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  • Writer's pictureCarolina MIlanesi

Ivanka Trump Keynoting At CES Is All That Is Wrong For Women In Tech

Starting my new column right at the end of the year put some pressure on what topic I should tackle. Should I look back at how diversity in tech faired over the past decade? Or should I do a best and worst for women in tech 2019 list? Lucky for me, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) got me out of my dilemma by announcing that Ivanka Trump will be a keynote speaker at CES. Trump will appear on the keynote stage with Gary Shapiro, CTA’s president and CEO, to discuss “The Path to the Future of Work.” More precisely, she will share “her vision for technology’s role in creating and enabling the workforce of the future.

It might not come as a surprise that I was far from pleased at the news and the reason is certainly not found in my political beliefs or my opinion of Ivanka Trump as a businesswoman. The reason for my upset is rooted in the fact that there are many more women who are in tech and are entrepreneurs who could run circles around Trump on how technology will impact the future of work.

A History of Lack of Effort

CES has not had a great track record over the years with women delivering keynotes on the main stage. Both in 2017 and 2018, the keynote lineups did not have a single woman included on the main stage. Back in 2017, Karen Chupka, the SVP for CES & corporate business strategy at CTA, took to Twitter to say: “We go beyond the keynote stage & bring a diversity of speakers to all our conference programming.” And she was undoubtedly correct, but still does not excuse why none of the women who were speaking there had access to the main stage. This is the same as an organization pointing to the lack of women in the C-suite by underlying that they have plenty of women in lower roles.

If that were not enough, the CTA published a blog post lamenting the lack of women in leadership positions as the leading cause of the lack of diversity in their keynote lineup. The blog went as far as saying: “the tech industry and every industry must do better.” Absolutely, 100% true, the industry must do better! Still, it is not like there were no options at all at the time, as JPMorgan Chase’s CMO Kristin Lemkau was quick to point out on Twitter.

Only after the intense backlash, the CTA added two female keynote panelists to the 2018 lineup: Nancy Dubuc, president and CEO A&E Networks and Kristin Dolan, founder and CEO of 605.

The lack of female keynote speakers was not the only issue many industry people, women in particular, had with CES over the years. The presence of the so-called “booth babes” continues to anger many. While they were officially outlawed years ago by the CTA, it seems that booth babes are now on stage disguised under tight exercise clothing. Many are quick to point out that these outfits are merely reflecting what you can see in most gyms. A valid point to make, but one that seems to neglect two critical factors which change the dynamic entirely: the vast majority of attendees at CES are still men and, even more to the point, people do not attend CES for a class of CrossFit.

What Can Be Done

The number of women in high roles in tech companies will not balloon up overnight. If you read any of the annual diversity and inclusion reports published by the top tech companies, you see the percentage of women overall and women of color in particular barely moving from year to year. This does not give us permission to do nothing, though, and patiently wait.

Organizations should be held accountable for the stand they take on diversity and inclusion. This is true of event organizers as well as exhibitors. Event organizers should set diversity targets for their keynote and make those clear to participants so that they, in turn, can provide a more diverse source of speakers. Participants can also keep organizers accountable and kindly refuse to part take in non-diverse keynotes or panels. What you are trying to do is make sure that everybody can see themselves represented on the stage and therefore feel included.

When it comes to booth staff, event organizers should mandate a dress code and participants should always be mindful of the message their team sends out to potential buyers. The way booth staff looks as well how they talk about their product can be a real turn off for buyers who feel they are not even been considered as the addressable market.

T.W.A - Token Woman Appearance

Given the track record we have had at CES and the state of the tech industry I just shared, you might now better understand the frustration of seeing Ivanka Trump selected to be one of the two women delivering a keynote.

Politics and technology have always been intertwined, but in 2019 their connection has been more evident than ever before. So I am not surprised that CTA felt that CES, the biggest tech show in North America, needed to foster their relationship with Washington. And given the pressure of having more women on stage, why not pick a woman and kill two birds with one stone?

If you are a woman in tech, like me, you are very familiar with the T.WA., the “token woman appearance” on keynote stages and panels. I have been one myself several times, mostly being called to facilitate an all-male panel. I used to get upset about being the token woman but soon realized that as long as I felt I had the topic expertise, it was just another occasion to share that knowledge. When I think I am not the best fit, I suggest other women who are. Of course, there are plenty of men whose capabilities never get questioned but, rightly or wrongly, women, and minorities in general, are often judged as a group, not as individuals. Every time I step on a stage, or I am on a public forum, I feel the responsibility not to fail as that failure will likely not be seen as mine alone.

Women in tech, and more generally women in business, should seek and take more opportunities, ask for what they deserve, but most of all, they should open doors to others when they have the chance to do so. I don’t think I am unfair in believing that Trump did not stop and think if she was the best woman for the job before accepting the invitation from the CTA.

My schedule does not allow me to attend Trump’s keynote, but I am sure the media will heavily cover it and I look forward to being proven wrong. In the meantime, I will pound the halls of CES looking for enlightened brands that do realize women control millions of Dollars of budget when it comes to technology.

This article was first published on Forbes



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