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14 July 2017updated 12 Jun 2018 4:05pm

Martha Lane Fox is “horrified“ by the tech industry’s adoption of traditional sexist hierarchy

A more equal and progressive digital economy is possible, says the crossbench peer and Doteveryone founder

By Augusta Riddy

“Sorry, I’m just choking on a broad bean.” Its 5.45pm and Martha Lane Fox is eating her lunch. As an entrepreneur, digital activist, mother of twins, and executive chair of Doteveryone, it’s surprising she has time to eat at all.

Doteveryone, in her words, is “a think tank fighting for a fairer internet … the notion of a digital society as much as a digital economy”. Its journey began in 2015 when Lane Fox delivered the Dimbleby lecture, laying out her vision for an independent “institution to think about the internet in a different way” and to push for as inclusionary digital progress as possible in the UK, so that “no one is left behind”. They work in three areas: “digital understanding, digital society, and responsible technology”.

A key focus of the think tank is trying to close the “gap of experience between what is happening in technology” and what is happening in different spheres of societal leadership. Before setting up Doteveryone, Lane Fox was ‘UK Digital Champion’ under David Cameron, encouraging people to get online and improving public services through digital access. Did her experience of policymakers cause some concern, leading to the start of Doteveryone? “Sort of … I think one of the most challenging issues that we face is that people making big decisions for us have, not through any fault of their own, not had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the digital world”.

The think tank, as part of their digital leadership drive, set up an MP mentor programme, “we got a cohort of MPs and matched them with a mentor and helped them to learn a bit more about the digital world” in an environment where they felt comfortable to ask questions and admit if they didn’t know something. They offer similar services to other public service leaders; Lane Fox admits that even she gets “completely confused and lost so how must it be if your main job is worrying about a hospital”.

In her Dimbleby lecture, Lane Fox opened with an anecdote from her time as founder of the now hugely successful site, when she was 25 years old. She and her then-business partner Brent Hoberman were raising money for the project, and a potential investor only had one question at the end of the pitch: “What happens if you get pregnant?”. She is passionate about getting women into tech, and walks the line with her own organisation: the Doteveryone staff are 85 per cent female and both their CTO and CEO are women. “We’ve just got an amazing group of kick-ass women who are talking about technology”. For Lane Fox, the underrepresentation of women in tech is nothing short of a disaster, “it’s one of the most pressing issues to face the sector: that we don’t have women in leadership roles and we don’t have women making the big, important, complex decisions”.

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Sexism in the technology sector, although ongoing, has received more attention in recent months with revelations of sexual harassment in high-profile Silicon Valley firms like Uber. Lane Fox, although concerned about these incidents, believes it isn’t a problem specifically with tech culture, but rather the industry mirroring discrimination taking place almost everywhere, “you’ve got to be careful to not lump all these things together. There’s clearly something going on at Uber which is not true in a huge number of other good tech businesses … I think it [sexism] is pretty prevalent across lots of different bits of the world”.

That an industry which is less than 20 years old is following suit is the real tragedy. Recalling when she first became involved in the sector, the sense of optimism and the assuredness that this time it would be different makes her disappointment all the more acute,“I am horrified that we have replicated the old hierarchy in an industry that didn’t exist”.

Sexual inequality isn’t the only thing that Lane Fox is fighting, “we still have a crisis in this country of numbers of people who can’t afford or don’t know how to use the internet”. She is almost evangelical about the power of digital skills to make a material difference to someone’s quality of life, “if you watched my lecture you’ll know what an insane belief I have that digital skills don’t change the world, but they can sure as hell help you get a job”. Meanwhile, a high number of jobs in the tech sector are waiting to be filled, “and if we don’t fill them then we won’t have such a vibrant economy”.

But surely technology also has the immense power to take jobs away? “I feel like there’s more emphasis than I can remember in the last 5 years on the nature of work, how the workforce is going to change and the annihilation … that’s going to happen to some industries”. Is basic income the answer? She’s not sure, but it is a question that needs to be addressed by policymakers now. “We’ve got to start testing and working through lots of different creative scenarios”.

The morality of increasing digitisation is something that Doteveryone focuses on, and the need to apply values to this unruly realm is an idea that has preoccupied Lane Fox for some time: “It’s not too late to be ethical about the internet”. As a think tank they have been analysing the example of fairtrade, “the fairtrade group started off with hippies and bananas and now loads of people don’t want to buy products unless they know where they came from and I think there’s model there for the internet”.

The underlying concern is that as a country, we need to be moving much more quickly in order to be prepared for this new reality which is already upon us, “we’re living in a world where the internet is the organising principle and we’re not organised around it”. Lane Fox believes that regulation will be applied, but it’s happening too slowly, “We will look back on this time and think ‘wow it took us a long time to work out what to do!’. I’m sure it will happen but I couldn’t posit a guess where from and how right now”. This concern goes beyond Westminster, “it’s not just about Government. Fairtrade didn’t come from Government so there’s stuff you can do through movements and campaigning that can shift behaviour”.

As for the international order, she predicts that some of the big companies will need to be broken up, “there is a danger that they have become so much more important than country governments that it gives them a displaced sense of what is in their control and power. These are all dangerous dynamics”. She is adamant that the people who work for these companies are, on the whole, decent; “I don’t believe they get up in the morning to be unethical. I don’t think that at all”. The answer isn’t to stifle their innovation, but to catch up.

What is Doteveryone most excited about right now? “We love the internet! My idea was not an attempt to make it feel less of an exciting place but an attempt to make it feel more of an exciting place, but for more people”. Clearly, her sense of awe has not diminished since that pitch when she was 25, “I was talking to someone from DeepMind earlier and some of the stuff they’re working on … it’s terrifying and extraordinary in equal measure, but it’s still exciting”. Her focus now, and the focus of Doteveryone, is to make that excitement universal, “half the world is still not using the internet and there is a hugely important divide between people who have it and those who don’t … the extraordinary empowerment that comes when you can give someone access; that to me is as exciting as the latest, whizziest bit of technology”.

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