CES was all about autonomy - except when it came to women

"The most damning type of devil is in the details when it comes to misogyny, be it intentional or unintentional."

The biggest buzz leading up CES wasn’t about the ways our lives will become increasingly autonomous through self-driving cars, voice technology, robotics, or even the inevitable rise of 5G.

It was whether the conference, which on the one hand showcases progressive innovation in tech, and on the other, brings undertones of unchecked behavior, booth babes, and all-male panels, would finally shed its skin as a space slow to evolve when it comes to the issues of sexism in tech. Now that we’re home, recovered from Vegas and discussing the ramifications of autonomous everything, it’s time to evaluate whether the CTA lived up to the promise for CES to be a better place for women and other marginalized groups to attend.

The short answer? Kind of. On the surface, CES made a conscious effort to be more equitable in the spaces that were the most visible and therefore had the biggest press: the keynotes and panels. CES 2019 had an equitable divide between male and female speakers; four out of the nine keynote speakers were women and they included more people of color. According to their featured non-keynote speaker list as of December 2018, 50% were women and over 62% of them were women of color. Stats like this rarely exist in the tech industry, where, according to Next Generation, 18% of leadership roles are held by women.

GenderAvenger, the original group who called the CTA out for failing to have any female keynotes in 2018, even gave the conference a GenderAvenger Gold rating for the 2019 event. While men still outnumber women 2-1 as speakers at conferences, the CTA passed what should have long ago been an intuitive decision for a conference based on progress, vision, and human improvement.

However, issues of gender equality go beyond checking the box of "Look – we have women!" The most damning type of devil is in the details when it comes to misogyny, be it intentional or unintentional.

The details are why I’m giving CES a polite applaud but no fanfare. First, while they do audit their speakers list, the CTA doesn’t report on any type of diversity metrics for the companies renting their booths or the VCs backing those exhibitors. CES organizers say that just one in five attendees were women in 2018 but finding any type of official data in this regard is nearly impossible, especially if we try and drill down to issues like race and sexuality. How can the CTA expect to become a more intersectional, diverse event if they don’t have a benchmark to which improve on? 

But equally important is that despite the progress on speakers, this year CES advanced the narrative that women’s bodies are allowed to sell sex but that we aren’t allowed to participate or enjoy it.

Lora Haddock, founder of female robotics sex toy company Lora DiCarlo and creator of the Osé Robotic Massager, had her Innovation Award revoked for the Robotics and Drone category. The Osé is a sex toy that uses biomimics and micro-robotic technology to recreate the feel of a human tongue, mouth, and/or fingers in order to stimulate women. The CES Innovation Awards are vetted and administered by CTA but voted on a panel of independent judges in the respective categories.

The reason for the revocation the CTA gave was egregious, disqualifying it based on a range of adjectives like "immoral", "obscene", and "indecent", which I’m pretty sure were plucked straight out of one of Aunt Lydia’s diatribes in The Handmaid’s Tale. When an uproar began on every major media outlet, the CTA backtracked and claimed the product wasn’t a robot or a drone and therefore ineligible.

Simply put, the CTA is incorrect that the Osé isn’t a robotic device. A robot, according to Merriam-Webster, is a "machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions automatically."

Osé was created by a team of LGBTQ and female engineers but it’s also important to note that Oregon State University, the # 4 ranked robotics lab in the country, was involved in the project. It was developed using "mechanical actuation systems from traditional robotics … utiliz[ing] a microprocessor and logic that can only be described as a human robotic interface. 

And to the question about autonomy: drones, lumped into the same Innovation Award category, are frequently controlled by humans. If the CTA can give the same award to a user-controlled underwater scooter that also doesn’t make autonomous decisions, then yes, the Osé is a robot. 

On top of that, classifying a sex toy designed for women as a range of debasing descriptors when every single year at CES there’s tech designed for cisgendered heterosexual male pleasure—well, that’s the oldest double standard in the book. 

CES has consistently tried to separate itself from the sex industry, except when it comes to technology for (straight) men. A few examples include:

For CES, it seems that technology that’s specifically aimed at improving the lives of women begins and ends with non-threatening applications in fertility and beauty tech. Not all women want children and not all women are interested in the latest that will make them prettier. 

But like all the men lining up for the VR porn booths, women have sex. Sexual wellness is a part of the female health conversation and human experience. For a conference that is devoted to improving the human experience through technology, to exclude a huge part of the human experience this way in 2019 is confounding.

And even at a pure capitalistic baseline, the sex toy market is about to top $29B. That’s more than the wearable or AR markets, both darlings at CES. The pearl clutching towards female sex tech isn’t just a double standard, it’s a bad business decision. 

When it boils down it, I’ll give CES a lukewarm thumbs-up for attempting to make women more visible in high-profile spaces.

On the other hand, I have a hard time caring about voice-enabled toilets, flying cars, and AR strippers when a basic human function for women is still being deemed immoral in 2019. CES, it seems, was all about autonomy, except of course when it comes to women.

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

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