SAN FRANCISCO — Next week more than 180,000 people will cram Las Vegas convention halls for technology's biggest show, a flashy annual preview of new gadgets and trends.
But this year many of them will be paying less attention to what's on display and more to what's not.
Not a single woman landed one of the keynote addresses that headline the show, the second straight year these top spots were claimed by men.
An online backlash has erupted, generating a hashtag (#CESSoMale) and a torrent of social media posts. Kristin Lemkau, chief marketing officer of JPMorgan Chase, who has spoken at CES herself, drew up her own list of 21 women headliners "in less time than it took to drink coffee." HP's global chief marketing officer, Antonio J. Lucio, tweeted: "All men should boycott @CES if women are not invited to speak! Insulting in this day and age."
One activist plans to storm the conference to turn the national spotlight on just how parched this trade show conference in the Nevada desert is for women in key roles.
Gender Avenger co-founder Gina Glantz says she'll pass out stickers — "women's voices count" — and she'll encourage CES attendees to use the Gender Avenger app that creates a gender diversity pie chart for conference sessions — bright future (40% or more women), cloudy with a chance of patriarchy (30% to 39%) and thunderstorm of inequality (below 30%) — so they can be posted to social media.
"The goal is to keep this at the forefront of the conversation as people go from session to session," says Glantz, who started Gender Avenger three years ago to hound and shame the $30 billion dollar conference industry into putting more women in keynotes and on panels.
The trade group that organizes CES and handpicks the speakers is the Consumer Technology Association. Its senior vice president of corporate business strategy, Karen Chupka, points to participation elsewhere at CES, with a quarter of speaking slots this year going to 242 women. The focus on the big-name keynote addresses overlooks the presence of women on the keynote stage on panels and in keynote presentations elsewhere at the show, CES says.
"We're proud of our record in welcoming a diversity of speakers to the CES keynote stage," Chupka, senior vice president of CES, said in a statement. "In the last seven years, we’ve had 15 keynote spots held by women."
Those keynote spots are not just keynote addresses but other appearances CES includes as keynotes, including panel discussions. A review by USA TODAY found only three women in the past seven years have been tapped to deliver the much hyped keynote addresses: former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, General Motors CEO Mary Barra and IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. Other prominent business leaders such as former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns and former GE vice chair Beth Comstock participated in what CTA calls keynote panels.
"I was stung by the online backlash expressing outrage that no women were among the CES keynote speakers," Gary Shapiro, CEO of the CTA, wrote in a Medium post last month. "The exclusive focus on keynotes in my view insults the hundreds of women who are speakers at CES in January."
Women headliners largely missing from CES main events has only recently begun to receive attention outside the tech world. Last year Gender Avenger protests were met with mostly crickets, not clicks. But the consciousness raised by the women's march a year ago and more recently with the #MeToo movement has more people talking about the silencing of women's voices in corporate America, Glantz says.
In December, her action alert, "The Keynote Speakers At CES 2018 Are All Men," was called out by former PepsiCo executive Brad Jakeman. Soon Sonos' Joy Howard and Twitter's Leslie Berland joined the conversation on social media, and both organized female panels at CES. CES scrambled to add women to its keynote roster, but didn't add to its top slots.
"Over time we had lost interest in the show. When we saw the keynote line-up, it really woke us up to why. It's the lack of diversity," said Howard who is putting on four all-female panels during CES. "This was a clear opportunity for us to take action and to give voice to women in technology who we don't feel like we hear from enough."
Tech trade shows have never been female friendly. Mostly men attend and speak. After parties and alcohol binges are a part of the tech conference culture. Women frequently complain of unwanted sexual advances and assaults, forcing tech conferences to adopt codes of conduct to ward off bad behavior. And, to lure foot traffic to their shiny wares, companies staff their booths with attractive models, some of them scantily clad, intensifying the climate of sexism on the trade show floor.
For years CES organizers shrugged off the prevalence of models. Shapiro told the BBC in 2012 "it is a little old school, but it does work. People naturally want to go towards what they consider pretty."
Peak outrage with CES "booth babes" came a year later when Apple accessories-company Hyper dressed topless women in body paint and skimpy thongs and encouraged people to share the photos using the hashtag #getmore.
Four years later, CES is again rebuffing critics, this time over the all male line-up of keynote addresses.
Why does it matter? What began in 1967 as the International Consumer Electronics Show in New York with 117 exhibitors and 17,500 visitors has evolved into one of the largest and most important tech trade shows of the year — a buzzy launch pad for big brands and start-ups alike.
The highlight of CES are the keynote addresses, blinding displays of on-stage corporate shock and awe in which business leaders tout their strategy, demo new products and roll out big announcements, often with celebrities and surprises in tow. Being handed that kind of booming presence on an international platform can jack up a company's image and its stock, according to the Consumer Technology Association.
The trade group decides who qualifies for a keynote address: someone who's president or CEO level for a large enterprise with name recognition in the industry. This year's keynote addresses are being given by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Hackett and Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei Consumer Business Group.
"As upsetting as it is, there is a limited pool when it comes to women in these positions," Chupka wrote in a recent blog post. "We feel your pain. It bothers us, too. The tech industry and every industry must do better."
The lack of diversity at CES — seven out of 10 attendees are men, according to its own statistics — mirrors the Mad Men demographics of the tech industry at large, where women land few of the top spots. The ranks of women in the Fortune 500 tech CEO suite are thinning, with the departures of Burns and Mayer and the resignation next month of Meg Whitman as CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
Tech companies are pushing to hire and promote more women to better reach the consumers who are prolific users of their products and drive many technology purchases. But these efforts to narrow the gender gap — and Silicon Valley sexual harassment scandals that have focused greater attention on the exclusion of women — have done little to crack the tech industry's glass ceiling.
If anything, CES's glass ceiling appears to be more shatter proof. Even with the crush of negative attention to male-dominated tech conferences in recent years, the demographics of those headlining CES have not changed much.
The CTA pledged Friday in a letter to Glantz that it would work "to include more diverse voices throughout our programming" for next year's show.
"It is a challenge," the trade group wrote in the letter. "But we are up for it."
Glantz says she's satisfied with the response.
"We have a statement of their commitment and that's good," she said. "We are going to be watching next year for more women keynote addresses on the main stage at CES."
For a playlist of last year's CES keynotes, see below.
Follow USA Today senior technology writer Jessica Guynn @jguynn