2017 will go down in record books as a year that brought issues of gender discrimination and sexism — especially within the media, entertainment, and tech industries — into the spotlight. These issues have become part of the public conversation in ways they have never been before: It's a reckoning splashed on front pages, seen while scrolling through social feeds, and overheard in conversations on the subway.
So it's especially surprising (and troubling) to hear that the tech industry's biggest annual event, January's Consumer Electronics Show, currently has a lineup of keynote speakers that includes six men (five of whom are white), and zero women. The compilation of all six male keynote speakers' headshots draws strong parallels to a Nikon photography campaign, which caused widespread outrage in September for featuring 32 male photographers, and — you guessed it — no women. Given the current conversations around representation and the need to elevate women in the workplace, it's not a good look.
Today, AdAge reported that many within the marketing community are speaking out against the noticeable lack of gender and racial diversity, and marketers and top executives from Twitter, JP Morgan, and HP have taken to Twitter to voice their disappointment and call on CES to do better. (One male CEO even called for a boycott.) GenderAvenger, a grassroots, watchdog organization whose goal is to "ensure that women are always part of the public dialog," published an action alert on November 29 about the lack of women slated to take the keynote stage at CES in five weeks time. The group also called out CES in 2017 for a similar lack of female-led keynote addresses.
"If, in fact, women are going to be respected in the context of what's happening now in our world, they need to be seen on big public stages," Gina Glantz, GenderAvenger's founder and president, told Refinery29.
Glantz founded the online activist community about three years ago, appalled by the dearth of women on the main stage at conferences. GenderAvengers is not alone in the fight for representation onstage. Other groups, such as BiasWatchNeuro, also seek to address the lack of women invited to speak at science conferences. Various pledges have called on male executives to commit to not participating on "manels," the cheeky term that refers to male panels.
In response to the outcry across social media, CES published a response from Karen Chupka, senior vice president of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the group that puts on CES. In her response, Chupka references four female keynote speakers from previous years, adding that there have been 21 keynote spots held by women in the last 11 years. That number is not very impressive, and Chupka reasons it is because of CES's own constraints:
"To keynote at CES, the speaker must head (president/CEO level) 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. We feel your pain. It bothers us, too. The tech industry and every industry must do better."
This is problematic, as speaking at important industry events is a vital professional development opportunity, and a key way for women to build their professional profiles. For CES, and others guilty of putting on "manels," a good first step would be to invite women who are in senior roles onto the keynote stage. A Korn Ferry study published in June found that "continued bias against women as CEOs" and "not sufficient opportunity" are the top two reasons people believe it's more difficult for women to land a spot in the corner office, much less a prestigious speaking gig.
The irony is that CES is citing its own self-imposed rules for its lack of female speakers. In fact, there is no shortage of women in the top ranks who would make excellent speakers and add invaluable insights at the event. In an email to Refinery29, Dona Sarkar, the head of Microsoft's Windows Insider Program, suggested Yoky Matsuoka, chief technology officer at Nest, and Debbie Sterling, who is, in fact, a CEO and founder of GoldieBlox. Both have extensive speaking experience.
Software engineer and Project Include team member Tracy Chou recommended Katrina Lake, CEO of Stitch Fix, Mary Lou Jepsen, founder of Openwater, Jean Liu, president of Chinese rideshare company Didi Chuxing, and Megan Smith, the former chief technology officer and assistant to President Obama.
There's also Jennifer Hyman, CEO of Rent the Runway; April Underwood, vice president of product at Slack; Alanna Cotton, vice president and general manager of mobile computing and wearables at Samsung Electronics America; and Maria Renz, vice president of delivery experience at Amazon.
Those are just 10 names of women, but far more have been provided on Twitter.
CTA has its work cut out for it. The question is, will it listen to its community?
This piece has been updated to include recommendations from Tracy Chou.