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Tina Casey headshot

So CES Missed the Mark on Women in Tech: Now What?

Controversy at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has turned into a teachable moment for businesses seeking to recruit women without falling into the tokenism trap.
By Tina Casey
Ivanka Trump CES

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas stepped into a hornet’s nest as 2019 drew to a close, when the organizers announced that White House advisor Ivanka Trump would be one of the keynote speakers. In normal times, a high-level speaker like that would have been a plum catch. However, as the event unspools this week, CES is in the awkward position of providing a high-profile platform to the daughter of a president in the midst of impeachment hearings, who critics point out has been credibly accused of serial sexual assault, among other many other issues that have an impact on women and families.

Nevertheless, the situation has turned into a teachable moment for businesses seeking to recruit women without falling into the tokenism trap.

Why Ivanka as CES keynoter?

Ivanka Trump comes to the CES stage with her own baggage as well as the myriad of issues encircling the presidency and business practices of her father.

The list includes an apparent attempt to capitalize on her father’s election by promoting her eponymous lifestyle brand. That effort ultimately failed, though Ivanka Trump continues to leverage her position to obtain additional trademarks overseas.

Accusations of labor abuses in Chinese factories associated with the Ivanka brand also trailed Ms. Trump after her father was elected. That sets up a tragically ironic contrast with the reported subject of her keynote address: the impact of technology on the future workforce.

Ivanka Trump has also been barred from serving on charities in New York state, as one consequence of a $2 million legal settlement agreed to by President Trump over misuse of funds by the family charity, the Trump Foundation.

In addition, her position as a White House advisor on “the education and economic empowerment of women and their families” rings hollow, considering policies of the Trump administration that undercut her women-and-families mission.

In short, her position at the White House reads as window dressing.

No, really, why Ivanka?

Given this context, reporters are now questioning if the CES keynote assignment came after organizers intentionally reached out to Ivanka Trump, or if they slotted her in to fulfill a request from the White House.

That’s a good question, considering that the speakership also puts a high-level CES representative on the spot.

Part of the speaking package includes an interview with Gary Shapiro, who is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, which owns and produces CES.

Questioned by reporters over the weekend, Shapiro declined to say whether the invitation came from CES or was requested by the White House.

He did say that the presence of Ivanka Trump on the keynote list is appropriate because “there is a lot of focus on jobs of the future, and certainly the keynote that I'll be doing with Ivanka Trump will be focusing on ... how industry is working with government on this very important issue,” he said in remarks reported by BBC News and other media outlets.

How trade organizations can help push gender diversity forward

Among the many CES observers to weigh in on the topic is Carolina Milanesi, founder of the gender and diversity consulting firm Heart of Tech.

In an opinion piece published in Forbes on Dec. 21, Milanesi nailed tokenism as the main issue:

“The reason for my upset is rooted in the fact that there are many more women who are in tech and are entrepreneurs who could run circles around [Ivanka] Trump on how technology will impact the future of work.”

While making it clear that change will not “balloon” up overnight, Milanesi outlined steps that organizations like CTA can take to help accelerate diversity.

“The number of women in high roles in tech companies will not balloon up overnight … This does not give us permission to do nothing, though, and patiently wait,” she writes.

In essence, Milanesi argues that events like CES have a duty and an opportunity to help push the envelope. The opportunities are far-ranging, from enforcing non-sexist dress codes at exhibitor booths to setting diversity targets.

She also advises that participants can help by refusing to join non-diverse panels and speaker lineups, a trend that is beginning to gather force. Women can also refuse to facilitate tokenism by declining to moderate non-diverse panels.

Stretching the definition of “qualified”

In a Jan. 5, 2018, letter to gender activist Gina Glanz, Shapiro indicated that CTA has gotten the message about the role of event organizers in promoting gender diversity and avoiding tokenism.

Or, did they? By way of defending their exclusion of women in keynote roles at the 2018 event, CES posted a message on its blog that described the qualifications for keynote speakers (cited by CBS News among others).

The post explained that keynote speakers at CES must be the president or CEO-level head of a “large entity who has name recognition in the industry.”

The blog post went on to lament (emphasis added): “As upsetting as it is, there is a limited pool when it comes to women in these positions. We feel your pain. It bothers us, too. The tech industry and every industry must do better.”

In that light, the Ivanka Trump keynote reads as tokenism at its worst. The goal posts have shifted between 2018 and 2020. A talented and hardworking woman in the tech field, regardless of her track record, will be skipped over in favor of another woman from another field who can top her with family connections and access to power.

For CTA and CES, throwing a keynote assignment to a uniquely privileged and controversial woman with no hands-on record in the technology field was a risk that someone felt was worth taking.

The question is, who?

Image credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey