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Tina Casey headshot

CES Makes Up (Partly) For 2018's Zero Women Debacle

By Tina Casey

Something as simple as the speaker's lineup for a trade show can become a platform for change -- if people pay attention and speak up, that is. That's the lesson from the popular Consumer Electronics Show. This year, CES will shine the spotlight on two women keynote speakers, fresh on the heels of the backlash it experienced last year, when a grand total of zero women were slotted into the top speaking positions.

Why CES matters

To call CES popular is something of an understatement. The annual showcase for all things tech is staged by the Consumer Technology Association, and the organization is not shy about tooting the CES horn.

Last year was the second year that CES expanded to include all major and emerging industries, and it was the second year in a row that total attendance topped 182,000.

The Consumer Technology Association called CES 2018 the "Global Stage for Innovation," noting that a good one-third of the total attendees at the 2018 event in Las Vegas were from overseas countries, regions and territories. The organization ran down the numbers last year in a press release:

According to a preliminary report released by the U.S. Department of Commerce, international travel to the U.S. decreased by 3.8 percent in 2017. CES 2018 showed no signs of following this trend as international attendance at the show increased by 5.9 percent from CES 2017. This included 36,482 attendees from Asia/Middle East, 17,338 attendees from Europe and 9,964 attendees from Africa, North America (excluding U.S.), Oceania and South America.

CES is the largest and most influential global technology event that highlights life-changing and transformative tech that improves lives.

Among the attendees last year were 6,645 members of the media, including 166 "key online influencers."

Where were all the women?

All in all, CES is quite a nice showcase for tech entrepreneurs and professionals who are competing for public attention in a highly competitive field. That makes it all the more curious why no women made the cut for keynote. Making matters worse, there were no women headliners in 2017, either.

To be clear, women did speak at CES 2018. The press release noted that "1,079 speakers participated in CES keynotes, panels and conference sessions including more than 300 women speakers." However, lumping all of those assignments together is more than a little disingenuous. The headliner slots are pretty much the only ones that catch national and global media attention.

When activists called attention to the absence of high profile women speakers at CES 2018, USA Today did a little digging and came up with these numbers:

...only three women in the past seven years have been tapped to deliver the much hyped keynote addresses: former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, General Motors CEO Mary Barra and IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. Other prominent business leaders such as former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns and former GE vice chair Beth Comstock participated in what CTA calls keynote panels.


Pay attention, speak up, get results -- sort of

Among the activists cited by USA Today were Gender Avenger co-founder Gina Glantz, developer of the Gender Avenger app. Much like the Sleeping Giants and Grab Your Wallet campaigns, the app enables individuals to identify bad behavior and publicize it through social media.

In the lead-up to CES 2018, Glantz posted an action alert on the Gender Avenger blog under the title, "The Keynote Speakers At CES 2018 Are All Men." The blog post garnered copious social media attention including commentary from Brad Jakeman (formerly of PepsiCo), Joy Howard of Sonos and Leslie Berland of Twitter, among others. This pithy observation got the ball rolling:

For a show marketed as “the world's gathering place for all who thrive on the business of consumer technologies,” it sure seems like “for all” really means “for all men”.

So, did the Consumer Technology Association listen? Well, yes and no.

Shortly after Glantz's blog post, CTA Chief Executive Officer Gary Shapiro penned a somewhat defensive rejoinder on Medium. Here's a key passage:

. . . I was stung by the online backlash expressing outrage that no women were among the CES keynote speakers announced to date. The exclusive focus on keynotes in my view insults the hundreds of women who are speakers at CES in January.

Diversity abounds at CES. The number of women on the keynote stage will fluctuate each year in part based on the business needs of individual companies. I prefer to focus on spotlighting the remarkable women throughout the show who are impacting innovation. We’re proud to have women founders, CEOs, CMOs, chief counsels, government leaders and others speak at CES 2018. You’ll hear their voices, perspectives and industry insights.

Okay, but that misses the point identified by Glantz and others: sure, women are included but they hang out on the sidelines while men nail down most if not all of the spots reserved for superstars.

Be that as it may, the lineup for CES 2019 indicates that CTA was listening. Last August, CTA announced that IBM Chairman, President and CEO, Ginni Rometty, will be a headliner at CES. In October, the organization also announced a keynote slot for AMD President and CEO Dr. Lisa Su.

For those of you keeping score at home, that's two of the four top keynote positions, which sounds pretty good. On the other hand, it looks like CTA is still casting about for a fix that will address the core of the problem.

Fast Company took a deep dive into the issue last November and described one rather disappointing solution: requiring all keynotes to include multiple speakers. In other words, this is diluting the star potential of women by including them in a gaggle of speakers rather than giving them each an exclusive platform.

That kind of reform pretty much defeats the whole purpose. After all, one main selling point of CES is the power to make stars shine. That includes raising the public profile of companies engaged in corporate social responsibility issues, including conflict minerals and sustainable design among others.

The 2019 event page underscores the focus on individual achievers:

[CES] has served as the proving ground for innovators and breakthrough technologies for 50 years — the global stage where next-generation innovations are introduced to the marketplace.

...because it is owned and produced by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)™ — the technology trade association representing the $292 billion U.S. consumer technology industry — it attracts the world’s business leaders and pioneering thinkers to a forum where the industry’s most relevant issues are addressed.

CES 2019 kicks off on January 8 in Las Vegas. Regardless of CTA's outreach, it's a safe bet that activists, reporters and key social media influencers will keep the topic of women's representation front and center throughout the event.

Image credit: CES.tech

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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