Tech’s big gadget show edges closer to gender equity

This year,44 per cent of the current keynoters are women – 60 per cent of them women of colour

The world’s largest tech conference has apparently learned a big lesson about gender equity.

CES, the huge annual consumer-electronics show in Las Vegas, caught major flak from activists in late 2017 when it unveiled an all-male lineup of keynote speakers for the second year in a row. Although it later added two female keynoters , the gathering’s “boys’ club” reputation remained intact. It didn’t help that one of the unsanctioned events latching on to CES last year was a nightclub featuring female “robot strippers.”

This year, four of the nine current keynoters are women. GenderAvenger, the activist group that raised a ruckus last year, recently sent CES organizers a congratulatory letter and awarded the show a “Gold Stamp of Approval” for a roster of keynote and “featured” speakers that it says is 45 per cent women — 60 per cent of them women of colour.

It’s a significant change for CES, which like most tech conferences remains disproportionately male, just like the industry it serves. Even absent the robot dogs, sci-fi worthy gadgets and “booth babes” CES has been known for, you could readily peg it as a technology show from the bathroom lines alone — where men shift uncomfortably as they wait their turn while women waltz right in.

Keynoters this year include IBM CEO Ginni Rometty; Lisa Su, CEO of chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices; and U.S. Transportation Security Elaine Chao. The entire featured speaker list is currently half female, although the exact percentage won’t be known until after the event. “There is no question we keep trying to do better,” said Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, which organizes CES.

“Diversity is about having people who see things differently — frankly, disagree with you and tell you that you are stupid,” said Tania Yuki, CEO of social media analytics company Shareablee and an attendee of CES for the past several years. The big question, she says, is whether CES has really listened to its critics.

CES is the place to be for tech companies and startups to show off their latest gadgets and features. More than 180,000 people are expected to attend this year, and some 4,500 companies will be on the convention floor. Among them are newcomers like Tide maker Procter & Gamble, defence contractor Raytheon and tractor seller John Deere — all eager to burnish their technology bona fides.

But really levelling the playing field often means more than inviting female CEOs to speak. For starters, women and people of colour are underrepresented in the tech industry, especially in leadership and technical roles. So, conference organizers might need to look harder, or be more flexible in who they invite to speak.

There are also optics. While recent attendees say “booth babes” — scantily clad women hawking gadgets — no longer seem to be a presence, some companies still hire “fitness models,” largely young women wearing tight-fitting outfits, to demo products. This can make it difficult for the few women at the show who are there as executives, engineers and other technologists, as men mistake them for models, too.

“When you are talking about scantily clad models you are setting a tone,” said Bobbie Carlton, the founder of Innovation Women, a speaker bureau for women. “It is a slippery slope and you end up with this type of mentality that runs through industry, where women are objectified and are only useful if they look good.”

More optics: Until recently, a porn convention taking place immediately after CES appeared more diverse than CES itself. Not a good look for the tech confab.

There are also logistical challenges, Carlton said. For example, women often work for smaller companies, which can find it more challenging to “send someone cross-country to stay at a fancy hotel for three days,” she said.

Rajia Abdelaziz is CEO of invisaWear, a startup that makes smart “safety jewelry.” While she’s attending CES this year, she said it wasn’t worth the $10,000 it would cost her company to have its own convention-floor booth. In addition to the cost concerns, Abdelaziz notes that her products are primarily aimed at women — and there just aren’t that many of them at CES.

Women are also still more likely to be responsible for the home and for child care, so they might turn down speaking opportunities if the timing doesn’t work for them, Carlton said.

CES has tried to make some concessions. For example, it offers private pods for women to pump breast milk at the event. But it doesn’t offer child care support, unlike the smaller Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing conference, a fall event aimed at women in computer science.

Organizers note that children are not permitted at CES. Although kids are also banned from Grace Hopper, that conference still manages to offer free child care for attendees.

Still, Yuki is hopeful that CES is on the right track. “It’s a big conference,” she said. “You can only turn a very big ship very slowly.”

Associated Press Writer Joseph Pisani contributed to this story.

Barbara Ortutay, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Cheng² Duo bring 17th century cello to Smithers

Young brother-sister team bring original classical arrangements inspired by some … classics

Is Terrace prepared for a rail disaster?

Council asked to review surge in dangerous goods movement: “I live in the blast zone,” says resident

Woman killed in head-on crash near Vanderhoof

RCMP say driver crossed the centre line and hit a loaded fuel tanker truck

RCMP to review actions at Wet’suwet’en pipeline protest camps

Senior Mountie says he hopes protests will be peaceful following deal with hereditary chiefs

‘Tripod’ delays access to Unist’ot’en camp

Social media rumours of cultural significance quashed, meaning police “exclusion zones” should end.

B.C. storm totals $37M in insured damages

The December storm wreaked havoc on B.C.’s south coast

Condo rental bans may be on way out with B.C. empty home tax

Many exemptions to tax, but annual declarations required

B.C. boy, aunt missing for three days

The pair are missing from Kamloops

Daredevil changes game plan to jump broken White Rock pier

Brooke Colby tells council daredevil event would help boost waterfront business

Liberal bows out of byelection after singling out Jagmeet Singh’s race

Karen Wang says she made comments online that referenced Singh’s cultural background

Truck hauling compressed gas for ‘virtual pipeline’ crashes on B.C. highway

Driver charged and highway closed for nine hours - containers did not rupture

Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson ‘feeling good’ after knee injury

Pettersson said he wasn’t feeling any pain during Wednesday’s skate

Kentucky canoe outfit borrows photo of Trudeau family to market business

They are in a red canoe, all clad in life jackets, and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and Ella-Grace are waving

Most Read