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CES has a diversity problem. And it’s well past time to fix it.

The tech trade show turns 50 this year. It needs to start treating female executives and other women technologists with the respect they deserve.

A conference attendee walks in front of the CES 2018 sign Mandel Ngan / AFP /Getty Images

This is a contributed article by Brenda Darden Wilkerson, president and CEO of AnitaB.org. All opinions expressed are her own.

This week, more than 180,000 technologists will convene in Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show, one of the tech industry’s oldest and best-known trade shows. But there’s a problem: Among the show’s mainstage speakers, there is not a single woman, nor a single member of any underrepresented minority. The faces on the keynote page look surprisingly alike: Six white men, one Asian man; no women, no members of the black, Latinx or Native communities. Not a single person who identifies as LGBTQ, nor any other attribute that places them outside the dominant culture of tech.

To be sure, there will be champions of diversity onstage. Two years ago at CES, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich — who’s also on the 2018 lineup — committed to full representation of women and underrepresented minorities in Intel’s U.S. workforce by the year 2020, a goal he backed with a $300 million investment. A year ago, at CES ’17, Krzanich reported that Intel actually hired not just 40 percent but 43 percent of its new recruits from its target groups.

But regardless of how well individual keynote speakers are walking their talk, the absence of women and other underrepresented minority groups on the big stage is a glaring error that’s hard to explain away, especially right now.

In 2017, we lived through a year of great upheaval in the technology industry, as it became clear that women will no longer be content to sit on the sidelines. Unless CES organizers were living under a rock, they watched this groundswell happen and still decided not to seek out a more diverse lineup for their 2018 show. It’s impossible to understand their rationale.

Of course, CES has never been a bastion of gender equality. In the past seven years, only three women have spoken on its main stage: Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, General Motors CEO Mary Barra and IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. The issue of scantily clad “booth babes” has dogged the event for decades; as recently as 2013, organizers threw up their hands and claimed they could not ban the loathsome practice due to vague logistical reasons.

The Consumer Technology Association, CES’s parent company, came under heavy fire in December when the 2018 keynote roster was first published. Industry leaders took to Twitter and let CTA know their lineup was not acceptable. Kristin Lemkau, JPMorgan Chase’s chief marketing officer (and a past CES speaker) proffered a list of 21 highly qualified women tech execs “in less time than it took to drink coffee.” Antonio Lucio, HP’s global chief marketing officer, joined in: “All men should boycott @CES if women are not invited to speak! Insulting in this day and age.”

After first attempting to justify their choices — claiming the number of qualified women speakers was simply too small for their needs — CTA told critics to “stay tuned,” implied they would add more women and hastily updated their website to highlight women already slated to appear on smaller stages.

But less than a week before the show’s kickoff, organizers confirmed to Fast Company that their search for more women had failed. Again, CTA laid the blame at the feet of the industry, chiding companies to failing to promote women into executive roles that would qualify them for a keynote slot. “As upsetting as it is, there is a limited pool when it comes to women in these positions,” CTA’s Senior Vice President Karen Chupka wrote. “We feel your pain. It bothers us, too. The tech industry and every industry must do better.”

Although this is undeniably true — our industry absolutely does need to redouble its efforts to retain and promote women at the highest levels — we’re calling CTA’s bluff. The organization has the power to change the industry. Its own rule limiting CES keynote slots to A-list CEOs is wholly arbitrary, and more than a little puzzling. People come to trade shows to be inspired, to seek out not just the well-known but the novel and groundbreaking. CES can offer an ideal showcase for executives from smaller companies, and pioneers on the cutting edge of brand-new technologies. We don’t need to hear from the same dozen companies, year in and year out. Listening to the same slate of white guys in blazers will not lead us down the path of innovation; it will not generate the change that is so desperately needed in the technology industry; it will not help America retain our global advantage.

As industry luminaries were quick to point out, there’s a huge pool of talent waiting in the wings. The keynote lineups at our own Grace Hopper Celebration are jammed full of talented, inspirational executives — who happen to be women and minorities. These powerful leaders are no second-stringers. They fill conference halls with their joy, thoughtfulness and technical wizardry. They bring thousands of technologists to their feet in applause. And they give their audience the motivation to go back out into the world and make the change our industry so desperately needs.

CES turns 50 this year, a ripe old age in any industry, and a lifetime in the world of technology. It’s well past time for this venerable show to grow up and start treating female executives and other women technologists with the respect they deserve. The CTA must give audiences the opportunity to hear from the full breadth and depth of our industry’s leaders, not just a privileged group. Because — as Intel’s Krzanich told the CES crowd in 2016 — “If we want tech to define the future, we must be representative of that future.”


Brenda Darden Wilkerson is an advocate for access, opportunity and social justice for underrepresented communities in technology. She founded the original Computer Science for All program, building computer science classes into the curriculum for every student in the Chicago Public Schools, and serving as the inspiration for the Obama administration’s national CS4All initiatives. Wilkerson currently serves as the president and CEO of AnitaB.org, an organization working to shape public opinion about issues of critical importance to women technologists in academia, industry and government. Reach her @BrendaDardenW.


This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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