Valley and beyond: tech wake-up call
- 30 March 2015
- From the section Technology
"What happens if you get pregnant?"
That was the first question an investor asked Martha Lane-Fox after she and her business partner pitched him their idea for a dot-com company in a plush office in central London in the late 1990s.
That idea was lastminute.com, a company that would go on to be valued at £768m ($1.1bn) when it floated on the London Stock Exchange just two years later - but the investor was too preoccupied with her biological clock to seize the opportunity.
"Couldn't he see beyond his prejudices about a 25-year-old woman to glimpse the inspiring, brave new world ahead?" Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho asked the audience during the BBC Richard Dimbleby Lecture at the Science Museum in London this evening.
Sexism on trial
In California, Silicon Valley has been gripped by a sexual discrimination case brought by Reddit boss Ellen Pao against her former employer, venture capitalist Kleiner Perkins.
Two separate class-action lawsuits have also been filed against Facebook and Twitter, alleging lack of promotion on the ground of gender.
All companies have denied the claims and on Friday a jury ruled in favour of Kleiner Perkins.
So it was topical for Lady Lane-Fox to use her lecture to call for a new national body in the UK to promote a more diverse and inclusive approach to technology for users and, crucially, its workforce.
"It's time to balance the world of dot-com," she said.
"I would call it Dot Everyone."
Mind the gap
Because while it may be 17 years since the peer's excruciating first pitch, there is no getting away from the fact that the tech sector is still overwhelmingly male-dominated.
While just 14% of the UK industry is female, fewer than 10% of its investors are women, Lady Lane-Fox said.
"Yes, there are some impressive senior women in tech, women like Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Marissa Mayer running Yahoo - but you can count them on one hand and they're mostly based in the US," she said.
"I reckon it is not misleading to suggest that about 98% of the code that the internet and web technologies rely on was and continues to be programmed by men."
And this is apparent in the product, she believes, suggesting that Apple would not have omitted women's menstrual cycles, relied upon by millions of couples trying to conceive, from its much feted health tracker at its launch last month had women been involved in its design.
White and male
But just 17% of Google's tech staff (20% of Apple's), and 21% of its leadership team (28% of Apple's), were women.
"Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity," admitted the company's Laszlo Bock in a blog post.
Despite numerous high-profile campaigns to attract young women into engineering and technology, a recent survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology found that 93% of parents in England who responded said they would not be keen for their daughters to pursue careers in these areas.
One of the huge recruitment problems facing the industry is that it does not have a reputation for being particularly female-friendly.
Where are your children?
As a female technology reporter I know that I am usually in the minority at press events.
It does not bother me - and working for the BBC gives me an edge of authority - but it is not uncommon to be met with thinly veiled surprise that I actually know what I'm talking about.
I am often asked who is looking after my children if I am away at a conference.
My male colleagues are not.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January I soon ran out of conversation with the notorious "booth babes" - very beautiful, semi-clad women employed as brand ambassadors by some tech firms. It was clear that I was not their target audience and, besides, they did not know a great deal about the tech spec of their product.
That said, there were fewer of them at the event than there have been in previous years.
A member of the community website Reddit who said they were a woman who "works on computers" recounted a recent phone interview in which the male interviewer advised her that no "accommodations" could be made for her.
"I'm thinking I filled out the portion where they ask if you have any disabilities incorrectly or something, so I reply, 'Well, I don't have any disabilities, so that's not a problem'," she wrote.
"'No, it's not that. It's just that everyone else in the division are men,' " was the response.
The poster says that she is still looking for work.
Case of credibility
Reddit boss Ellen Pao thrust sexism in Silicon Valley into the spotlight when she claimed in her high-profile court case that she was sexually discriminated against during her time as an employee at venture capitalist Kleiner Perkins.
She was repeatedly overlooked for promotion on account of her gender and then fired after she complained, she said.
Kleiner Perkins said its decisions were based on her performance.
Ms Pao lost her case - but that does not excuse the industry from all allegations of sexism.
"The environment definitely is biased against women in technology, and venture capital is even worse," said Erin Malone, an alternate juror who heard all the evidence in the case but was not involved in the verdict.
"But I didn't find her as credible as she should have been."
"While today's outcome is a disappointment, I take consolation in knowing that people really listened," Ellen Pao tweeted after the jury's verdict.
"Hopefully my case will inspire the venture capital industry to level the playing field for everyone, including women and minorities."
The industry will now have to wait and see whether the publicity about Ms Pao's case leads to an increase in discrimination claims, or whether the verdict acts as a deterrent.
Computer scientist Sue Black, who has founded networks for women in computer science, said that she was pleased to see women taking legal action in the face of unfair treatment in the technology sector.
"We hear more and more women's voices about what's been happening to them - and we have more men agreeing it's a problem," she said.
"I have felt in the last two or three years that there is a groundswell around this issue.
"Women are speaking out more publicly, more confidently, and there are more networks of people backing them up."
Of course, diversity is an issue that reaches far beyond gender.
In an authored piece for the Washington Post, openly gay Apple chief executive Tim Cook attacked US legislation that could condone homophobic discrimination on religious grounds.
"Discrimination isn't something that's easy to oppose," he wrote.
"It doesn't always stare you in the face. It moves in the shadows.
"And sometimes it shrouds itself within the very laws meant to protect us."