Techlife News - - SUMMARY -

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 all­male 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 per­cent women — 60 per­cent of them women of color.

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.

The four-day CES show opens Tues­day, though me­dia pre­views be­gin Sun­day. 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, de­fense con­trac­tor Raytheon and trac­tor seller John Deere — all ea­ger to bur­nish their tech­nol­ogy bona fides.

But re­ally lev­el­ing the play­ing field of­ten means more than invit­ing fe­male CEOs to speak. For starters, women and peo­ple of color 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 tight­fit­ting 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.”

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