Why are booth babes still a thing at (some) Tech events?

Promo shot from ZTE Deutschland Facebook page of their staff at IFA 2016

Working as a tech journalist I have the privilege to talk to women in amazing roles in tech encompassing the whole of the sector from robotics to data analytics to wearables. I’ve met developers, hardware engineers, roboticists, CEO’s, CTO’s, office managers, marketers, scientists, event managers, academics, VC’s, creators, tinkerers and fellow journalists to name but a few.

Whilst women in tech statistics invariably paint a picture where women are underrepresented, I do see organisations like Atlassian, Buffer, Node.js and Linux Foundation (to name but a few) who not only work to increase their diversity quotas but actively place women in leadership roles whether as Chairperson, conference speakers, or chairpeople of working groups and committees. They’re also not too precious to actively take a look at their own own successes and failures (usually publicly shared) such as Buffer’s diversity dashboard, Atlassian’s internal diversity report and Node JS’s Inclusivity Working Group. Seriously I could scratch the surface of any well resourced tech organisation and see loads of machinations that reflect the greater roles of women in society.

Yet there’s one place where sometimes I see this lacking. Tech events. Not all tech events I hasten to add, or even most, but rather events that pledge to showcase innovation and leading edge technology. This year I was lucky to attend Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and IFA here in Berlin. I was rather shocked to see the phenomenon of ‘booth babes’ is still (whilst not necessarily prolific) certainly alive and well. For the uninitiated, a booth babe is the use of women dressed in a certain way to attract the attention of male attendees to the particular booth, usually in the hope that they’ll either buy something or partake in some kind of business deal. Think women in their 20’s who invariably are socially acceptably thin with make up, long hair and high heels. The women are not present as tech experts or advisors or regular employees of the company who happen to pay extra attention to grooming. Rather they are promotional models, based on some antiquated notion of sex sells.

Some of the tamer examples from this year:

A staffer at ZTE booth
Here’s the male colleague being interviewed, he gets to be full attired
Panasonic’s pavilion inexplicably had a woman on a swing for little more than entertainment is appears….

Aren’t we better than this?

I hardly need to trot out the reasons why this is wrong as they are surely well known to anyone who thinks about it for more than two seconds. It’s a lazy and rather pathetic way to engage event attendees which caters to the inaccurate notion that men are nothing more than atavistic creatures who must have their sexual urges titillated anywhere, anytime.

Attendees at some conferences (myself included) are there to have their minds blown with exciting, revolutionary, disruptive examples of technology than transform industries, solve problems and change society for the better, not tired old notions of gender from another era. And don’t think for one minute that booth boys-suggested by some as a panacea to all those ‘humourless femininists’-are the solution to this. Seriously, as an industry and a society, aren’t we better than all this?

Collusion in the tech media

It’s to my shame as a proud representative of the tech media, that some do not share my views. Business and tech publications like Business Insider, PC Mag, Custom PC Review, Digital Newsroom, Hardware Zone (I could have gone on with names here) even actually take the time to photograph these women, providing ‘booth babe’ pictorial galleries of their favourites.

As Alex Colon, Managing Editor Consumer Products PC Mag and author of Article The Booth Babes of MWC (Mobile World Congress) 2016 notes:

“The problem is, you need people to help out and watch over these booths, and most of the people that work in tech just aren’t very sexy. I can say that because I’m currently writing this in a room filled with hundreds of other tech writers”.

Gee, I dunno, I was busy working at the conference, not being sexy for your entertainment. Sorry about that. He offers faint consolation:

“that the whole idea of booth babes is wildly regressive, and I’m hoping you’ll look past the headline to find an equal mix of men and women here helping to display the cool new tech you’ll be using in 2016.”

These publications are meant to be my contemporaries, their writers my colleagues and the events they photograph are also my workplaces. Who wants to deal with this kind of crap when they’re just trying to do their job?

I’ve always believed that you lead by example. What example does the use of women in this way demonstrate to young women considering a career in tech, an older woman planning a career change or one starting their first start up or even speaking at such conferences? I know it doesn’t make me feel particularly comfortable, included or welcome.

In case you think the start up scene is immune from this kind of thing, I attended an excellent start up event in Warsaw earlier in the year. Amongst a troupe of hardworking organisers, presenters, volunteers, caterers and attendees included a coffee start up sponsor who decided that free coffee wasn’t enough- young women in short skirts and heels could also give out coffee cards! Rather underwhelming for a business pledging to disrupt the beverage industry….

Not just tech

It’s worth noting that this phenomenon is not limited to tech consumer conferences per se. in September Photokina 2016 in Köln also utilised female models for testing photography equipment. Apparently such photos require women to dress a certain way…

There’s Panasonic’s woman on a swing again…
Why photograph a woman in day clothing when she could be wearing lingerie?

It’s getting better

Look it’s starting to get better. Recently, the RSA Conference, an information security event, added a new clause to its exhibitor rules that bars suggestive or revealing clothes. More conferences are following suit.

Excellent example of DIY activism by Jennifer Gill and her colleagues

In 2014, Jennifer Gill, Director of Global Product Marketing at Zerto started the creation of “I am not a booth girl, ask me a question” badges. The product has been open sourced and you can download the artwork online to make your own.

The only way things will change is through the men and women who organise and attend such events and conferences agitating for change. For each of these booths, someone has decided that it would be acceptable to hire ‘booth babes’, someone has signed off on it, someone has hired the women and someone has organised the payment. You want to draw people to your stall? How about a robot? How about cocktails? What about a great spokesperson. It’s really not that hard. Stop embarrassing yourselves and show what you can really do.