Step Aside, Booth Babes: Women Taking Active Roles in Tech Conventions

Article by Alison K. Lanier | 974 words

Booth babes are a notorious part of tech conventions. A “booth babe” is the colloquial term for a woman, usually college-aged, hired to attend a tech trade show. A booth babe’s job is to stand by the booth, restock shelves, hand out merchandise and, of course, essentially function as “eye candy.” “Eye candy” is CNET’s politically correct wording there. The role of these women is to be highly visible—not knowledgeable or representative, but simply an aesthetic if functional addition to the booth’s décor.

Booth babes tend to be scantily clad, in their early twenties, and decked out in an outfit that’s visually coordinated with the merchandise displayed around them in the company’s booth. CNET also uses phrases like “dated stereotype of women’s roles at such events” to describe the phenomenon and the flak that conventions have picked up in recent years for maintaining booth babes as a consistent part of tech shows. As women try to make themselves more pointedly visible in notoriously male-dominated tech industries, standing alongside and distinguishing themselves from booth babes becomes an important task.

Credit: TechCrunch.com

Credit: TechCrunch.com

Are Booth Babes Effective Moneymakers?

Spencer Chen, the head of marketing for the photo app Frontback, wrote a scathing guest piece for TechCrunch over a year ago, calling the use of booth babes as part of a tech display inexcusable. “It’s a pretty indefensible practice,” he said. “The hiring of young, college-aged females to dress as provocatively as possible to help promote…um, Ultra HD TV sets, Android tablets and Internet-enabled toothbrushes. It’s a relic of old enterprises, but that’s just the way they like their world.”

Chen puts the weight of the blame for the continued booth babe presence soundly on the shoulders of a male-dominated industry—one that hasn’t really looked at the concrete effects of booth babes on trade show leads. Through his own research, Chen came to a very unflattering conclusion. Booth babes are only what they’re so frequently referred as in articles like CNET’s: a leftover custom, and an ineffective one at that.

In reality, Chen writes, booth babes are intimidating additions to a booth, pulling in low-level leads without having the knowledge base to be a useful member of the team. “These are the same gals that get hired to do restaurant shows, car shows or events at the local hot spot,” writes Chen. They aren’t specialized trade show workers, and they certainly couldn’t answer any significant business or product questions.

While some of Chen’s assessments are blatantly flawed, such as his claim that “booth babes are lazy,” his overall argument stands: booth babes don’t profit their employers, or at least they didn’t profit Chen’s company according to his calculations. After all, “a legit executive” is at a tradeshow to get work done, not check out the ladies.

Fresh Criticism against Exaggerated Attire

Thankfully, the booth babe tactic has taken more and more well-deserved criticism in the year since Chen’s article was written. CNET’s coverage (pun intended) of the new “wardrobe check” for RSA Conference booth babes featured a choice image of a woman pulling a turtleneck up over her chin. While that’s an exaggeration of the new rules for dress propriety, it’s difficult to believe that some of the past booth babe outfits weren’t joking exaggerations themselves.

CNET draws together some choice examples of the more outrageous attire: Catwoman, Xena and Princess Leia all wanted to sell you electronics, as did CES’s infamously paint-clad booth babes. Those painted booth babes made their way onto Mashable with 3.8 thousand shares as “This Picture Shows Everything Wrong With ‘Booth Babes’ at CES.”

The Changing Face of a Male-Dominated Tech Industry

But what could really defeat the damaging booth babe convention is a shift in the tech industry’s hiring practices. A large part of the issue surrounding booth babes is that they tend to be the most visible and the most common female presence at trade shows. Never mind the explicit pairing of scantily clad women and merchandise as attractive décor at trade show booths: women are otherwise notoriously absent.

The tech industry, alongside a slew of other STEM fields, has long been dominated by males. This state of affairs is most visibly obvious at trade shows, where companies are represented by college-aged booth girls in front of the display and men behind the booth counter.

Since booth babes are the most visible women at tech shows, other women there are assumed to be booth babes by default. Visitors to the booths frequently assume that any women there are not equipped to answer technical questions. A popular button campaign, which began as a single-booth idea and then spread via Hans de Leenheer’s VMware blog, makes this conflation clear. Women working at tech booths—not booth babes—began wearing red “I am not a booth babe. Ask me a question!” pins in response to frequent micro-aggressions.

Credit: IAmNotABoothBabe.com

Credit: IAmNotABoothBabe.com

CNET quotes de Leenheer’s comment on the role of that simple button campaign on the trade show floor: “One of the places where you feel micro-aggression all the way up to straightforward misogyny is on the expo floors at IT conferences. The historical use of women—that are just there to attract male attendees—as booth babes is merely part of the issue. The bigger issue is that in general, women are not respected enough in a technology environment to be expected to answer any question.”

CNET gives a cautiously optimistic assessment of the industry’s trend of hiring more women. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2013 that sixty percent of the tech industry’s new 60,000 jobs went to women—an unprecedented amount. This slow but steady change doesn’t spell the end of sexism in the industry. Although more women in tech is a good sign, they’re still seen as novelties or outsiders. This attitude, like the booth babe phenomenon, won’t leave the industry so quickly.

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