GenderAvenger Goes to Las Vegas: Reflections On CES 2018

On January 10, the massive central exhibit hall at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) experienced a total power failure. Tens of thousands of people were stuck in the blackout, an ironic circumstance for a trade show that’s almost entirely focused on things that consume electrical power.

GenderAvenger also has a “blackout story”. When I am asked about the origins of GenderAvenger, I tell it:

Every four years, Harvard’s Kennedy School conducts a review of presidential politics, culminating in an event held on its prestigious Forum stage. In 2012, I learned that the event would feature five white men on stage — not one woman and not a single person of color. I immediately took to Facebook, expressing my displeasure and indicating I would skip the event. As it turns out, no one attended, but for different reasons. A blackout resulted in cancellation. My follow-up reaction posted on Facebook simply said, “God heard our plaintive cry. She turned out the lights.”

GenderAvenger was born.

Fast forward to Las Vegas 2018, and there was a similar reaction from Joanna Popper:


There may have been darkness, but there was little silence from the women and men demanding change at this giant tech conference, one that has done little other than pay lip service when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

CES has been an extraordinary experience for GenderAvenger. It all started when the GenderAvenger community took CES to task on social media for featuring only men in the six mainstage keynote slots. High-level corporate executives from Sonos, Twitter, Pepsi, Quantcast, ToysRUs, and J.P. Morgan joined in to register their own displeasure on Twitter. Once the media caught wind of the growing chorus around #CESSoMale, I found myself quoted in Ad Age, Fast Company, and several other publications.

I was given the opportunity by Jill Lawrence, USA Today Opinion Editor, to pen an op-ed for USA Today, which brought our core message to a mainstream audience: “Who speaks on national platforms, who stands before decision makers, and who appears in the media on lists signal value. It’s about measuring worth. Zero women speaking in the most coveted slots is a big flashing signal that we’re not worth it. Someone worth listening to is someone powerful.”

At first, CES responded with statements citing the usual excuses — “We try really hard”, “There is a limited pool of women to choose from”, “Women are speaking on the smaller stages”, etc. — but then they wrote a letter to me that opened with:

We are writing because you have prompted a meaningful dialogue about the issue of gender visibility at CES 2018. As we plan 2019 we will redouble our efforts to expand women’s voices throughout the conference and as featured speakers.

It went on for another page and a half of self-congratulatory rhetoric. Although I was pleased to have provoked a response, the absence of any real commitment to ensure women could take their rightful place on the mainstage of the conference was truly disappointing. While in Las Vegas I discovered that CES was using the letter to respond to those writing or talking about the issue, as if it answered their concerns individually!

I am so glad I went to Las Vegas.  

Prompted by an invite from CMO of Sonos Joy Howard to attend their Tech Boom Boom Room, which featured an amazing lineup of women in tech, I hopped on a plane to experience CES for myself.

It was fun to see how we dominated #CESSoMale just before the opening session — and dominate is what 148 people signed on to a Thunderclap can do with a social reach of 808,000. I watched the opening remarks by CES President Gary Shapiro and SVP Karen Chupka, who was added to the stage after our action. Ms. Chupka included a sentence on diversity in her remarks, and Mr. Shapiro mentioned gender and racial diversity in his opening statements — “We have to confront the issues and help deliver solutions. This includes expanding the voices of women and minorities in our industry." — but the attempt to camouflage the lack of diversity at CES was on full display. The original keynote image that touted the all-male keynote lineup was scrubbed from the internet, and the conference site was revamped to feature images of women and people of color. Looking at the opening session slides, one would hardly imagine the truth that only 27% of speakers at conference sessions were women.

Despite my disappointment with the CES response, I found inspiration in other places. The Sonos event produced an extraordinary conversation, Quantcast put women’s voices forward before the lights went out, and Twitter continued the demonstration of the power of women’s voices after the lights came back on.

It was pretty crazy trying to get around to meet folks among the 180,000 conventioneers. However, those I did meet all said the same thing: “Thanks for making the presence of women an issue. It’s about time it became a serious part of the conversation here.” The women staffing Facebook’s suite (I couldn’t resist stopping by there) all wanted our Women’s Voices Count stickers. And, when I visited the Refinery29 suite, I met one of its co-founders, Philippe von Borries. Is that cool, or what?!

In the end, your actions created the opportunity to open up a discussion with CES leadership — not only with GenderAvenger, but also among many of its most important participants. GenderAvenger is about improvement. In this case, substantial improvement. We take CES leaders at their word that they want a “meaningful dialog” and will “redouble their efforts” so stay tuned while we listen, watch… and count.