CES has never been great for women. Is 2020 the year that changes?

For years, attendees and organizations have pointed out the Consumer Electronics Show’s diversity problem. Years with no female keynote speakers, the long tradition of “booth babes,” and the rescinding of an award for the Ose Robotic Massager made many non-male showgoers feel less than welcome. The Consumer Tech Association (CTA), which runs the show, has promised change, but will those promises be enough at CES 2020?

Keynotes or he-notes?

Woman wearing a VR headset at CES
Alex Wong / Getty Images

In 2017, Gina Glantz, founder of GenderAvenger, was among those calling out the Consumer Tech Association for CES’ all-male roster of keynote speakers. For 2020, GenderAvenger gave the show a bronze stamp of approval for its more diverse lineup that includes keynotes from Quibi CEO Meg Whitman and the CTA’s Karen Chupka, among others.

In 2019, ⅓ of the speakers were women, an increase of 25 percent from 2018 to 2019. It’s too soon to tell the numbers for 2020. “We also want to make sure that we’re inclusive of everybody,” said Chupka, who is executive vice president of CES for the CTA,. “We’re not just looking at men versus women. We’re looking at the total inclusion of making sure that we’re representing all communities that we can.”

“We’ve been very, very tough on CES,” Glantz told Digital Trends. The nod came before the list was fully finalized, but the percentage at the time was over 40% women. “We really want to make sure that they are rewarded for having made that change,” said Glantz.

Brenda Darden Wilkerson, president and CEO of AnitaB.org, a nonprofit aimed at increasing the number of women in tech, is encouraged to see more women on stage but wants to see how it will impact the rest of the show. Last year was the first year beauty tech was fully on display and not sequestered in an off-the-beaten-path ballroom. But women care about more than just babies and beauty.

“That really is the problem at hand, and the thing that we address within our org, is what is considered to be normal for tech and who the tech makers are,” Wilkerson said. One way to combat this view is to look for speakers who don’t fit the mold of a typical CEO. It’s a change AnitaB.org had to make to bring more people of color to its Grace Hopper Celebration conference. “We find those folks that are doing amazing things, not necessarily based upon a title,” Wilkerson said.

“When we unveiled at CES a few years ago, Willow was one of the only women-first technologies on the floor,” Vickie Mrva, president and CMO of Willow, said. The smart breast pump company’s booth was tucked back in a corner, but this year it will host a pump room with transparent walls. “We’re we are focused and celebrating the increased investment and increased visibility of fem-tech companies and technologies that are being designed specifically for women, to give women their lives back,” said Mrva.

Off-stage changes

Say goodbye to booth babes in 2020, at least in theory. “Clothing that reveals an excess of bare skin, specifically genitals, chest, or buttocks, must not be worn,” according to the show’s code of conduct. “What we recognized is the thing we didn’t necessarily have was a good way to call out bad behavior,” said Chupka. Now participants can be penalized for violating the rules.

The Female Quotient is the event’s official Equality Partner and will host a variety of panels at its Equality Lounge. CEO, Shelley Zalis, thinks the dress code is a positive step. “We want people to stop by booths because they’re interested in the products on display, not the people standing outside it,” she told Digital Trends in an email. “We’re just shifting the eye candy focus from people to product.”

One area both AnitaB.org’s Wilkerson and Zalis want to see improved upon is a focus on women founders. In 2017, only 2.5% of startups with venture-capital backing had all-female founding teams. “It’s important for women to be included in tech as folks that are working at these amazing companies,” said Wilkerson, “but it’s much more important that we increase the number of women founders who are getting funded at the levels of men.”

“We all lose when women’s innovations aren’t supported,” said Zalis. “I would like to see CES and CTA help move the needle on this, showcasing more women in tech and helping them get more investments.”

In the summer of 2019, Tiffany Moore, senior vice president of political and industry affairs for the CTA, spoke to Digital Trends about tech’s inclusivity problems. “For innovation to reach its fullest potential, different voices and perspectives must have an opportunity to come together in our workforce,” she said. “CTA is committed to finding solutions through education, investment, membership, and leading by example.”

A late addition to the keynote lineup

All the interviews for this article were conducted before Ivanka Trump was officially added the CES keynote list, a decision many criticized. “This is a terrible choice on so many levels but also — what an insult to the YEARS AND YEARS of protesting how few women were invited to keynote and being told it was a pipeline problem while similarly-situated men were elevated,” Rachel Sklar, co-founder of Change The Ratio, tweeted. “There are so many great, qualified women. Shame.”

Trump’s discussion with CTA President Gary Shapiro will focus on how the president’s administration “is advocating for employer-led strategies that invest in re-skilling workers, creating apprenticeships, and developing K-12 STEM education programs.” While she has met with top tech leaders like Google’s Sundar Pichai and Apple’s Tim Cook, critics point out there are more qualified women in tech who won’t be on stage. Chupka said Trump is working on job creation and training. “These are policy priorities that we work on, and she’s here this week to help talk and bring light to that issue that’s very important to us as an industry,” Chupka said. She added that Trump is attending as part of CES’s government track, which includes other leaders. “It’s an opportunity for them to come here, see technology, learn about technology, but also then to hear what other governments and what other people are doing.”

To be sure, there are lots of tech-related questions Shapiro could and should put to Trump. Has the administration considered how increasing H-1B visa denials will affect U.S. tech companies? Why did it take nearly three years to reinstate the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology? Efficient appliances, toilets, and light bulbs are good for consumers and the environment, so why is the administration rolling back regulations that help spur more cost-effective devices? Why does the president still use an unsecured phone for sensitive communications?

In addition, the Trump administration hasn’t exactly been friendly to women, hampering access to health care, attempting to end an equal-pay rule, and changing the way campuses treat sexual assault. These topics may not be in Ivanka Trump’s portfolio, though, so don’t expect to hear about them.

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