Digital Transformation

Industry insight: reaction to CES’s response to lack of keynote diversity

By The Drum | Editorial

December 7, 2017 | 10 min read

CES received backlash for its lack of diversity on its keynote roster — with six male speakers (five of whom are white) slated to present in Las Vegas next month.

The organization cited a “limited pool” of female leadership as the main culprit behind the makeup of the keynote pool.

We asked the broader industry what they thought about the situation and below are the responses.

Gary Shapiro introduces CEO of Huawei Consumer Business Group Richard Yu at CES 2017.

Gary Shapiro introduces CEO of Huawei Consumer Business Group Richard Yu at CES 2017

What are your initial reactions to the CES response?

It sounds like an excuse. Tech is supposed to be an industry based on innovate and positively disrupt through the building of new things. Yet, somehow CES and CTA have not found a way to highlight women and people of color because of a set of antiquated rules.

- Gary J. Nix, strategic advisor, consultant, Bold Culture

The phrase that irked me: “To keynote at CES, the speaker must head (president/CEO level) a large entity who has name recognition in the industry.” I run a conference and this smacks of pay-for-play and elitism. If keynotes are chosen to reward headlining sponsors, then CES values profit over people. Attendees’ needs are secondary to conference bottomline. If not pay for play, CES is suggesting attendees won’t come to discover new voices.

- Kat Gordon, chief executive officer, The 3% Movement

It's appalling we are still hearing this excuse in 2017. My firm is voting with their dollars. We will not attend CES 2018 or any other conference that doesn't diversify its speaker roster.

- Mack McKelvey, chief executive officer, SalientMG

This is just lazy, I can think of a number of perfect female CEO’s who I’d personally love to hear from: Jennifer Hyman, Rent the Runway; Payal Kadakia, Class Pass; Stephanie Horbaczewski, StyleHaul; Tania Yuki, Shareablee; Julie Roche, Burbio; Mackenzie Barth & Sarah Adler, Spoon University. That took about 8 seconds of brain power, much less than it took CES to craft their response.

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- Fred Schonenberg, founder, VentureFuel

As a PR person, I'd like to congratulate CES on creating a PR nightmare for yourselves. Frankly, I don't think you took a proactive approach to look for more diverse candidates, but rather took those who submitted ideas for panels, as most trade shows do. Please learn who all the players are, even the up and coming ones, before making decisions, and try harder next time.

- Jocelyn Brandeis, co-founder, JBLH Communications

The response tells us things we know or can easily find out: CES has had women keynoters. “The keynote stage is just one CES platform.” A “limited pool” of women makes alignment challenging. What CES’ response doesn’t tell us is that they get it— this is as much about blind spots as keynote spots. YES, CES includes “strong women,” AND the keynote lineup doesn’t. Both are true. One is unacceptable. Biased criteria is no excuse.

- Aaron Walton, co-founder, Walton Isaacson

The deflection of responsibility is what I find most troublesome. The tech industry implores us to think differently and challenge the status quo. To call out a lack of options discredits the incredible work that has been accomplished by the leaders who have had to overcome even greater odds to achieve success in this space.

- Katie Witkin, co-founder, chief operating officer, AGW Group

In your mind, what responsibility, if any, does CES have to push for greater industry inclusion?

If not a single, qualified female leader could be found to address a mass-scale audience on the subjects of technology, martech, etc., then quite honestly, our educational system is failing miserably. Beyond that, our male counterparts have not held up their end of the "change the ratio" dialogue.

- Ian Wishingrad, founder, creative director, BigEyedWish

​All organizations, especially those with a broad platform and visibility like CES, have a responsibility to engender greater industry inclusion. I’m a firm believer that empowering today’s generation of female leaders (and the future generation) has to start with modeling it yourself. Those with a stage that can help accelerate inclusion and promote broader points of view have an obligation to use it.

- Stacey Hawes, president, data, Epsilon

CES has an incredible platform, and with that reach and influence comes great responsibility. We have to acknowledge the problem; then we have to be the solution.Every organization and every platform must hold themselves accountable when it comes to promoting and highlighting previously marginalized voices. Until we do so, we’ll never see real change in the industry.

- Lisa Sherman, president and chief executive officer, Ad Council

Conference organizers, like CES, have a responsibility to be more inclusive. By digging a little deeper and committing to diversity, you can discover fresh up-and-coming talent with new perspectives, new things to teach. And you show female attendees that their voice and their professional development matter.

- Megan Sullivan-Jenks, director of marketing and communications, Choozle

CES may have an opportunity to do better in response to strong backlash against them. In your opinion, what could they do to help improve the situation?

Why must a keynote speaker be a global CEO? Perhaps the criteria for keynote speakers should be about having the most interesting, innovative, valuable voice and ideas that will spark conversation, debate and progress for business and technology, rather than about recruiting the same voices from same power pyramid we always hear from at leading conferences. Perhaps the question isn’t “why aren’t there more women?” but “when will ideas and thinking trump titles?”

- Karen Kaplan, chairman and chief executive officer, Hill Holliday

Commit to a 50/50 speaker program. Ask the people who are submitting speakers or, the companies who you are requesting speakers from, to provide suggestions that will make the program gender balanced and diverse. Adjust the executive level that is "required" in order to provide more opportunities for inclusion ... not everyone who is a CEO is the best person to speak on a topic or on behalf of her/his company.

- Kirsten Cluthe, founder, executive producer, Studio Kairos

​1. CHANGE the agenda for the upcoming conference with at least 3:1 male:female ratio of keynotes.

2. REQUIRE panels to be at least 30% female.

3. ESTABLISH PROCESS for new topic submissions by female leaders.

4. INCREASE CES management leadership female personnel.

- Amy Drill, chief executive officer, BotKitchen

​CES was always meant to be a place to learn and sit on the edge of our future. This might be the wakeup call our industry needs to push out from the behemoth that is CES in helping us as a culture define the future of technology. The only way to make change is to vote with our attendance and support a world of progress and truly innovative thinking rather than myopic corporate conversations.

- Thas Naseemuddeen, partner, chief strategy officer, Omelet

Hiding behind a very general, nondescript policy won’t justify CES’s oversight.

I say: Own it. Highlight it. Do better.

This isn’t about finding arbitrary females to fill the void (I don’t need the satisfaction of a CES organizer checking off the ‘diversity’ box.) Similar to “be the change you want to see,” this is CES’s chance to champion change makers, no matter their gender, sexual or religious preference or skin color, etc.

- Whitney Fishman Zember, managing partner of innovation and consumer technology, Wavemaker

CES should change their lineup criteria to other C-level until industry catches up. They need to strive for diversity and inclusion in their lineup. They need to be saying, “We hear you, and are open to suggestions or have adjusted our criteria to widen the pool to choose from.” Even the male speakers are threatening to boycott, unless the women are included.

- Leslie Witham, technology and innovation director, GYK Antler

It’s simple. Actions speak louder than words. CES’ only saving grace will be to work overtime to make sure the final keynote lineup includes women leaders and leaders of color who are driving innovation in the face of remarkable headwinds. If CES doesn’t make a measurable commitment to diversity now, no combination of words and attempted empathy can salvage their reputation or relevance.

- Anne Elisco-Lemme, executive creative director, Duncan Channon

CES should boldly and bravely make a call to arms that they will change and shuffle the entire keynote agenda for the event this year until they get to 50% female representation. Put the weight of their brand, their connections and frankly the platform they are on to show the world WE CAN find these women. We just have to try a different search algorithm. I would bet anything on the fact that attendance and PR would soar to new heights if they did this.

- Rachel Spiegelman, chief executive officer, Pitch

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