It seems odd to me that decades after our brilliant government came up with the idea that we could use discrimination to end it and created the EEOC, we really haven’t made much real progress. If you look at most large firms, tech or otherwise, you’ll typically see they are dominated by white men. Even companies that have female CEOs tend to surround those women with male executives. You can see this showcased in tech at CES, where a group of us are looking for just one female presenter this year and, outside of the VR showcase (which is a show within a show and predominantly female), there apparently aren’t any.
While I often have my doubts, given the timing and content, that presenting at CES conveys much status, still the lack of diversity is concerning and reflects poorly on the diversity efforts of the presenting companies. Now there are two ways to deal with this. You could focus on optics and shame the companies into bringing in more female speakers, or focus on improving the quality of the event, and given that more women are in marketing and advertising roles and thus better skilled in improving quality, push the most talented into improving the show. CES kind of sucks and, I believe, more diversity would improve the show, as in increase interest in the content, increase sales, and increase vendor return on investment.
Let’s talk diversity today.
The Problem with Diversity
Diversity generally isn’t the problem; it is a symptom of a problem. In the 1970s, when the EEOC was created, much of the work being done to improve work satisfaction was scrapped as discriminatory. The problem was a lack of properly trained minorities for critical jobs coupled with discrimination in education that promoted discrimination in the workplace. The EEOC forced a better mix without really addressing the education problem and the result is that, decades later, it seems little progress has been made except for Asians. Asians, granted mostly males, came out of schools highly qualified and today Asian males are well represented in areas like engineering that were mostly Caucasian a few decades back.
This showcased a path: If you can get a more diverse group through the education system and into management, the result is a more diverse workplace. But if you try to force diversity without the education/skill building blocks, the diverse elements won’t advance and real progress will be elusive.
The problem with this path is it takes decades, and no one seems to want to wait so they go down the optics route because the appearance of progress is more important. But this brings up another problem. If you address the optics, folks think the problem is either fixed or being fixed, but that isn’t the case. So, by focusing on optics, if you are successful, you can stop progress rather than drive it.
Look how companies often get into trouble. Too frequently, executives focus on things like stock buybacks, dividends and downsizing efforts, which make the company look healthier but, like cancer, they all reduce the assets the company must fight with and weaken the firm, doing the opposite of ensuring its success. Optics are easy, but they not only don’t fix problems, they can make them worse.
More Diversity Could Make CES Suck Less
This all steps away from one of the big problems with CES: It sucks. The timing, right after the holidays, is way too early to showcase new lines. People must sacrifice their holidays to prepare for the show, and the show has become so big and unfocused that you can’t even get around the place, let alone get any interest focused on your product or service. Most of the major vendors have dropped out over the years with many hosting their own private functions in nearby hotels. Yes, it is making more money for the organizers year over year, but providing less value for the exhibitors and that takes it down the path of an eventual Comdex-like failure.
Much of the problem with the event is that there is an excess focus on quantity over quality. The buyers are mostly male and the metrics more on booth traffic than on closing deals, neither of which is particularly wise because both result in excess waste. In addition, they result in tactical thinking around practices like booth babes, which reflect poorly on the brand and don’t really increase sales.
One final comment: The practice, which is widespread, of fixing buyers up with women is increasingly dangerous because it both violates the company policies of many of the firms doing it and has a very high news potential now. Outing this practice and connecting it to major brands could potentially do massive brand damage. And, in the current atmosphere, that outcome is almost certain next year.
Wrapping Up: Fixing CES
The lack of diversity at CES reflects badly on the firms attending the show, results in practices that not only lower sales volume but increase the probability of brand damage, and includes practices like setting up buyers with “dates” that could backfire badly on the related sales and executive teams. Fixing the problem likely starts by increasing the diversity of buyers, something that should be done anyway to better match the diversity of the firm’s customers. For CES, a sharper focus on quality over quantity would likely better assure the longevity of the show, which really should be moved to later in the year.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+