At 9 a.m. PT today, the biggest tech event of the year, the Consumer Electronics Show, will officially start in Las Vegas. An hour earlier, there will be an unofficial, though every bit as powerful, kick off to the conference on Twitter. Only this one isn't focused on futuristic robots, innovative TVs, and must-see gadgets that are sure to cause a flurry of conversation. Instead, it echoes the sentiments of Time's Up, rallies for gender equality, and advocates for much-needed change in the tech industry.
Over 130 people and counting are participating in a thunderclap — a digital flash mob, where everyone pledges to post the same cause-focused message simultaneously— that targets CES 2018 with the hashtag #CESSoMale. The thunderclap is hosted by GenderAvenger, a grassroots, watchdog organization that has picked up unexpected steam in the past couple of months.
In late November, GenderAvenger issued an action alert to its members that called out CES for its lack of female keynote speakers. Although the group issued the same call to action last year (this will be the second year that no women are taking the keynote stage alone at CES), the alert took off this year. Gina Glantz, GenderAvenger's founder and president, says this was likely fueled in part by the momentum of 2017's social movements — the Women's March and Me Too.
"There's a lot of pent up desire and confidence about making change," Glantz told Refinery29. "When we put out this call, we not only got a response from our community, but also the corporate community."
Top marketing executives from Twitter, HP, Sonos, and JP Morgan called out the conference's organizers, the Consumer Technology Association, and the group was forced to respond to the issue with a post explaining its lineup. The response was an unsatisfactory one that cited self-imposted restrictions for choosing keynote speakers, such as: "To keynote at CES, the speaker must head (president/CEO level) a large entity who has name recognition in the industry."
Although CES attempted to quell the uproar by saying it was still securing speakers, its keynote addresses are still headlined by men. Women, including IBM's CTO Bridget Karlin and Olympian Angela Ruggiero, will appear on panels, though no woman will take the stage alone. A promotional photo that showed the all-male speakers has not appeared in any CES messaging since the controversy began.
"The most important thing is that we got the attention of the conference's organizers and leaders," Glantz says of the small changes that have taken place since GenderAvenger's action alert was put out. And they did: CES organizers wrote a letter to Glantz acknowledging the conversation she's started and promised they'd do better next year.
"What we hope to do is continue the drumbeat while we're here," she told Refinery29. She'll be assisted in her mission by Twitter CMO Leslie Berland and Sonos CMO Joy Howard, both of whom are hosting panels on gender equality in tech.
#CESSoMale may focus on one individual industry event, but it has far-reaching implications for change in tech. The organizers of South by Southwest are listening: Yesterday, the annual conference announced that Melinda Gates will be 2018's convergence keynote speaker. As Eva Longoria said at Sunday night's Golden Globes, "This is more than a moment, it's a movement."
*Editor's Note: This story has been updated.