A call to action around gender equality at CES

Mindshare's Rachel Lowenstein believes the industry has the opportunity to push for change at this year's CES.

The biggest trend for marketers at CES this year isn’t around a new device, or how technology is impacting our day-to-day lives. Instead, it’s actually a call to action—an opportunity for the advertising industry to push for greater gender equality in the tech and startup communities at large.

Because the CES show floor is vast and the majority is made up of men, it can be a breeding ground for unchecked behavior and unconscious biases.  When attending the conference for the first time last year, I saw everything from booth babes to pink robots just for girls; there had never been an official code of conduct, and I experienced a wide range of baffling reactions from numerous male booth attendants when I asked them for their elevator pitch. It was all a little baffling when you consider that: a) this was coming off a turbulent year where gender parity was the biggest topic of discussion in culture and b) "female empowerment" has become such a common, throwaway phrase in advertising.

In addition, CES faced serious criticism last year when, for the second year in a row, they didn’t include any female keynote speakers. In the same 12 months after #MeToo and the first Women’s March, it was a tone-deaf decision made even worse by the fact that they chalked it up to a "limited pool" of female talent. This absence of female voices at the very top was a highly visible show of the equality problem across the event.

So, what should brands look for at an event that, in the past, treated gender parity in tech as a "challenge" and what does it mean for marketers?

First, we can expect for the conference to put a renewed focus on balancing the scales at the top. It’s promising that CES has announced three female keynote speakers: IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty, AMD CEO Dr. Lisa Su, and U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao. Predictably, ad industry fixture The Girls Lounge will be on-site and is sure to provide well-informed commentary on the state of tech and gender equality. We can also expect other panels and talks focused on this issue too, with CES’ announcing 57% of featured speakers as women, including 40% women of color this year.

That said, brands should look for where most of the impact and inspiration happens at CES: the show floor. If we step back to look at the larger startup world, a study from Boston Consulting Group and MassChallenge shows that female-founded companies receive a tiny fraction of all venture capital funding: a measly 2.2%. And yet statistically, although they receive less investment, these startups generate 10% more revenue than those founded by men. What’s more, female founders generate 78 cents on every dollar of funding whereas male-founded startups generate less than half of that – 31 cents.

Why should advertisers coming to CES care about these stats, and how can we make an impact? Beyond the seismic shift happening in the ad community for more equal representation in and throughout our work, if you’re a brand who wants to implement a hot new type of tech you see at CES, companies with female-representation may be an investment that is both overlooked by competitors and potentially a stronger return on investment.

Of course, that isn’t to say that you should only look at female-led startups.  But the first call to action is to purposefully seek out the startups that have female-founders or equitable representation in their leadership. If a booth piques your interest, ask them about their founders and their current leadership make-up. Ask them who’s funding them. Don’t be afraid to pose the tough questions.

Next, if you’re a brand who wants to (or already does) leverage feminist messages in your creative, consider who you have representing you. As an industry, marketers often talk about female empowerment as if it only lives in their actual advertising. But in fact, the decisions you’re making in talent and representation matter more to consumers in an era where young people are buying predominantly based on values. The fact is, we have to continue to talk about these issues until we don’t we need to anymore.

Finally, everyone, not just women, should make it a point to attend panels and discussions where intersectional diversity is present. The audience for a session about the challenges women face in tech shouldn’t just be made up of women. It goes hand in hand with seeking out companies that aren’t just showing you cool technology but have leadership that’s representative of the world we live in today. We’re all at CES to learn something, and building your brand for a generation that cares increasingly about diversity requires industry attendees to build diversity of thought.

CES lives at the intersection of two of the most powerful, lucrative industries in the world: media and technology. If your brand wants to make a meaningful commitment to gender equality, then your time in Vegas is a non-negotiable place to start.

Rachel Lowenstein is the associate director, strategic innovation, invention+ at Mindshare North America.

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