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CES Responds to Diversity Backlash, Announces 'Keynote Panel'

By Published on .

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, speaks during the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show.
Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, speaks during the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show.  Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Days after it started receiving backlash for appearing to include only men in the keynote addresses listed online, the group that runs the massive tech conference CES is describing details of a previously planned "Keynote Panel" that includes at least one prominent female executive. The group, the Consumer Technology Association, has also responded to criticism in a blog post.

The panel, presented by the consultancy MediaLink, will feature A&E Networks president and CEO Nancy Dubuc, Discovery Communications president and CEO David Zaslav and LionTree founder and CEO Aryeh Bourkoff as well as other panelists yet to be announced. It will actually comprise more than one talk: a conversation among MediaLink CEO and chairman Michael Kassan and Zaslav and Bourkoff, followed by a panel moderated by MediaLink Vice Chairman Wenda Harris Millard that will include Dubuc and others.

The panel has been in the works for months, according to Karen Chupka, senior VP of CES and corporate business strategy at the Consumer Technology Association. CES organizers typically parcel out keynote announcements leading up to the January conference, she says.

MediaLink's CES keynote in past years has included Facebook VP Carolyn Everson, former McDonald's USA Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Wahl and JP Morgan Chase CMO Kristen Lemkau.

In the CTA's online response to criticism of its lineup so far, Chupka said keynote speakers must be presidents or CEOs of a large entity "who has name recognition in the industry."

"As upsetting as it is, there is a limited pool when it comes to women in these positions," she wrote. "We feel your pain. It bothers us, too. The tech industry and every industry must do better."

That didn't satisfy Gina Glantz, co-founder of GenderAvenger, the group whose missive against CES on Nov. 29 struck a nerve.

"There's not some force outside of them setting the criteria," Glantz says. "They set the criteria, and if its result is all white men, then they need to rethink their criteria to ensure they have innovative, smart, different … perspectives on their stage of women and of people of color."

Diversity advocate Cindy Gallop, a former agency exec turned coach and consultant as well as founder of Make Love Not Porn, dismissed CES' argument that it had a "limited pool when it comes to women in these positions."

"Fuck that shit," she says. "The industry body that produces the biggest consumer tech event in our industry should be setting the agenda … Who represents the cutting edge of consumer tech in the way we want to showcase? Maybe they're number two, maybe they're not leading a company that is as humongous as some of these."

In an interview with Ad Age, Chupka said the conference has already changed how it does things to include speakers in other facets of the conference. The MediaLink keynote panel is part of CES' "C Space" programming, which focuses on "creative communicators, brand marketers, advertising agencies, digital publishers and social networks."

The keynote stage is "one of the very few stages where that opportunity still exists to get that global microphone," she says. "That's why we've started at looking at things like panels, that's why we've gone and put together a C Space Keynote, that's why we have Super Sessions, and that's why we have some of these different types of speaking opportunities. Because we know not everybody is going to fit one bill or one mold or one criteria."

"It just seems like to me this is one unique opportunity that we hold for global CEOs," Chupka says. "Quite frankly, companies still want to do them, they're still very important in the mix, and to lower the criteria would just then make it really hard to get companies like that to participate in that level again. The very first question somebody asks you is who's been on that stage. If I'm not putting somebody up there that is of the caliber of their CEO, they're going to say, we don't want that opportunity. That's just how savvy marketing is these days."

Chupka also points out the women that are "all over CES" in its Eureka Park and high-profile speaking engagements.

"Last year, we had over 275 female executives speaking at CES. That's bigger than most conferences are," she says. "These were females that were in leadership positions across a variety of different industries. I know it's really easy to take a look at the big and shiny thing, but my god, there are so many great women speaking at CES each year, and sort of to disregard that is also unfair."

She says the show has lasted 50 years by making sure it keeps up with what's happening.

"We're not saying we're perfect, and we're not saying that this is the end of the story," Chupka says. "Every year we try to look at what can we do differently."

GenderAvenger's Glantz says the newly announced programming doesn't stack up to the individual keynote addresses that are currently assigned to men.

A panel is "no substitution for the most prominent slots at this conference," she says. "All the other keynotes are individuals… There's no comparison between that and a single man standing onstage delivering his speech to the entire audience."

"The attendees will see six men onstage, and no individual women featured," she says.

Gallop added that she believes the conference should still add at least two more keynote speakers to hold individual sessions, at least one representing women and at least one representing people of color.

"That's the only viable response" to the eruption of anger at the conference lineup on social media and via other outlets, she says.

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