Marketers Said CES Was #SoMale. Will Next Year Be Any Different?

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Twitter's #HereWeAre event during CES, a response to the convention's lack of solo female keynote speakers.
Twitter's #HereWeAre event during CES, a response to the convention's lack of solo female keynote speakers. Credit: Twitter

During the uproar over a lack of solo female keynote presentations at CES this month, Twitter, Sonos and a number of other companies worked quickly to stage events highlighting women and diverse voices.

"I cannot believe we have to fucking do this, people," said Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode, at Twitter's #HereWeAre event.

The question is whether they'll have to do it again next year.

CES tech and marketing leaders criticized CES in December after a group called GenderAvenger publicized its all-male lineup of individual keynote speakers. CES organizers responded that they reserved keynotes for presidents or CEOs of large entities with name recognition and that, "as upsetting as it is," not many women fit that bill. They didn't want to "lower the criteria" for leaders on its keynote stage, they added.

At Twitter's event, Chief Marketing Officer Leslie Berland ribbed CES, claiming she'd "heard it's really challenging to find women leaders in tech," and that it's "impossible to fill a room for an all-women event." The laughter in the room was not quiet.

CES did include The Female Quotient's Girls' Lounge, which promotes female leadership. The ANA, the 4A's and others co-hosted an event along similar lines. And the inaugural "Advancing Diversity Honors" celebrated leaders that advance diversity and inclusiveness.

Saving CES?

But it was the quick addition of outside programming that changed the course of CES for HP CMO Antonio Lucio, who had tweeted in early December that "All men should boycott @CES if women are not invited to speak!"

"I was not going to attend, but then there [were] several events that were created around CES to showcase the impact of women in our industry," he says.

Asked about its plans for next year, CES said the episode had promoted "an important conversation."

"CTA is committed to changing the status quo," a CES representative said in a statement. "Going forward, we will redouble our efforts to expand women's voices—and diversity in general—throughout the conference and as featured speakers. For CTA this also means not just selecting a diverse group of speakers but encouraging diversity in STEM, in the tech industry and in corporate executive positions."

A female CEO keynote next year would be ideal but sholdn't be the end of line, according to Bridget Karlin, chief technology officer at IBM's Global Technology Services and a board member at the Consumer Technology Association, which organizes CES. More diversity among panel moderators is important as well, she says.

"Typically, the moderator has the ability to shape the conversation, shape the discussion and make sure all of the voices onstage are heard," she says. "It's one of those things that shapes what's covered in these sessions."

And CES could do more to influence and inspire technical women of all ages, she says.

Karlin says she's seen a proactive effort to ensure visibility of women as she has become more engaged with CES planning in the last couple years.

HP's Lucio, who has challenged the marketer's agencies by setting goals for the inclusion of women and minorities, says the same approach might not be appropriate for CES.

"I don't know whether quotas is the answer to this, because I think that it should also start with what are the objectives of the conference?" he says. Who are "the best people to actually deliver this message? Add a filter that says, my god, if women are a key consumer, we at least have some level of representation."

After speaking with CES organizers, Lucio says he's optimistic about next year. "I was very encouraged by their commitment to making sure that yes, diversity becomes one, not the, but one of the filters for selecting speakers in the conference," he says, noting that the problem is wider than just CES. "I'm actually very encouraged by their reaction and I hope by next year we have a conference that has some representations from amazing women."

Opportunity from uproar

Sonos CMO Joy Howard, whose company held an event called the "Boom-Boom Room," says she'd been losing interest in the conference because it reflected a culture out of step with the future she desired. But the controversy over keynote speakers presented an opportunity, she says.

"If it's about the future of technology, how can you envision the future in which half the population isn't represented at the leadership level? That's not a future we want to be a part of," she said. "It's so endemic to me of where tech has gone wrong and also where it has exactly the potential to get back on course."

"We're starting conversations and we're really enabling people to listen to each other. We want to set a course of motion in which we are equally represented," she says. "I think we're certainly starting on the fringes. Great change always starts on the fringe."

Other leaders sought to change existing programming. Joanna Popper, a media and tech executive, reached out to organizers of all-male panels with lists of potential female speakers and used LinkedIn to encourage others to do the same.

She that found many panelists weren't aware they were on all-male panels. In the end, she says three of the panels contacted added female participants.

"When you put somebody on stage, you're essentially saying this person's opinion matters," she says. "That is probably giving them future opportunities …. Giving that recognition grows careers."

"We don't want to have our own in-the-corner-of-the-room events," she adds.

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