‘Booth babes’ trivialize women’s role in technology

Blair Hanley Frank

Illustration: Alex Bailey

Booth babes have to go. It pains me to be saying this in the year 2012, but it’s time for the technology and public relations industries to collectively grow up and realize that hiring models to walk around an expo hall with scannable QR codes plastered to the back of their Lycra hot pants is not okay. This industry deserves better than that.

For those of you not familiar with the concept, a booth babe is a  scantily-clad  woman hired specifically to act as an attraction for a convention or expo booth. They might have some high-level understanding of the product they’re pitching, but in general, they are simply there to attract people to the booth itself, rather than provide any sort of commentary on its contents.

On a personal level, I have an issue with the idea of booth babes to promote a product at a show. When I’m looking at a product, I want to evaluate it based on how it really is, not based on the looks of its spokesmodels. It’s a frustrating and uncomfortable experience to have my baser desires played against my rational experience of a product.

More problematic, though, is the image they present. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields are faced with a plague of female attrition, even in this day and age. A 2008 study revealed that 52 percent of women in STEM careers left them, primarily due to hostile, macho environments at work. In 2011, the Geek Feminism Wiki reported 25 incidents of sexism at major conventions. The writing is on the wall: Women in technology face hostile environments both at work and at conferences. As it stands, the tech field is plagued by a culture of ingrained and accepted sexism.

Booth babes are a perfect symbol of that culture. Shows like CES and E3 are major events in the tech world. They’re fantastic platforms to show that we as an industry want to create an environment in which women are valued for their contributions. Instead of sending that message, though, we’re continuing to allow the blatant objectification of women for no reason. This is an industry that’s supposed to be focused on looking forward, but we can’t do that without a real push for workplace gender equality and a rejection of sexism and sexual harassment. Eliminating their role at shows would be a step in the right direction. The removal of booth babes can only do good things for the tech community’s image and create a more productive environment at the shows themselves.

According to a 2010 study, women talked about themselves less if they thought they were being objectified by a male observer. There are direct, quantifiable negative consequences for creating an environment like the one that currently exists at tech conventions. It’s incumbent on the next generation of innovators and PR folks to make important, meaningful changes that promote equality in a field that’s all about the future.