Women in Tech at the Web Summit 2018

Written by: Joanne on November 14, 2018
Tags: Inspiration, Women in Tech

I’ve just returned from the annual Web Summit in Lisbon, where I spent 3 days inside the Altice Arena with 69,000 other people. For those who aren’t aware, in previous years the Summit has been widely criticised for being a ‘boys club’ and extremely lacking in gender diversity, both in the attendees and speaker profiles. This year they prioritised addressing that, by offering bursaries to enable women to attend for free. I was fortunate to get a free pass to the Summit thanks to the wonderful people at Baltic Creative CIC who offered our local community the opportunity.

Alison from Baltic Creative CIC (left), Jo Co-Founder of InnovateHer (right).
Alison from Baltic Creative CIC (left), Jo, Co-Founder of InnovateHer (right).

The bursaries resulted in the percentage of female attendees rising from 25% in 2013 to 44% this year, which meant a total of 31,000 of the attendees were female. A great effort. It certainly felt like there was a balance in the attendees at the event – for instance this is the first time I have ever had to queue for a women’s bathroom at a tech conference! On stage there were a number of high profile female role models. There was even a dedicated Women in Tech lounge which provided free coffee, snacks and a place to network (it was inclusive and also welcomed men). I held most of my meetings there and met some incredible women from all over the globe. However, the best meetings I had were arranged before the Summit began – more on that later in my top tips.

There’s still work to be done…

Although the attention that the organisers paid to the gender diversity issue is very positive, there is still more work to be done to improve inclusion at the Summit and stamp out sexism. I attended many talks where there were ‘manels’ (all male panels); namely at the smaller stages. I also joined the official Web Summit Women in Tech Facebook group, within which there are currently over 13,000 people. Sadly, there were numerous complaints posted in that group about sexism experienced at the Summit; one attendee witnessed an AI in dating talk at the Binate Stage, which featured three men on a panel talking about womens dating habits in a derogatory way, with the moderator concluding that ‘women can be very demanding these days’ and denying that the gender pay gap exists globally. Not great.

Outside the Web Summit
Hustle And bustle outside the Web Summit

One female attendee posted in the group that she heard a lewd comment from some male attendees while she was registering on day one, and she challenged it in the moment. As the only woman within earshot who heard it, she felt that the male attendees she was surrounded by could have been her ally and spoken out too. She calls for ‘allyship’ at tech conferences and stresses how important it is to call out this type of behaviour. She says;

‘Boosting female representation in tech goes hand in hand with retention, which comes down to fostering a safe and supportive work culture. Calling out sexism takes courage. And courage takes energy. When women constantly need to reserve part of their energy to watch out for and call out inappropriate sexual comments, that’s energy wasted which could go into other productive efforts.

In future years I’d love to see #WebSummit dedicate more attention to allyship and what allyship looks like on a day-to-day basis. Talking the talk is a starting point, for sure, but as the world’s biggest tech conference, #WebSummit is in a huge position of influence to empower thousands of people with practical skills for holding each other accountable in working towards gender equality.’

I think this is a great suggestion. Perhaps we should consider having a code of conduct for all our events and encourage male attendees to become allies. It’s important to call out behaviour as it occurs and let people know that it won’t be tolerated.


In terms of the content, it would have been great to have more interactive elements to the conference generally as it did feel like being ‘talked at’ a large amount of the time. Perhaps this was happening on the smaller satellite stages but those areas were often oversubscribed. Yet despite noticing some distinct areas for improvement, I came away feeling inspired and reinvigorated, with some new perspectives on my work and some brilliant new connections.

Here’s just 3 of my highlights from this years content:

Christopher Wylie in conversation with Krishnan Guru-Murthy

I loved listening to Christopher talk, he was very direct and spoke from the heart. Christopher argued that we need an international ethical framework for tech, including legislation and clear accountability. He said; ‘It’s the only profession still without a code of conduct. Accountants, lawyers & other sectors do have one. Yet as a data scientist I touch people’s lives and have a direct connection with them in a way that other professionals simply don’t.”

So if you’re in tech; he pleads you to give due consideration to what you do. Think about how what you are creating might have ethical impact both now, and in the future.

Hanson robotics

Meet Sophia and Han, two robots in conversation with their creator. I was slightly creeped out by some of this talk, but also fascinated by their ability to express themselves. We were given a demo of how their emotion recognition technology works. Sophia was able to recognise many emotions expressed by the human demonstrator. She was also able to express her own emotions on her human-esque face.

Sofia the robot
Sofia the robot in conversation

The talk covered topics like ‘should robots be awarded citizenship?’ For instance, Sophia is now a citizen of Saudi Arabia. Is this right? And what is the test for citizenship? Should they be able to understand and interpret a country’s laws? Or should it simply be that they are citizens of their country of origin?

Han the robot was a little more sinister than Sophia. He expressed that he thought that; ‘Intelligent robots should run the world because you humans have made a right mess of it.’ Whilst there’s some truth in that, I must admit that this gave me nightmares afterwards.

Watch the video of their session.

Follow Sophia on Twitter.

Imogen Heap

Unfortunately, due to technical interference from the thousands of devices on site, Imogen was not able to do a performance as planned. Instead she delivered a really interesting talk on the technology she’s developed for performances, using gloves which have sensors integrated into them. If you haven’t seen these before, I’d strongly recommend checking out her video.

Imogen sharing her story
Imogen sharing her story

Imogen says that ‘the music industry is ripe for innovation’ and that the creation of ‘a creative passport’ would hold data on artists and tracks to make it more transparent and fair. She intends to revolutionise how the payment of royalties to artists works via a smart contract using blockchain. Her vision is that artists will receive Instantaneous payments and that it will be fairer to music makers (with more fees going direct to them).

Insider tips

So if you’re thinking of going next year, my 5 top tips would be:

  1. Arrange meetings in advance. The Summit is vast and it’s really hard to reach out to people while you are there. Use the official Web Summit app and join community groups on LinkedIn and Facebook to find people you might want to meet for coffee.
  2. Pre register at the airport. They have a marquee there and it saves you so much time in queuing to register at the Arena.
  3. Get a travel pass. They sell 3 and 5 day travel passes at the airport, these are invaluable as you can get everywhere on the Metro and its very cheap.
  4. Stay somewhere fairly central. Most of the night summits happen in the centre. But don’t be afraid to explore and do your own thing!
  5. Make time to check out Lisbon. The city is seriously awesome. It’s as inspiring as the event itself. Just wander round and appreciate the artwork and the friendly vibes.
Web Summit from above
There were a total of 69,000 attendees at this year’s Web Summit

Did you go to the summit this year? Tell us what you thought on @innovateheruk.

Read the Web Summit’s Women In Tech poll results.

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