The Camouflage Effect: We Need Real Progress, Not the Appearance of Progress

The election of Donald Trump. The Women’s March Parts One and Two. The #MeToo movement. Oprah’s speech at the 2018 Golden Globes. And, yes, the giant CES tech conference’s response to GenderAvenger after being called out for their lack of mainstage women keynoters.

It is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for leaders and organizations to appear insensitive to the inclusion of women by failing to acknowledge women’s power and importance.

Women's March 2018, Washington. Photo credit: kellybdc [ CC BY 2.0 ],  via Wikimedia Commons

Women's March 2018, Washington. Photo credit: kellybdc [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I have always been fascinated by how progress is measured. I think we all too often accept what looks like progress rather than experience real progress. I approach the future with optimism tempered by a healthy dose of skepticism. My current skepticism is driven by what I would call the “camouflage effect”, which you might also call faux progress or para-progress, although the latter would do a disservice to many paraprofessionals. Whatever you call it, we cannot let “looking better” become a standard. We must demand “being better”.

photo credit: Ryan Boyles [ CC BY-ND 2.0 ],  via Flickr

photo credit: Ryan Boyles [CC BY-ND 2.0], via Flickr

CES 2018 responded to criticism of its keynote speaker line-up cosmetically by revising the website, featuring more women speakers on visuals that appeared throughout the convention, and paying a bit of lip service to the importance of diversity. Cosmetics didn’t hide the truth behind the criticism, though. They still did not have any women keynoters on their mainstage. How their speaker recruitment and 2019 speaker roster announcements go over the coming months are what will really count. And we will be counting!

The day after the 2018 women’s marches, not one guest on the Sunday morning news shows was a woman. Political analysis roundtables on Sunday talk shows are usually carefully balanced, but they tend to camouflage gender imbalance when it comes to one on one interviews. When there are no roundtables to provide cover, lack of attention to diversity is laid bare by the predominance of men interviewed, which is similar to what happens at conferences when women are represented on panels but there are no women on the mainstages.

A favorite camouflage strategy is to feature women in promotional pieces to draw folks in, only to have attendees discover that the overall representation of women is the very definition of gender imbalance. For example, in 2017 we called out Techonomy Health because their promotional materials showed a 50/50 gender split, when, in actuality, only 23% of their speakers were women.

screenshot via

screenshot via

As the World Economic Forum begins in Davos this week, there is a lot of buzz about the all-women co-chair committee. Because there is no list of speakers, it is challenging to count them all beforehand, but I bet there will be a lot more men on stage than women over the course of the event. I should note here that the excuses “but women dominate our steering committee” or “our president is a woman” are especially annoying. That doesn’t count for anything other than good judgement in recognizing (and using) the value of women to gain some positive attention.  Real progress means making sure that women’s voices are everywhere.

In all of this negativity, I want to take a moment to give a shout out to John Battelle and his NewCo Shift Forum. After an intro from Esther Dyson, John and I had a telephone conversation during which he said his goal was a conference with 50-50 representation. As of now, four weeks in advance, he has 22 women and 30 men speaking. John proves that, with determination, striving for parity can result in strong gender balance. We will report back on final numbers as the event nears.

Clearly, gender balance in the public arena is only a commitment away, so let us not be fooled by camouflage. Let us dispense with pretense and get on with the business of showing what can be done.