(co-authored with Zenobia Godschalk, CEO of ZAG Communications)
At the recent RSA conference, it was apparent the exuberance and spending of the 90s are back, and with them, the dreaded accessory known as “booth babes”. In many areas of the show floor, scantily clad women scanned badges, strutted their stuff, hawked wares they knew nothing about, and in general, made many conference goers, men and women, highly uncomfortable.
One company even had their female receptionist dressed in hot soccer pants greeting visitors at the booth while the demo-giving male engineers donned soccer referee shirts.
“RSA (the conference) hit a new low”, many said.
Because so much of the conference this year was devoted to issues like government surveillance, nation state threats, mass data theft, and the un-RSA conference threatened to unseat the incumbent, booth babes seemed like the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.
But still, we had them galore. In between discussions of exploits and Big Data, a teen beauty queen was trotted out to sign autographs; Jane Doe here handed out data sheets from her skin-tight bustier, and mystery woman there displayed her acrobatic skills in barely-there fabric before the demo went underway.
All of which made the implication that, for those companies that chose to do so, the promotion of their technologies/products was not possible without scantily-clad women, it feels like a cruel insult to the efforts of the men and women who worked hard to create, build, Q/A, and demo the product.
It was no less harsh an offense to the intelligence of many, both men and women, who walked the show floor with the goal to learn, to engage in intellectual exchanges, and to debate serious issues.
Putting in the most tolerant light, this behavior is a “lazy way of marketing”, Debbie Rosen of Sonatype said, “this happens when you do not have any creative or otherwise more positive ways of getting attention.”
We are not in the “Mad men” era. Women have stepped up and “leaned in”. However, statistics still show that women’s participation in computer science and engineering remains below 30%  . As an industry, we have a collective obligation to promote, to foster, rather than discourage and demean the next generation of women IT leaders.
It’s not just women who are offended by this. Winn Schwartu, a noted security industry veteran, wrote a pointed piece on this subject in SC Magazine last month: “The RSA Conference expo floor offended me – and why I blame the exhibitors”. Marcus Ranum has also commented on this topic with a similar sentiment. So did the Ashimmy blog.
So how do we change this behavior?
Writing blog posts and expressing outrage on social media alone won’t work. We need to make this issue a practical, rather than a rhetorical one. Those of us who are in positions of power, those of us in sales, marketing, and executive positions, need to do something real to effect changes.
Let’s consider first and foremost, instilling in our own companies the “radical thinking” that we can showcase technology simply by celebrating the ideas and ingenuity went into its creation, and to establish the belief that we can differentiate and standout by articulating the strength of, rather than the distractions from, the products and technology that many of us have worked so hard to create.
Zenobia Godschalk, CEO of ZAG Communications, and myself have created this Facebook group: Starting a new dialogue. Please consider going to the FB group to pledge your support — that you will leverage your influence to ensure that your company/organization will not use booth babes or otherwise sexually objectify either men or women for PR/marketing purposes at trade shows.
It’s time to start a new dialogue. We can’t afford not to.
: See NSF report “Women, Minories, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering“