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CES 2018: Why no women speakers?


In this opinion piece, Pip Wilson a tech entrepreneur, angel investor, and co-founder and CEO of amicable, a legaltech service operating in the family law market, highlights the sexism row, which ensued following the beginning of CES.

It’s a shame to kick off 2018 with sexism in tech (once again) in the news. The CES, the world’s largest tech show, opened in Las Vegas this week but by the end of the first day, the event was already under fire–and rightly so. For the second year in a row, no women would be giving the major ‘keynote’ presentations.

The Consumer Technology Association, which produces and owns CES, said, in the wake of a flurry of criticism, that it would “redouble efforts to expand women’s voices throughout the conference and as featured speakers”. But it also complained about the “limited pool when it comes to women in these positions”. To keynote at CES, the speaker “must head (president/CEO level) a large entity who has name recognition in the industry,” the organisation’s vice-president said in a blog post. Not only does the CTA define the criteria for CES (and therefore has the power to change its own rules), but it also pointed to another pervasive problem by lamenting the “limited pool”: the lack of women in senior positions at tech organisations.

It isn’t solely the responsibility of tech companies to smash their own glass ceilings. Too often, we see those in the industry shift the responsibility of taking action to improve diversity and inclusion away from, for example, events to tech companies, or tech companies to venture capitalist firms, or venture capitalist firms to universities, or universities to schools. Anyone who cares about equality in tech knows that the entire tech sector shares that responsibility. Some would even argue that as society we have that responsibility. Monica Chin of Mashable writes: “It’s great that we have a lot of women in executive roles, but the opportunities are still too few and far between, and it’s a symptom of broader societal discrimination.”

Tech companies hiring more women in senior roles would give those women more exposure at events like CES, but equally, if a respected organisation such as the CTA gave the floor to more women, the glass ceilings in tech organisations created by outdated attitudes might also start to crack – and even shatter.

There’s an irony here. The aim of CES is to exhibit the most forward-thinking technology in the sector and celebrate innovation and disruption. But its own leadership and governance still conforms to the traditional model that exists at the majority of other tech organisations and has proved to be far too slow to recruit, promote, and elevate women. In the fast-moving tech world breakthroughs feel like a daily occurrence, but the sector is still struggling to solve its own pervasive diversity problem.