Why "booth babes" reveal the technology industry's sexism

Gizmodo came up with an interesting video from the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas about “booth babes” – the scantily clad women who stand at stalls trying to stop people and sell them products.

It looked at why they choose to do the job (the ten-hours-on-your-feet part sounds pretty gruelling) and asked them to talk about their experiences. While men who don’t quite understand the boundaries are in the minority, they all had stories of being groped or spoken to inappropriately.

This must be the most blatant example of sexism in the technology industry, and should serve to quieten any person who argues misogyny doesn’t exist in tech anymore. I’d advocate a healthy level of rudeness to any booth-visitor who oversteps the mark, but all the women interviewed seemed too polite. They’re also all there to sell things, and the rudeness I’d advise probably isn’t the best selling tactic.

I’m interested in the companies employing these women to sell their technology. Obviously I understand the business reasons for doing it, but I’d like to find a short list of tech companies who use this tactic to sell their products at conferences, and ask them to explain why they do it and more importantly, what they do to ensure the women are safe and feel comfortable. Do they give training on what do to if somebody gets abusive or inappropriate or do they just assume the women can take care of themselves? Do they acknowledge that the people they employ to sell their products can get treated like objects, just like the gadgets they’re pushing?

The whole practice seems deeply tasteless, as much as anything else. It’s easy to dismiss that as a prudish point of view, but to me there’s not a great deal that’s more depressing in the world of work than to attend a conference and have the only female faces be the ones that are primped up to appeal to the male attendees. It feels really backward for 2010. Women are of course used to sell products across all consumer markets, but the way girls are used at gadget shows seems more blatant and base than most. Notwithstanding the equal-opportunities platitudes of the big tech companies, I think it tells us a lot about the inherent mindset of the technology market and many of its most powerful players.