IT Girls in Lisbon for Web Summit 2017

Guest Blog: IT Girls Collaborative take on Web Summit 2017

The highlights and trends which inspired the South West women tech group at the world's largest technology conference
16th November 2017

The IT Girls Collaborative are just back from Web Summit, the largest technology conference in the world, which took place in sunny Lisbon from 6 – 9 November. The conference was vast, with over 66,000 people attending, so there really is something for everyone.

“Web Summit was a fantastic opportunity to get a snapshot of the European startup scene”

 

As Rosie Bennett, Director of University of Bath Innovation Centre, highlights: “Web Summit was a fantastic opportunity to get a snapshot of the European startup scene by seeing who was exhibiting, hiring… and schmoozing in the fabulous Lisbon bars – including some Bath SETsquared members and Bath graduate entrepreneurs.”

We’ve come back inspired and bursting with new ideas to take forward in our initiatives in the South West.

Certain themes emerged across the week which indicate where the leading thought leaders and technologists are heading (you can also read a day by day account of our experience here):

Artificial intelligence

The advantages and the dangers of artificial intelligence were introduced on the opening night by Stephen Hawking. He encouraged attendees to be open minded towards AI whilst being aware that to harness AI effectively appropriate regulation and governance is required.

What do we mean when we talk about AI? There are many types of evolving technologies which perform tasks previously dependent on human intelligence such as speech recognition, problem solving, learning and decision making.

A standout example this year at Web Summit was Sophia the robot, the first robot to receive citizenship which has been granted by Saudi Arabia. You can watch an interview with Sophia below:

 

Social impact

As we stand on the brink of a new frontier influenced and driven by technology the importance of prioritising social impact has never been more critical. A diverse range of speakers talked about the importance of using technology to improve the lives of the poorest and most marginalised from Antonio Guterres (Secretary General of the United Nations), Brad Smith (Microsoft President) to Alexandra Coutseau (environmentalist) the message was clear.

As Annie Legge, co-founder of The Dot Project which uses technology to support organisations to make social impact (pictured left), says,”Technology can, and should be used to benefit society and reduce inequalities.”

The key to achieving successful social impact is collaboration and transparency. Building partnerships which are complementary, incorporating the voices of those whose lives we are trying to improve and being honest about failure to encourage collective learning.

Technology can enable human connections, it will never ever replace the power of physical connections, but let’s celebrate the fact it can start the conversation, it can help us get connected to like-minded humans we would never have otherwise had the opportunity to meet.

Annie adds: “Connected people are the future form of empowered people.”

Diversity in Technology

I write this with a radically different perspective than before Web Summit. So I’ll start by saying the discussion around ‘Women in Technology’ is a starting point for wider diversity. Let’s hope that by overcoming the challenges women face in the technology sector we remove the barriers for everyone and make the technology industry more equal.

We often talk about the problems women face in accessing opportunities in technology roles and maintaining their careers within this sector. Let’s stop for a moment to consider how a lack of women is affecting technology businesses and the technology sector as a whole. As part of Web Summit an opinion map captured the perspectives of attendees around the following question ‘How would you describe the tech industry?’:

The majority felt the sector is exclusive, this needs to change.

Without women in technology teams the team is automatically less diverse. Decision-making and problem solving is inherently biased in all male, or predominantly male, teams despite the best efforts of individuals and organisations to overcome this. When organisations seek to rectify this by recruiting more women they struggle to find these women.

Instead of passively commenting on the need for more women, or growing frustrated by the lack of different opinions and perspectives on stage and in discourse Web Summit has inspired me further to take action. Where role models are missing we must become them, where situations do not encourage women to participate we need to highlight this and find proactive solutions and throughout this journey we must champion empathy by understanding how we can achieve greater diversity by listening to both women AND men.

“It was good to see some well chosen panels and active recruitment initiatives for women in tech from AWS, Google and Booking.com”

 

Web Summit offered ‘Women in Tech’ tickets this year priced at EUR 85.00 (instead of EUR 850.00), this made the conference more affordable and as a result the overall it felt that amongst the attendees there was a 50/50 balance of men and women. There was a Women in Tech lounge sponsored by Booking.com.

As Rosie says, “It was good to see some well chosen panels and active recruitment initiatives for women in tech from AWS, Google and Booking.com – to the extent that the ITGirls Collaborative felt central to the conversation, and the audience – a refreshing experience for a tech conference!”

Rowena Farr attended a talk by Lars Silberbauer (Global Director of Social Media, Lego) who talked about the fantastic diversity used in their approach to marketing in his talk titled ‘Levering the creative power of communities’. By using real life metrics and a diverse work force, Lego are able to use different channels and tools to help drive their global brand experience. Rebecca Parsons also echoed the importance of having a diverse workforce, noting that, “Real problems will be solved by a diverse group of people coming together and using technology as a tool.”

Overall though it did seem that women were underrepresented on stage which led to unbalanced discussions and perspectives. Fellow IT Girl Elsbeth noticed debates felt biased towards male perspectives and opinions and richer conversations could be achieved by creating more open dialogue for women to contribute actively to discussions.

So what are we bringing back to Bath after this year’s Web Summit?

Let’s start with a quick update of how Bath was represented at the Web Summit. IT Girls is a group of women in Bath working in the technology sector, it’s a supportive community and the reason we ended up at Lisbon in the first place! As the start of Web Summit approached a growing number of side events and communication channels emerged for women to share their perspectives and arrange to meet. This has really made us reflect on the importance of community and connectedness, you can read more about this here.

For The Dot Project we’re passionate about the role of women in technology. Motivated by the sense of community in IT Girls and a meetup we run, Tech for Good Bath, we arranged a meetup in Lisbon bringing together around 25 women working in the ‘tech for good’ space. This was a chance to collaborate, communicate and be creative. The meetup was a huge success and has prompted two women who attended to launch their own Tech for Good meetups in Portugal and Germany, we’re thrilled to have inspired this!

Returning from Lisbon Rowena has put together a list of lessons learnt which provide insights into the perspectives and opinions of prominent thought leaders.

As The Dot Project we’re determined to continue what we started at the Bath Digital Festival through the Diversity – Let’s do this! event. We are planning to join the dots across the gender diversity pipeline to establish effective partnerships and connected initiatives. By creating a system which inspires girls and boys from a young age that technology is subject for both boys AND girls we will build a strong foundation for women throughout their professional careers in technology. The result? A more diverse technology workforce and richer innovations in technology.

Before Web Summit I would have said we’ve still got a long way to go. Now I say it’s the next chapter, a new frontier and an important time to hear the voice of women and create positive perceptions around women in technology.

We can do this, it is possible, but it must be inspired by each and everyone of us.

You can see more info on what IT Girls and The Dot Project do at The IT Girls Collaborative website and The Dot Project Website. You can also follow them on Twitter here: @dotprojectco

Image credits: Rosie Bennet, The Dot Project, Lucia Velasco.