With No Women Keynote Speakers, Does CES Have a Diversity Problem?

CMOs from HP, Chase and Twitter speak out

CES faces backlash over its lack of diversity. Getty Images
Headshot of Lauren Johnson

Jamie Gutfreund, global CMO at Wunderman, has worked in technology since the early ’90s and has been to more than a few Consumer Electronics Shows, the annual tech confab in Las Vegas. After a flurry of tweets over the weekend centered around the conference’s lack of female keynote speakers, Gutfreund still plans to attend next month’s event, but for a different reason. She wants to talk about diversity both on and off the flashy main stages. Really, she wants to talk about diversity.

“I’m looking forward to going to the event and seeing how many people still want to have the conversation while they’re there,” Gutfreund said. “I don’t think boycotting for me personally would limit my ability to have the conversation with people on the ground.”

While sexism and diversity have been pervasive in the tech and advertising industries for decades, this year is different, she argued. Talk about sexual harassment and gender equality has reached a mainstream high, and she believes she’ll be able to have conversations that would have seemed impossible 10 years ago.

“It’s not muscle memory to think about how to broaden the conversation—because it hasn’t been,” she said. “Now is the time when people are more comfortable bringing it up as an issue. Ten years ago, this was the same conversation but very few people, men and women alike, would have had the same outcry or felt as safe going public and bringing it up as a topic.”

Online traction picked up this weekend when several high-profile CMOs, including former PepsiCo CMO Brad Jakeman, Chase’s Kristin Lemkau and Twitter’s Leslie Berland, found nonprofit GenderAvenger’s Nov. 29 blog post “The keynote speakers at CES 2018 are all men,” pointing out that the conference’s confirmed speaking events are dominated by men. According to the schedule of events on CES’ website, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday’s keynotes currently include six male speakers, including Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich, Ford CEO Jim Hackett and Hulu’s CEO Randy Freer. All of the speakers are also white, sparing Huawei Consumer Business Group’s Richard Yu.

In response, Karen Chupka, svp of CES and corporate business strategy at the Consumer Technology Association, authored a blog post explaining that the organization (whose executive team is run by all women) had 275 female speakers in 2017 and plans to have a similar number next month. She also noted that CES has held 21 keynotes with women speakers during the past 11 years.

“To keynote at CES, the speaker must head a large entity who has name recognition in the industry,” she wrote. “As upsetting as it is, there is a limited pool when it comes to women in these positions. We feel your pain. It bothers us, too. The tech industry and every industry must do better.”

On Sunday, HP CMO Antonio Lucio, who has championed diversity within brand and agency teams, went so far as to urge men to boycott CES.

“In this day and age, it’s very disappointing to see CES does not have any women or people of color as keynote speakers,” he said in an email. “As an industry, we must do better and represent the customers and communities we serve. Given the remarkable buying power women and minorities represent, it’s incredible to not reflect them in a material way in the program.”

Chase’s Lemkau said she was already planning to skip CES next month before the news made its way around Twitter. Yesterday, she tweeted a screenshot of a list of names of women as potential speakers.

“I don’t think the group of us that are really focused on this are going to let this one go,” said Steven Wolfe Pereira, CMO of Quantcast. “I’ve been going to CES for a long time, and as one of the few Latinos in any C-suite position, it’s very rare to see anyone that’s truly diverse—whether it’s women, whether’s it’s African-American, Hispanic—on any of these stages.”

Wolfe Pereira said that 64 percent of Quantcast’s marketing team is women, including head of corporate marketing Cathy Noveli; Michelle Wirth, who heads up Quantcast’s automotive category; and Stephanie Jeanmougin, who is in charge of experience marketing.

The debate speaks to CES and the broader tech industry’s diversity battle. While talk about the tech industry’s lack of diversity has become more mainstream in recent years, sexism is pervasive in the industry and men continue to dominate top leadership positions within companies. CES has dealt with similar accusations that not enough women are involved with programming for years, though the national discussion around sexual harassment makes this year’s debate particularly topical.

Take booth babes, for example. Tech companies pay women to dress up in elaborate costumes and pitch their companies at their booths. They’re a frequent sight at CES, particularly for lesser-known companies looking to make a splash.

“You still see them, so I think it’s just [lack of] creativity in terms of how to communicate what your product and your company is thinking, saying or doing,” Wunderman’s Gutfreund said. “It’s laziness.”

While some of the stigma around talking about diversity is gone, Gutfreund argued that the second part—actually helping women get into leadership roles—is the challenge.

“It’s all turbulent right now, which means that we have an opportunity to take it to the next step—it’s natural to be uncomfortable,” she said. “Part of it is OK with being uncomfortable. You have to get to that space to have conversations.”

Not everyone is willing to give CES a second chance, though.

For the past 28 years, Mitch Goldstone, CEO of ScanMyPhotos, a company that transfers analog photos to digital, has attended CES but after the weeklong dust-up, he doesn’t plan to attend.

“CES needs to represent a better portrait of representing consumers—all the people who buy the stuff that CES showcases,” Goldstone said. “It’s not just women, it’s broader diversity.”

He suggested Lisa Su, CEO of Advanced Micro Devices as a name CES’ organizers should consider.

Mack McKelvey, CEO of SalientMG, a strategic marketing firm, said she will not be attending CES or any conference in 2018 that doesn’t put more focus on finding diversified programming.

“The fact that there aren’t any women keynoting the conference is simply absurd, and it sends a strong message: Women and under-represented minority voices are not a priority for CES organizers or for the companies that support it,” she said. “As a senior marketing executive who cares about inclusion, I’ve had enough and I will allocate my spend and time accordingly.”

@laurenjohnson lauren.johnson@adweek.com Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.