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Lori MacVittie

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Booth Babes Don’t Wear Glasses

Gidget or gadgets, that’s not really what the debate is all about anyway

Computer Engineer Barbie: We Need Details Not Dolls An axiomatic truth of technology today is that women in technology are, few and far between. The recent debate over booth babes slides naturally into the question “how can we encourage young women to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields”? After all, the argument goes, what young woman would willingly enter a field where she’ll be assumed to be ignorant unless she proves otherwise? Where she’ll be admired not for her Masters degree but for her mastery of makeup?

STEM, and technology in particular, has an unclear career path that tends to put off young women and, unsurprisingly, young men, too. Young women, according to research, aren’t thinking about the difficulties that exist being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field – and they do exist, there’s no denying that. They’re thinking “what the heck would I do with a degree in [insert STEM field here]?” [Scientific American, “U.S. Students say “yah for science””] Young women aren’t avoiding STEM because technology vendors at technology shows are hiring “booth babes.” In fact looking closer at the debate that’s risen regarding booth babes it really has nothing to do with them and everything to do with men and attitudes.

It isn’t the existence of booth babes that causes the treatment cited by Denise Dubie twitterbird in a recent post on this very debate over the practice, that is the result of a field that’s (1) still young compared to other STEM fields, (2) dominated by men, and (3) the fact that women in general haven’t been out en force  for all that long. It’s been less than 100 years since the right of women to vote was recognized, and less than 40 since we’ve really been accepted into the work force. Most of us are first and maybe second generation “working women”, professional women. We’re still paving the path for our daughters and their daughters. It’s no surprise that men in general, then, haven’t had a whole lot of time yet to adjust.

quote-leftA recent post by Network World blogger Michael Morris caused a bit of discussion on that site as well as chatter across social media network Twitter. He held a contest immediately following Cisco Live to identify the hottest booth babe at the show.

[…]

The one thing I do note at these shows, being in a position required to approach and speak to attendees and being female, is that I am in the definitely in the minority there. And often when I approach male attendees, they seem a bit shocked that I am talking technology with them. And when sitting in on sessions and looking around the room, I am always elated to find another female in attendance. But I have found that some of those women work for the vendor doing the presentation and aren’t IT professionals attending the show. Still I have to admit in the 10+ years of going to shows, the number of women in attendance has increased, based on my informal opinion. [emphasis added]

The ‘booth babe’ debate

Denise Dubie, NetworkWorld

It would likely be difficult to find a woman in technology that hasn’t had this same experience. The shock, the surprise, the change in tone and demeanor that comes from male counterparts upon realizing that the woman they’re talking to knows what she’s talking about. In some cases, she knows a heck of a lot more than they do. But that “shock and awe” isn’t restricted to trade shows, and it’s really got nothing to do with booth babes. It’s the preconceived notions many  men carry along with them to trade shows. Notice that these opinions didn’t originate at a trade show replete with lusty booth babes, they were carried along. That shock and awe isn’t peculiar to trade show environments, it is everywhere. On the phone, on a webinar, in a lab. In environments where there are no booth babes. Hence, they are not really part of the “problem” at all.


SWAG versus SKIRTS

Go ahead, take the booth babe out of the picture. The assumptions and pre-conceived notions held by many in IT will still be there. The front line in any booth is assumed to be staffed by both male and female “talent” or employees that are not necessarily very technical. Period. Whether they’re male or female, that “screening line” isn’t going to be able to describe in detail, for example, the anatomy of an SSL handshake. Go ahead, ask. Ask a man, ask a woman. Doesn’t matter. Front line booth staff are almost unilaterally there to screen and direct. They exist to welcome you to the booth, scan your badge, and to help you get to the right person if you’re interested in a discussion. They are there because they are outgoing and friendly and enjoy engaging with people, for which those of us who are hiding “in the booth” and are not outgoing are grateful.

Now many folks point out that using booth babes generates a lot of useless leads. Mostly true. But the same can be said for interesting swag, as well. Folks who visit a booth to snatch up the latest geegaw or enter a drawing to win an iPad aren’t exactly solid leads in the first place, so whether they’re attracted by a nice set of legs or a shiny toy isn’t really all that relevant now, is it? It’s not as if the guy who stopped by for a shiny, sparkly ball for his kids is any more interested in your product than the one who was attracted by a beautiful set of … legs. 

It is more than expected that women in technology want the respect they deserve based on their knowledge and expertise, not their choice in clothing or demandingwomanshoes. But how do you know who they are? And for that matter, how do you which men are the ones that have the knowledge you’re looking for? You can’t assume (or shouldn’t) that any given man at a technology show is any more technically astute than another because there are a variety of folks who attend those shows: from the IT manager who may not have 1337 technical skillz to the router jockey that does. Despite the attempts of Hollywood to the contrary, you can’t tell who’s is or isn’t a geek by looking at them. You simply can’t judge the competency and knowledge of an IT worker from their outward appearance or their title or even their degree.

On the other hand, you can be relatively sure that a booth babe is just that: a booth babe. Their proximity to the booth and uniform of short skirts, tight tops, and heavily glossed lips is hard to miss. I am not likely to be mistaken for a booth babe and conversely they are unlikely to be mistaken for someone with a clue. I will, however, almost certainly run into someone who is very surprised that I know a thing or two. Why? Because I’m a woman. In technology. And as much as I’d like to at times, I don’t carry a 2x4 wrapped in copies of my master’s degree in computer science, so there’s no obvious clue other than the fact that I’m not dressed like a booth babe. 

The debate over “booth babes” isn’t really about booth babes. It’s not even really about the inability to distinguish the geeks from the rest of the crowd. It’s about the reaction of men to a technically competent woman, no matter what she’s wearing. It’s the surprise and the shock in their expression and voice. It’s about the assumption that no woman is technically competent – at a trade show or on a conference call. That’s at the heart of this debate and others like it, and whether booth babes are present or not is unlikely to have an impact on those assumptions.    

NOTE: It’s been mentioned by “those in the know” that the event that started this whole brouhaha, CiscoLive, will be “booth babe” free in the future.


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Lori MacVittie is responsible for education and evangelism of application services available across F5’s entire product suite. Her role includes authorship of technical materials and participation in a number of community-based forums and industry standards organizations, among other efforts. MacVittie has extensive programming experience as an application architect, as well as network and systems development and administration expertise. Prior to joining F5, MacVittie was an award-winning Senior Technology Editor at Network Computing Magazine, where she conducted product research and evaluation focused on integration with application and network architectures, and authored articles on a variety of topics aimed at IT professionals. Her most recent area of focus included SOA-related products and architectures. She holds a B.S. in Information and Computing Science from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.