The show floor of CES 2015
CES, the world’s largest electronics trade show, kicks off next week, with the first official events starting Sunday, Jan. 7. At the conference, attendees will get a glimpse of the year’s newest technology, hear keynote speeches from top industry’s leaders, and try futuristic products.
But this year will be marred by a glaring weakness in the CES lineup: The list of top keynote speakers (those who will address the conference audience alone, rather than as part of a panel) are all male, and five of the six are white.
Needless to say, people are outraged.
In fairness to the Consumer Technology Association, the group that organizes the conference, it did add women to the CES lineup in other places.
The organization’s website now lists two female panelists and a female moderator on its “C Space Keynote” and a female moderator on its Mobile Innovation panel. Karen Chupka, CTA’s senior vice president of CES and corporate business strategy, is listed as presenting CTA’s keynote along with Gary Shapiro, CTA’s president and CEO. However, the website only states that Shapiro will be giving the address.
But all of the women CTA added to its lineup are panelists or moderators of panels — none are giving keynotes themselves.
The lack of diversity among the conference’s top speakers is frustrating in its own right. This conference comes just months after the genesis of the #MeToo campaign in which thousands of women spoke out about sexual harassment in their workplaces. It also comes after the explosion of stories such as Susan Fowler’s harrowing expose of her mistreatment at Uber and a Google engineer’s public claim that women are biologically inferior — both of which cast a bleak light on the state of diversity in the tech industry. The perspective of a woman is important if not necessary to creating a comprehensive picture of the industry today.
Additionally, diversity is good. Plenty of research indicates that companies have better growth, better equity, less debt, higher quality products, and are millions more valuable when women hold top leadership positions. Surely, seeing female executives deliver keynotes at the world’s largest electronics show can only inspire more women to seek such positions, and to empower their companies in doing so.
But everyone makes mistakes. What’s more infuriating is CTA’s defense of its all-male lineup, where the organization claimed the lack of diversity was not that much of a problem and not its fault.
“Female business leaders are critical to the success of our show and the entire tech sector, and their position at CES extends beyond the keynote stage to our conference sessions and entrepreneurs exhibiting across the show floor,” reads Chupka’s response to criticism on CTA’s blog.
I shouldn’t need to explain why this response is insufficient for anyone that actually cares about equal opportunity. It’s great that we have a lot of women in executive roles, but the opportunities to are still too few and far between, and it’s a symptom of broader societal discrimination.
Secondly, CTA claims it’s not to blame. “To keynote at CES, the speaker must head (president/CEO level) a large entity who has name recognition in the industry,” Chupka says in his blog. “As upsetting as it is, there is a limited pool when it comes to these positions… the tech industry and every industry must do better.”
Yes, CES. These industries must do better. But so must you.
There are clearly many, many women in the tech industry who fit this description. Kristin Lemkau, JP Morgan Chase’s Chief Marketing Officer, tweeted a list of 32 women who fit CTA’s criteria that she claims took “less time than it took to drink coffee,” including IBM CEO Ginny Rometty, A&E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc, and Mattel CEO Margo Georgiadis. Twitter responders added dozens more.
CTA cannot simultaneously wave its hands and claim that they are tied. Claiming that minorities aren’t getting hired because they just aren’t qualified was academia’s answer to this same criticism last century. Since then, we’ve grown up to realize that in many instances, diversity outweighs meritocracy. If CTA can’t find a single female CEO willing to deliver a keynote, it should lower its standards.
In August, the aforementioned Google employee wrote that “the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes,” a sentiment which ultimately got him fired. Perhaps CES is buying into this sentiment, in which case there is nothing they can do to correct for an innate problem.
But the evidence is stacked against them. While women make up less than 20 percent of computer science programs in the U.S. and U.K., they make up around 50 percent of those programs in India, Malaysia, and Nigeria. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that hiring is incredibly sexist.
In other words, a woman needs to do more work to get to the top jobs that CES covets so dearly than a man of equal aptitude — and therefore, a man who might give a keynote equally well.
Organizers of worldwide events can scramble to find female speakers to put on panels for the sake of diversity alone, and that’s a start. But it’s not enough. These organizers need to realize that the most capable women in their industries, women who will deliver keynotes that will blow their minds, might be barred from the top spots because we live in a society where barriers exist to women attaining those positions. CES’ current standards bar incredibly qualified individuals who could make the conference better.
CTA, if you want the best possible keynotes at CES, find women. If 100 women can’t make it, reach out to 100 more. If there are no female CEOs of global companies, look at smaller companies. If you need to stick with big companies, look at COOs, CMOs, CTOs, CBOs. Most importantly, don’t pretend there’s nothing you can do to solve the problem, and don’t pretend it’s already solved.
It doesn’t just hurt women when a lineup of keynote speakers is entirely men. It hurts your conference, tech companies, and all of us.