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The Law of Intended Consequences of Diversity in Thought Leadership

Lisa Fontenot, Corporate Partner at Gibson Dunn in Palo Alto and sits on the Board of Directors for UPWARD.

“Views expressed in this post are the views of the authors and not Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP or any company with which a panelist discussed in this post is employed.”

Stories about the absence of participation by women representing technology leadership abound, many recent exposes revealing that, even in 2018, gender balance of expert speakers who are considered thought leaders in the technology sector is not a priority. Earlier this year, coverage of the Computer Electronic Show (CES)  featured the lack of female keynote speakers for the second year in a row, and resulting backlash calling for organizers and promoters to recognize the female talent available for these opportunities. While other CES panels on industry topics included women, the prestigious and high-profile keynote slots were singularly men.[1]

Keynote speakers are presumed to be, or perhaps become in part by virtue of their high-profile speaking roles, recognized as thought leaders—people who define and lead us into the next “big thing.”   What happens when women are not at the podium?  What is lost not just by women, but an entire sector that seems to be too often unable or unwilling to examine its own blindspots?  The failure to recognize women as thought leaders further perpetrates the myth that women leaders are less qualified, with those relatively few reaching its highest leadership levels characterized as the ‘anomaly’ versus the norm. Out of the CES keynote speaker controversy arose many responses, including an app — creating a gender diversity pie chart for conference sessions for social media use to emphasize that  “women’s voices count”.  What if these metrics were applied to all technology-related or technology sector programs?

In response to allegations of exclusion, some commentators and organizers remarked upon the purported lack of qualified women available for such positions.  According to the 2017 McKinsey Lean In Report on Women in the Workplace, there is no evidence that there is an inadequate pipeline of qualified women to step up, explaining statistics that show that “[w]omen are not leaving their companies at higher rates than men, and very few plan to leave the workforce to focus on family. Compared with men of the same race and ethnicity, women are leaving their companies at similar rates: white women are leaving as frequently as white men.”[2]

UPWARD – in every panel, every mentoring session, and every dinner –  proves a different truth.  Women are qualified, available and capable of tackling and communicating about cutting edge topics for technology, the law, and beyond.  UPWARD also recognizes demonstrations of this fact throughout our UPWARD community.

On March 15, 2018, the topic of artificial intelligence, which was a central area of focus at CES this year, was explored by legal experts, all of whom were also women.  The program, offered by the Practising Law Institute (PLI), was titled “Artificial Intelligence and Data-Driven Transactions 2018:  Unique Legal Considerations.”  The Chair of the program,  Carrie LeRoy, a technology transactions partner with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Palo Alto, had no difficulty identifying experts who also happened to be women.  An expert in intellectual property law regularly negotiating high-profile transactions, LeRoy apparently did not suffer from the bias (unconscious or otherwise) that could lead a program organizer on a topic of interest to the technology sector to fill speaking spots with all or mostly men.

The program explored a range of cutting edge issues including data protection, exploitation and artificial intelligence-specific considerations, managing strategic transactions involving artificial intelligence and data acquisition and ethical considerations regarding data use and artificial intelligence.  The esteemed faculty included Anne-Kathrin Kroemer, Director of Legal, Rubrik, Inc., Lisa A. Fontenot, a technology mergers and acquisitions partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Palo Alto, Susannah Wright, Chief Legal Officer of Credit Karma, Jill Hubbard Bowman, Associate General Counsel, Intellectual Property, Internet of Things Group of Intel Corporation and Autonomous Driving Group of Intel Corporation and Linda Shih, Group Counsel for the Internet of Things Group of Intel Corporation.

Attendance at this event, held in person and via a live webcast, proved that having women—indeed only women—speak on a timely topic for technology sector lawyers will not diminish attendance levels.  In fact, in addition to the in-person event selling out completely, a total of 672 viewers participated by webcast, which PLI characterized as a very exceptional attendance level.  As a matter of policy, PLI prioritizes diversity and the attendance level for this event suggests that, consistent with this policy, there is no particular reason to default to the selection of all or mostly male faculty members.  Anne-Kathrin Kroemer, one of the faculty members, expressed appreciation for the thought that went into putting this program together and her involvement as a speaker:  “It was amazing to participate in the discussion with tremendous women leaders who are performing cutting-edge legal work. I heard from several attendees how impressed they were with the all-female speaker lineup – something that is still somewhat unusual in tech law these days. For me personally, it was a great reminder that we should continue to put ourselves out there as women lawyers.” LeRoy and the panelists received positive live feedback not only consisting of commentary of the expert presentation substance, but also on the composition of the panels. Attendees appreciated a faculty that provided irrefutable evidence of the reality that experts in application of the world’s most advanced and possibly life-changing technologies are by no means singularly male.

When asked about the faculty-selection process, LeRoy emphasized that her focus on subject matter experts revealed that many were in fact women.  That lines up with recent statistics on law school enrollment rates.  Women now comprise the majority of law students.[3]    According to LeRoy, “many people would not think twice if a high-profile conference on artificial intelligence included only male speakers—yet there is a robust and growing pipeline of women who are equally-qualified to speak on this topic and indeed manage development, marketing and legal matters that are critical to the emerging AI revolution.    We, as women leaders, are uniquely-positioned to change the misguided perception that a certain field or subject matter is the sole province of men—to create a new, always-inclusive ‘normal,’ in particular when there absolutely is an abundance of female thought leaders who may be overlooked by some who are less focused on the issues that organizations such as UPWARD are attempting to address.”

In a world where we are connected by our everyday experiences, we should share the word of singular acts that contribute to the butterfly effect of enabling inclusion in senior leadership.  Maybe an all-female faculty at a high-profile technology-centric seminar will one day not even be a news item.  We’re not there yet, but we do need to highlight our successes.  Let us recognize these successes, learn from their methods and results and replicate.



   [1]   See:  https://www.ces.tech/Conference/Keynote-Schedule.aspx

   [2]   See http://fortune.com/2017/10/10/women-in-the-workplace-2017/

   [3]   See:  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/16/business/dealbook/women-majority-of-us-law-students-first-time.html

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