#CESGenderBias and Why We Need to Pay Attention
This isn’t a feel good story (but it should be).
Eight patents pending, including five developed with a top robotics lab. 3D printing, rapid prototyping, micro-robotics, soft robotics, mechanical engineering for biomimetic functions, and advanced material science. A small high-tech device that actually works to meet the targeted needs of its intended users. Sounds like the makings of a success story, and it should be. The team at Lora DiCarlo came up with a business plan, developed a partnership with Oregon State University, spent years gathering data, and created the first product in its portfolio designed to close a gap in the market. Only (apparent) problem is, it’s “the orgasm gap.”
"I spent over three years gathering physiological research based on anatomical data from thousands of women, as well as analysis of female orgasms. I realized that a successful blended orgasm product would require use of new technology that had only recently become available, and that's when I turned to the OSU's College of Engineering to help with our first 5 patent technologies," said Lora Haddock, Founder and CEO of Uccellini LLC, the company behind the consumer brand Lora DiCarlo.
OSU’s Dr. John Parmigiani worked to establish the new Product Development Lab “after seeing the potential value of the sex tech company's 3D printing and rapid prototyping processes,” a press release notes. The partners worked closely together to get Lora DiCarlo’s first product, first called Vela and rechristened as Osé, market ready. Interestingly, though the PDL has been a vocal proponent of its partner, its portfolio and projects page includes only the briefest of summaries of their work together displayed alongside Lora DiCarlo’s logo, in contrast to other project partners with longer descriptions and more detailed imagery.
It’s uncomfortable to talk about sex. Especially, it seems, the sexual needs and wants of women.
This is abundantly clear in mainstream culture -- how many commercials have you seen for ‘the little blue pill’? How many for women’s sexual health? -- but it’s also pervasive in the tech world. This week, CES has been drawing eyes and hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Las Vegas desert for one of the world’s mainstages in tech. It’s an interesting show, and for exhibitors a main draw is the annual innovation awards. These awards carry some serious clout, displayed prominently in awardees’ messaging and marketing, serving to back up claims with expert opinions -- and often leading to investment opportunities.
So it was a banner day for startup Lora DiCarlo when they received word in early October that their Osé had been selected as a winner in the Robotics and Drones category for its personal robotic device.
“It was vetted by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA, which owns and produces CES) and then a panel of independent expert judges in robotics scored it highly across all judging criteria; they saw the same marvel of cutting-edge technology that we did. A product that pushes the limits of engineering and design and opens the door to even bigger leaps in innovation, beyond even the sex tech uses,” Haddock wrote in an open letter published this week.
“Lora DiCarlo joined a small percentage of other products that were awarded such a coveted honor each year; this feather in our collective cap made years of research and engineering even more worthwhile and further validated our vision for creating innovative, inclusive products that change lives. My team rejoiced and celebrated.”
According to additional detail provided in the company’s public press pack (including specifically a 41-page pdf containing all communication between Lora DiCarlo and its partners and legal team with those at CTA), an eighty-nine-person expert jury panel voted to award Osé.
And then CTA took it back.
“A month later our excitement and preparations were cut short when we were unexpectedly informed that the administrators at CES and CTA were rescinding our award and subsequently that we would not be allowed to showcase Osé, or even exhibit at CES 2019,” Haddock continued in her open letter.
CTA said that Osé should never have been accepted into judging in the first place, and so was disqualified. They cited a rule in their award guidelines:
“Entries deemed by CTA in their sole discretion to be immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA’s image will be disqualified. CTA reserves the right in its sole discretion to disqualify any entry at any time which, in CTA’s opinion, endangers the safety or well being of any person, or fails to comply with these Official Rules.”
But it had been accepted, and vetted, and judged, and awarded. The Lora DiCarlo team pointed out that this citation was no longer legally valid; it refers to entries, and following the award announcement, Osé was no longer an entry. It was an awardee.
So CTA tried again. It doesn’t actually fit into the Robotics and Drones category, they said. Or any category. OSU’s Dr. Parmigiani responded, drawing from his substantial expertise in robotics to note that, in fact, Osé is a robotic device.
“The Ose’ device undoubtedly falls within the classification of robotic devices. A common definition of a robot is ‘a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer’. The Ose’ device easily satisfies this definition. The Ose’ device elicits an intense response from users through a series of complex actions involving biomimicry and precise applications of pressure variation, motion, and expansion. It does so automatically as programmed by computer circuit boards. It contains advanced electromechanical and micromechanical technology commonly associated with robotic products. Ose’ is truly unique because it is a robotic device and offers a level of sophistication not found in other products in the same market. The creation of Ose’ was an engineering challenge that drew OSU and a team of talented engineers in the field of robotics to take on the assignment of developing the prototype device.”
The tech behind it includes advanced robotics, biomimicry, and 3D printing. It turns out Lora DiCarlo is also a customer of Stratasys, which is paying attention as well as the situation unfolds:
CES has been happening this week, without Osé as awardee and without Lora DiCarlo as exhibitor. Some might get past that, thinking -- well, it is a sex toy. And most of the innovations people talk about are more mainstream (or publicly usable) consumer electronics: cool doorbells, health wearables, huge-screen TVs, drones. Buuuuut sex has always been part of the CES experience, including among exhibitors.
“It’s also important to note that a literal sex doll for men launched on the floor at CES in 2018 and a VR porn company exhibits there every year, allowing men to watch pornography in public as consumers walk by. Clearly CTA has no issue allowing explicit male sexuality and pleasure to be ostentatiously on display. Other sex toys have exhibited at CES and some have even won awards,” Haddock’s open letter points out.
The first year I went to CES as a media attendee, I received a ridiculous amount of press invitations. I ignored most, as my focus is 3D printing and associated technologies. Some inbox standouts that were still relevant to my areas of coverage included the seriously-cool-sounding Drone Rodeo (which I attended) and a trial for that very VR porn. I chose personally to not attend that trial, but not because it’s not objectively good tech -- frankly, the porn industry has been responsible for a surprising number of tech advances including in VCRs, cable programming, haptics, and, indeed, VR. CES was for many years co-located with an adult industry convention. There’s a legacy comfort at CES with things labelled “adult”.
There isn’t the same legacy comfort with things not targeted toward historically the largest demographic of attendees (men). CES, and CTA, has been in the sights for years regarding perceptions of gender inequality and a “bro” culture.
“CES has a history rife with sexism and gender bias—there were those very sad robot strippers, naked women selling phones on the conference floor, consecutive years without any female keynote speakers, booth babes (and the women executives mistaken for them), and no code of conduct, to name a few—and at last year’s conference, only about a fifth of the attendees were women. Revoking an award created by and for women does not inspire faith that the organization wants women to feel welcomed and celebrated for their achievements. And the ripple effects are troubling.”
CTA occasionally makes efforts to work on its image. Mostly in response to backlash; after noting last year that the “limited pool when it comes to women in these positions” meant there would be zero female keynoters for a second year and after the community responded with all-female lineups for their own sessions and with pre-made lists of suggested women speakers, two were added to the agenda. This year, CTA sent out a press release that it will “will invest $10 million in venture firms and funds focused on women, people of color and other underrepresented startups and entrepreneurs.” Possibly the shortest press release I have ever read in my years as a member of the press, it notes a need for increasing focus on diversity.
Diversity is a contentious issue. For as much as studies have shown time and time again that more diverse teams are a benefit to organizational functioning, actual results are still lacking. Women and people of color continue to make up a minority of the workforce in C-suites, in STEM jobs (and courses), and in 3D printing.
What’s happening with Lora DiCarlo right now is unacceptable. Let’s be better than this, tech world. No take-backsies.