The Booth Babe Dilemma

I recently wrote on Instagram about the perception of women at tech conferences and trade shows. This came about when Doghead Simulation’s CMO, Amber Osborne, received an email referring to her as “David”. In 2016 Amber was ranked as the #2 Top Most Social CMOs in the world by Forbes Magazine. She is well known in the industry and does anything from connecting people to taking Sir Mix A Lot out for steak dinner.

The “Hi David” email, most likely an innocent mistake, turned into a sad reminder of the perception women deal with in tech. It’s a slap in the face after a successful week at CES, where Amber and my other co-worker Amanda, demoed Doghead’s software at the HTC Vive’s booth. It was an extremely proud moment for us. Not only did we get to show off our software, but we did it in partnership with HTC, using the HTC Vive Pro.

Unfortunately, this proud moment has a dark shadow. Amanda graciously gave her time to demo at CES. When she’s not working on Doghead Simulations, she teaches game design at Full Sail University. Yet she still had to deal with dismissive comments from male conventioneers. Did people who visited our demo think that Amber and Amanda were simply booth babes (good looking females in tight pencil skirts brought in to attract people to a booth)?

I don’t like to dwell on the ugly side of tech but some realities can’t be ignored. As I thought about the perception of women at tech shows, I came across this article published by USA Today: AT CES, ‘booth babes’ are less obvious, but they’re not gone. Apparently, I am not the only person who sees the problem with booth babes. Booth babes hurt the perception of women with actual technical expertise at trade shows.

I’ve demoed at many tech trade shows over the years. At each show, there never fails to be multiple booths with very attractive women standing just outside to draw people in. Mostly, I feel bad for them in their heels. My feet kill standing around for eight hours in comfortable shoes, let alone stilettos.

Companies use booth babes because “it works”. According to the USA Today article, Edgar Cedeno, a general manager at Orion, says that it’s, “not about being sexist but about breaking the ice with conventioneers”. If the only way you can attract someone to your booth is with half-naked women, your company is pretty pathetic. Trade shows and conventions are supposed to be about the latest developments in technology and the newest products on the market, not be a gentleman’s club. If you can’t persuade someone to come to your booth to see your product on its own merit, you probably shouldn’t be out on the show floor in the first place.

But I get it. There is a lot going on at trade shows. Especially at tech’s largest like CES. It’s overwhelming for conventioneers and a real challenge for companies to stand out from the crowd. Using models is easy and sex sells.

Women are already facing multiple issues to be taken seriously in tech. Trade shows and conventions that allow the use of booth models undermine the intelligence of women who actually work the booth at these shows. Using models in commercials or even in show floor VR headsets is one thing but to use them on a live convention floor is another. The truth is, people don’t know who’s a booth babe and who’s not so they default to only talking to the men about what’s going on at the booth.

Last year we were invited by another company to share their booth space at International Telecom Week. At the time, I was the only person from Doghead able to go. I demoed rumii and talked about how virtual reality fits into our host’s product offerings. I had the HTC Vive set up with the controllers for people to experience rumii by walking around and interacting with others in VR.

Across the aisle from our booth space was a booth that had hired two models. This booth had a mobile VR headset demo, the kind where to you sit and can only look around, not actually interact with anything. The models’ job was to give people a seat, put the headset on, and clean it off.

When people (male and female) came to our booth they ignored me to ask the folks from the company who invited us what my product was and how it fit into the convention’s theme. Our booth host kept telling them to ask me until they finally gave up and started talking about my company, not theirs, to conventioneers.

There I was, co-founder, COO, and woman of a virtual reality startup, pushed aside because in that instance I was just another booth model holding a VR headset.

Lily Snyder and Chance Glasco present at OIX17
Talking to students at OrlandoIX about working in VR

We, as women in tech, are working hard to change our perception in the industry. We enjoy what we do. We would much rather talk about how to code the latest AI or VR software and think about how tech can solve business problems than focus on these gender issues. We would love to have in-depth conversations about how the Internet of Things will affect manufacturing processes rather than ask why there aren’t any women keynote speakers at the world’s largest tech show. And we would be thrilled to show you our products at trade shows and discuss how they fit into your business rather than be outdone by women hired only for their midriff-baring skills.

You can help us break the perception of women in tech so we can focus on what’s really important – the technology – by talking to us about it and not assuming we’re just another booth babe.

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