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Flagship tech conference CES faces backlash for all-male keynote speaker lineup

One of tech's biggest trade shows stands accused of a lack of diversity, after selecting all-male keynote speakers for the big event.
Image: Herbert Diess, chairman of the board of Volkswagen Brand, speaks during a keynote address at CES
Herbert Diess, chairman of the board of Volkswagen Brand, speaks during a keynote address at CES International on Jan. 5, 2016, in Las Vegas.John Locher / AP file

CES holds the stage as the largest global gathering of tech and innovation, but this year’s keynote speaker lineup has people frustrated and speaking out against the trade show. The 2018 list of chief executive keynote speakers lacks any mention of women; and, of the six men featured, five of them are white.

This is the second year in a row the keynote schedule has lacked gender diversity, and several high-level names in tech took to social media to voice their concern. Twitter’s CMO, Leslie Berland, tweeted, “I’ve got a long list of amazing women to hit your stage. Let’s talk. #changetheratio.”

JPMorgan Chase’s CMO, Kristen Lemkau, came up with a batch of “amazing women innovators in tech and media would slay any keynote anywhere,” noting that making such a list took her “less time than it took to drink coffee.”

Women aren't the only ones who have been speaking up; HP’s Antonio Lucio called for “No panel without females. No event without females and people of color keynotes!” and Brad Jakeman, PepsiCo’s Global Beverage Group’s former president, called on CES directly to address the problem:

Karen Chupka, CES’s Senior Vice President, told NBC News the organization uses two criteria when looking for their keynote speakers: Speakers must have "a global responsibility for their company” and they also “have to be a visionary, talking about what’s happening in the future of tech.”

There were roughly 275 female speakers on smaller stages at CES last year, according to Chupka, with "similar numbers" expected for 2018. Nancy Dubuc, president and CEO of A&E Networks, has just been confirmed as a keynote speaker, Chupka told NBC News.

Tarah Wheeler, an information security researcher and author of “Women in Tech,” said, “Having women on stage communicates more strongly than any words that they can speak that to the girls and women sitting in the audience at those conferences: ‘You’re not alone and you can get here too.’”

The underlying problem, said Wheeler, is that women simply aren’t hired, developed, and promoted at the same level as men in tech. She noted that she had experienced situations in which she’s been asked to speak at a conference, but on a smaller stage for “diversity speakers.”

“It feels like a punch in the gut to realize that 'diversity' in that moment was being treated like a checkbox,” said Wheeler. “That’s not the approach you want to take when you try to fix a problem.”