While more women are entering tech—and rising in its ranks—a persistent sexist culture still holds them back.
Let’s start with the robot strippers. Earlier this month, during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a popular tech trade show held annually in Las Vegas, a side event at the Sapphire Gentlemen’s Club featured two female robots pole dancing. Although the “art installation,” as it was billed, wasn’t part of the official CES program, the presence of erotic electronics kept the conference’s tradition of misogyny churning. This is a trade show long known for having a serious creep factor, an abundance of “booth babes,” a scarcity of women speakers, and a non-existent code of conduct.
But it’s not just the gyrating humanoids or scantily clad promotional models that raise some eyebrows. Like the tech industry itself, tech conferences have a problem with inclusion. Few women make it to the main stage or as experts on panels. One survey from 2015 that analyzed top tech conferences over a one-year period in the San Francisco area found that only 25 percent of the speakers were women. That can influence attendance and reduce the number of women who are likely to show up. And when conference organizers are called out for their lack of diversity, they make up excuses.
They’re starting to come under an increasing amount of fire, though, as the concern for representation of women grows. Between the Women’s March the past two years, and the #MeToo movement, “there is a tremendous amount of pent-up energy around doing something,” says Gina Glantz, co-founder of GenderAvenger, a nonprofit organization that uses social media and an app called GA Tally to ensure that women are front and center in the public dialog. She and others want to channel the energy of the current moment to move the needle on inclusion in tech.
For Glantz, it starts with counting. Back in November 2017, when buzz for the upcoming CES started to build, GenderAvenger did what it does best: It counted the speakers listed for the keynote address and, for the second year in a row, found there were no women on the agenda. GenderAvenger sent out an action alert calling for CES to get it right. Glantz, a longtime political and communications strategist, who served as the national campaign manager for Bill Bradley in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, has a deep base of high-profile relationships who helped spread the pressure. For the first time, C-suite executives began to express outrage over the gender bias. Brad Jakeman, a former marketing executive from PepsiCo became vocal, followed by Antonio Lucio, chief marketing and communications officer at Hewlett-Packard, Kristin Lemkau, CMO of JP Morgan Chase, and Steven Wolfe Pereira, CMO of Quantcast. The hashtag #CESSoMale emerged. Shortly thereafter, USA Today asked Glantz to write an opinion piece.
Karen Chupka, Senior Vice President for the show and Corporate Business Strategy for the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), responded with a blog post that defended the association’s efforts. But little changed. The organizers redesigned the landing page for the keynote schedule, adding the photographs of several women next to a subhead that read, “Featured Speakers.” Later, Chupka appeared on stage with Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, who’d already been scheduled to give a keynote address, but no other women were added as main stage keynote speakers, says Glantz.
“My argument is that when women are featured on main stages at important events, power accrues to them because we as a society look to those moments to tell us who is powerful,” says Glantz. And the more that women are perceived to have power, the less likely others will feel comfortable with sexist behaviors. “This is a power issue,” says Glantz.
In the end, only 27 percent of the speakers for the entire show were women. Others do no better. Last year’s AI Summit in London featured six women speakers and 67 men. The 2017 Web Summit, which promotes itself as, “The best technology conference on the planet” had 65 women speakers compared with 267 men.
Glantz says excuses run the gamut from organizers claiming they asked women but none accepted to saying that few women met the requirements for being a keynote speaker, which is an argument CES made. “When you create criteria that only produces men, there’s something wrong with your criteria,” says Glantz.
These attitudes reveal antiquated thinking.
“CES is supposedly looking at the forefront of technology, but they have an old-school way of doing things,” says Melinda Briana Epler, Founder & CEO of Change Catalyst, a benefit corporation offering consulting, training, and events around diversity and inclusion. The future of tech is being designed by diverse people who are developing things no one else has conceived of before and solving problems no else has solved, says Epler. “Not the same people designing variations on the same theme that solves problems for a few privileged people in the world.”
Change Catalyst offers a free toolkit for anyone interested in creating a diverse and inclusive event. Steps that can be taken fall under different categories, such as choosing an accessible location, hiring diverse vendors, marketing and outreach to underrepresented communities, speaker and volunteer training, measuring diversity and inclusion efforts, and, what Epler calls “low-hanging fruit,” developing a code of conduct that outlines the organization’s position on safety and harassment.
And it’s not just conference organizers who need to be thinking about diversity, says Epler. “The bigger sponsors have a responsibility to push for greater diversity. They should be. Especially if it’s something the company is taking a stand on elsewhere.”
The next big tech conference around the corner is South By Southwest (SXSW), which takes over Austin, Texas March 9 to 18. GenderAvenger has already called attention to the imbalance of women keynote speakers—two compared with six men.
“What we ask them to do is improve,” says Glantz. “We’ll see what happens.”
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