At CES Las Vegas, Tech's Diversity Problems Take Center Stage

Sam Peet / Culture Trip
Sam Peet / Culture Trip

Tech & Entrepreneurship Editor

The biggest tech event of the year, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, kicked off with more than 180,000 attendees, no code of conduct for dealing with sexual harassment or assault, and a main stage speaker line-up with zero women or underrepresented minorities.

Given the rising tide of women’s empowerment, the current zeitgeist of inclusivity, and the widespread claims of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination coming out of Silicon Valley, stacking the main stage of the world’s biggest tech event with six white men and a single Asian man is an error so glaringly obvious it’s difficult to see the move as an unintentional omission.

In December, when the keynote speaker roster was initially published, the event’s organiser, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), first came under fire for the lack of gender diversity on its main stage.

“We are still securing speakers at all levels for CES 2018, but the current program features high-profile women speakers in technology, entertainment and business,” CTA senior vice president Karen Chupka responded in a blog post. “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.”

The letter addresses a fair point – there is a limited pool of female leaders at large companies. And there are brilliant female speakers at this year’s CES. But the deflection of responsibility is absurd.

As the association in charge of the event, it’s possible to change the arbitrary qualifying rules to highlight diverse leadership at smaller, pioneering companies. Or, as JPMorgan Chase’s chief marketing officer Kristin Lemkau pointed out in a tweet, the CTA could have simply looked harder.

Amazing women innovators in tech and media who would slay any keynote anywhere. Came up with these in less time than it took to drink coffee. In no particular order…
Other ideas?
— Kristin Lemkau (@KLemkau) December 3, 2017
But rather than ‘do better’, the CTA did nothing.

As Brenda Darden Wilkerson, diversity advocate and president and CEO of points out, ‘in the past seven years, only three women have spoken on [the CES] main stage: Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, General Motors CEO Mary Barra and IBM CEO Ginni Rometty.’ And while the event can’t seem to make room for women or minorities on its main stage, it continues to allow brands to feature ‘booth babes’ in their stands.

Let’s also keep an eye on how many companies r still using #BoothBabes at their #CES2018 stands!
— carolina milanesi (@caro_milanesi) January 6, 2018
It is beyond time for a change. If CES truly wants to be at the forefront of innovation, it’s time they disrupt their tired thinking. As Intel’s Krzanich said at CES 2016 — “If we want tech to define the future, we must be representative of that future.”

For more on women in tech, read about the women’s collectives transforming London’s entrepreneurship scene.

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