Update: Shapiro responded in the comments section, you can read his apology and weigh in on it here. The IP address has been verified as belonging to the CEA in Arlington, VA. (The effect of the default kitten icon is admittedly amazing.)
Perhaps it’s having been struck dumb by sheer, unmitigated rage, but I’ve been sitting on my response to this whole “booth babe” thing for a few days now. Last week I attended the Consumer Electronics Show, a massive annual technology expo in the neon wilds of Las Vegas. CES is helmed by a man named Gary Shapiro, and it’s a flashy, chaotic convergence of media, business, and PR folks, all swarming around the Las Vegas Convention Center for the better part of a week each January.
Mid-week I was deliriously vying for an ethernet connection in the press room when a nice youngish fellow named Matt Danzico asked to interview me for a BBC segment about “booth babes.” The video went live the next day (that’s me — that Taylor Hatmaker gal) and I looked on in horror as Consumer Electronics Association president and all around extremely-influential-
Here’s what Shapiro said re: the booth babe phenomenon:
Well, sometimes it is a little old school, but it does work. People naturally want to go towards what they consider pretty. So your effort to try to get a story based on booth babes, which is decreasing rather rapidly in the industry, and say that it’s somehow sexism, imbalancing — it’s cute, but it’s frankly irrelevant in my view.
As a female-identified human person, navigating the vastly male waters of CES is a strange kind of mental contact sport. In the press room, women are so few and far between I almost feel like we should have some secret hand signal of mutual respect, or maybe the cool lady tech journos do and I don’t know about it yet. But beyond the press room, you’ll see women all right: over-the-top, hyper-feminine ones wearing anything from form-fitting black and massive fake eyelashes to only the most cursory shreds of fabric. This is the booth babe, the ultimate anachronism at a convention ostensibly about the transcendent places technology can take us. (The booth babe issue itself is a complex one. I’m in the same camp with sex-positive tech columnist Violet Blue in feeling that “the way women feel about booth babes is way more grey than black and white.” I plan to unpack my own thoroughly gray feelings about that through the lens of sexuality, just not in this piece.)
In a pitch-perfect article on Gizmodo yesterday, Mat Honan gets to the core of the issue, which in this case is not really booth babes at all — it’s Shapiro’s ultra-condescending, laissez-faire nonchalance.
“The reason his answer is so bothersome is because as the head of the CEA he is, in a very real sense, speaking for all of us in the technology industry. And that Mad Men bullshit doesn’t represent who we are as an industry anymore, and it certainly doesn’t represent what we should aspire to become. Technology is about the future, and this attitude is from the past.”
In an analogy drawn by both Honan and Violet Blue, Shapiro’s words indeed conjure images of Mad Men, everyone’s favorite cultural TV time machine. Namely the utter disconnect between the ad world’s reckless gender elite and the hostile professional environment its attitudes give rise to. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to imagine Shapiro (and his unsettling smirk) slinking off stage right to enjoy a cocktail in the Old Boy’s Club after swatting the BBC reporter away.
Antediluvian(ly stupid) comments like Shapiro’s make feel like I’m Peggy trying to break into an industry the hard way: by means of the merit of my work. As a woman in the industry, beholden to CES, working day and night at the event over which Shapiro himself presides, the tone of those words made me feel very, very small. And that sure as hell isn’t a place I’m willing to be put — for long, at least.
The thing is, I almost never feel like that. I love what I do, I work with awesome people, and while women are vastly underrepresented in tech, I feel comfortable, extremely competent, and right at home in my field — most days. But Shapiro’s caustically casual dismissal of the booth babe issue altogether makes me feel like I’m treading water in a pool of sharks. Why bother looking at gender politics in a historically (and currently) male-dominated field? How cute of you to bring it up at all!
It’s not Shapiro’s passive support of the time-honored tradition of hiring near-naked women to drape themselves over a company’s shitty gadget that’s rage-inducing, per se. In fact, if we assume that women have agency and can be empowered by the work they choose, booth babes might not be problematic at all — were it not for the bizarrely hyper-sexualized and gender-imbalanced ecosystem that their presence is designed to lend ambience to. Rather, It’s Shapiro’s entirely negligent disinterest in scrutinizing the issue altogether and his inadequate, defensive response, issued to Gizmodo yesterday (published in full at the bottom of the story). You can almost hear the deep, bristling sigh Shapiro must have heaved at those pesky journalists and their “gotcha” moment.
I wish I could dismiss Shapiro’s words as out of context, or spliced together, or anything really. But they just aren’t. The comments were careless, sure, but the follow-up statement doesn’t do much to mend them. Since when was being weary after a day of work an excuse to lapse into complete misogynistic apathy? I guess if Shapiro’s pseudo-apology is to be believed, his comments don’t count at all due to some convoluted mixture of his being married to a female surgeon (which smacks of the “some of my best friends are black” line of reasoning) and the BBC interview having been near the tail-end of ” three straight hours of media interviews.” After all, aren’t we all a little racist/sexist/homophobic or just plain vile when we’re tired? And if we in technology just pretend that gender and sexism aren’t issues worth talking about, the whole thing will probably just work itself out eventually . . . just like civil rights, women’s suffrage, and marriage equality, one can only assume. Right?
You’re right, Mr. Shapiro: Let’s sit by and idly watch the phenomenon “decreasing rather rapidly” with the detachment of a scientist peering into a petri dish. It’s not like as the president of the whole shebang you’re uniquely positioned to have any pull in this matter, anyhow. And Joan, could you be a dear and fetch another ice cube for my Old Fashioned?
As a lady-identified person, a scientist, and a member of the oil and gas industry, I can add that the Same Exact Shit goes on down here in the oil patch (Houston). Looking at the BBC piece was like looking at a day in the exhibition hall at one of the many conferences I’ve been to.
Specifically I have witnessed such “babes” time and time again at the AAPG (American Assn of Petroleum Geologists) Convention, and the OTC (Offshore Technology Conference). The instances have, thankfully, been less each year, but there are still some repeat offenders who can’t seem to drag themselves out of the 1960s. I recall specifically a Brazilian contractor, Dr. Marcio Mello, bragging to my supervisor about how he had managed to “convince” an American Embassy official to grant visas to his orange spandex-clad ladies of the booth during a long night of debauchery in Rio.
This practice is gross, it is off-putting, and it needs to stop.
However, let’s be honest. It still isn’t as gross as that time this creepy old dude from Schlumberger grabbed my ass (twice!) about 4 feet way from my boss, my boss’s boss, and her higher level boss at the Williston Basin Conference. That was rad – thanks, a-hole.
Well, this techno babble is all pretty much tl;dr. I’m going to go pursue my main interests of shopping, cooking and taking care of kids. Oh wait, no…
did you see the BBC video though? because taylor is wearing a really cute feather earring in the video!
cute enough to make me want to visit her…um…er…booth, yes
Oh, so THAT was Taylor? I just watched the video thinking “the cute one with the feather earring is probably gay…” :D
I am a “booth babe” by the way. I’m a full time university student, so I needed a job that doesn’t take up much time and pays all my bills. I earn a decent amount of cash and they don’t care that I’m rather androgynous/boish looking “in real life”. I feel stupid walking around the event/mall in a bikini, but what the hell, it’s just a damn job. By the way: we have male promotional models at our company, too.
would be interested to hear more about your experiences!
Love your passion on the topic and loved how well you articulated your response! I completely agree and found his response completely ignorant to say the least. One other point on this is the male point of view, if I were a man…which I am not..I would also be slightly insulted. That is of course if men enjoy the stereotype that girls in boob shirts=innovative products=must purchase goods technique. If you were a man wouldn’t you be slightly embarrassed that you are completely controlled by your sexual urges rather than your intellect and everyone knows it…yuck! For those that are blissfully unaware and stop at the booths, let me unravel the IP mystery on this technical innovation…they are just boobs, 1 in every 2 people, have them, nothing very innovate about them, your mom has them, your sister, your wife, you can see them whenever you want just pop open that delightful innovative, superpower gadget in your hand (also known as your phone) and enter “boobs” in the search engine. Mystery uncovered. If companies want to be taken seriously they would consider this one fact: Women contribute or make 85% of ALL household purchases including technology (Sheconomy.com among others). A better question to ask these companies does booth babe=Purchase? If the stereotype about men is true, then women sit at a huge advantage: As an Entrepreneur in tech, our advantage will always be this: when the boys are staring at the boobs, we will be learning about the product, taking notes, making changes and had 10 more interesting multi-tasking thoughts, while “he” will be mesmerized by her blouse. Amusing to say the least…
I am sorry. I would welcome your input on how you think I should have responded or should do so in the future. My use of the word “cute” to the journalist was aimed at his comment (deleted in the editing) about “booth babes” being part of the technology industry.
I have spent most of the week doing my job fighting efforts to censor the Interent, but this morning before 60 business leaders I asked the Governor of Virginia to take action so that Virginia would no longer be viewed as unfriendly to gays. Apparently, I hit a button based on the response of leaders and gays who thanked me later.
I have many weaknesses and am not perfect – but on certain issues I give my all and on the issues of women and gays and advancement and rights – frankly – I may be delusional – but I really think we are on the same team.
That’s great that you’re on our team. Now prove it by taking action. You are in a unique position to change the sexist environment of the CEA, so do something about it. Listen to the concerns of women in technology rather than just asserting that you support them.
Here’s how I believe you should have responded (or should in the future): You should take a leadership role in your position as CEO of CEA. I would love to know what the edited out comment that the BBC journalist said to provoke you into responding in such an appalling way. You’ve now provided 2 “examples” of just how “open-minded” you are: Your wife, the surgeon & “gays” Your tone is one of nonchalance, and it’s frighteningly similar to the types of comments made in the 60s & 70s about those who fell outside of the white, male demographic. It’s not good enough to say your team is assembled of women, or that your wife is a surgeon, or that you’re “tak[ing] action so that Virginia would no longer be viewed as unfriendly to gays.”
What is good enough is for you to take control of this trade show. It is good enough to develop a code of conduct that requires anyone working to be able to speak knowledgeably & professionally about the product being showcased in the booth, as opposed to being a living, breathing, scantily clad “shelf” for product. I understand it’s a difficult task to be able to define, but it’s your job to take on difficult tasks. It’s your job to be the leader. The fact that most women either associate Tech with the stereotypical “creepy” gadget guy/nerd isn’t just a coincidence; it’s because the industry has marketed itself that way. It’s time to change. It’s time to become accessible to both men & women consumers, as Apple has done. The Tech industry is about the future, and you, sir, need to be the one leading the industry into the future, not the one following along & playing “dumb” about the face of the industry. This is a problem, and you are the one who has the power to lead the industry into the future.
Perhaps we all are on the same team; unfortunately, though, you’ve alienated quite a few of your team members with your irresponsible & unprofessional response to a reporter.
So with that said, and those suggestions made, what is your plan of action for addressing this issue?
I genuinely appreciate your words, and thank you for taking the time to ask for constructive criticism.
Moving forward, all I can ask is that your efforts aim to actively foster an open conversation around gender equality in the tech industry. An open dialogue is the only starting place for effecting positive change — and the only way not to lose what progress we’ve made.
I’d like to believe that we are on same team, because quite honestly, our team needs all of the support it can get, particularly in high places.
Well Taylor, I’ve just come back from a show in Nuremburg and, like a housand other shows that will take place this year around the world, there were some ‘booth babes’ in smiling action there too. Why are you making such a big thing out of this? Companies pay thousands of dollars for a few square feet of space and need to generate sales leads from every passing potential customer to justify the expense. The electronics industry is male dominated – fact. Pretty girls catch men’s eyes – fact. QED. I can assure you that, with the exception of a very few old sexists, a woman walking around the show in ‘non-babe’ business clothing will be treated as a peer and not compared with the promotion girls who are just doing their job, so you are not being disrespected or degraded in any way by being one of the few women in the industry. Maybe the ‘babes’ just need better training? Accept them for what they are and what they do. IMHO Shapiro in the BBC slot just stated the facts as they are.
Thank you for asking for feedback. Here are my recommendations:
1. Before anything else I’d suggest you check your privilege. Here’s an easily accessible starting place http://bit.ly/gQtI
Being an ally does not mean your opinion / experience with a friend trumps our experience or that you get a pass when you misstep.
2. Put actual feedback before your opinion of what the feedback should be.
Whatever the reason – being tired, getting caught off-message, being frustrated – you stepped in it. You got immediate feedback about your BBC interview that you clearly disliked.
Rather than addressing the specific issues, your response to Matt Honan was that the booths at your show are out of your influence (except when they’re not), you support women by keeping adult video away from them, you have women on your senior staff, lots of women have applauded at least something you’ve said, and your wife is a surgeon.
Apparently you missed the issues entirely. If I was on your staff, these are the statements I’d highlight from Taylor’s article:
* “But Shapiro’s caustically casual dismissal of the booth babe issue altogether makes me feel like I’m treading water in a pool of sharks. Why bother looking at gender politics in a historically (and currently) male-dominated field? How cute of you to bring it up at all!”
* “[His] comments don’t count at all due to some convoluted mixture of his being married to a female surgeon (which smacks of the “some of my best friends are black” line of reasoning) and the BBC interview having been near the tail-end of ” three straight hours of media interviews.” After all, aren’t we all a little racist/sexist/homophobic or just plain vile when we’re tired?”
I’d flag this one:
* “It’s not like as the president of the whole shebang you’re uniquely positioned to have any pull in this matter, anyhow.”
3. Listen to understand.
It’s great that you are working against SOPA and PIPA. It’s also great that you’re an ally to the LGBTQ community. Unfortunately it’s irrelevant to this feedback. This isn’t about what a neat guy you are, it’s about criticisms of your responses.
Very smart women (Taylor here, Violet Blue) have provided nuanced feedback. Rather than trying to make this about you as a person, keep it about the issues in the feedback.
Your response to the feedback is in what you do, not in your self-esteem.
The initial BBC interview, the response to Matt Honan, and the passivity here all indicate that – despite your self-defense to the contrary – you don’t get it. Rather than continue to insist you not only get it but have it on lock, open up to the feedback and give some indication that you understand the concerns.
If we are all on the same page, then I am formally requesting that you use your power as CEA president and CEO to ban the use of “booth babes” at CES and all CEA events from this point forward. If you are honestly committed to equality and respect of all sexes, races, sexual orientations, then use your power to stop vendors from creating this inappropriate, sexist and immature environment in the first place. Women represent 51% of the American population (missrepresentation.org). As a woman and as a former CES manufacturer rep attendee, I was nothing but disgusted with the booth babe attire, attitude, and overall sexist environment of the show. How can I be taken seriously while some woman 4 ft away from me is gyrating in a sequin thong? It is completely unprofessional and insulting to me as a woman, and for a show with this much excitement and anticipation for its products, sexism does not belong here. I debated this issue with a male friend who stated that “i shouldnt go if booth babes make me uncomfortable” and that “he had a right to see booth babes at trade shows”. After several deep breathing exercises, i began to wonder- so this is who CES is for?? The sexist, arrogant, all-important guy who can’t work without being motivated by boobs? This is the type of client that supports booth babes Mr Shapiro. I, on the other hand, feel I am the perfect client- why? I love technology. I still love CES- I love the tvs, cameras, tvs, cars, games, tvs, and more tvs. I seem to be able to function all year without using a bikini to influence my sales. And the majority of your male audience agrees- they don’t come to CES for booth babes. So stop making reps like myself endure insult and embarassment because of this 1940’s attitude that has taken over CES. Women will continue to enter tech, whether it is completely welcoming or whether it is hostile and discriminatory. The real concern should be this – you have the power to create change which will encourage, inspire, and motivate 51% of the population to not only consider CE a career choice, but also to foster interest in purchasing CE products. Will you do it?
I don’t want to address the booth babes specifically because I’m not sure I’ve entirely worked out my thoughts on the issue either. As a female-identified sex-positive feminist I think the issue is really quite complex and more grey than black and white as Violet Blue so eloquently put it.
But my problem is the consistent silencing on these issues in male dominated industries. I see the same comments all over the internet and these articles (as well as the subtext of what Mr. Shapiro said). “People do it because it works,” or variations on the theme of “heterosexual male target audience.” You can see this silencing tactic in discussions of sexism in comic books, video games, film/television, and the music industry. It’s their way of flippantly dismissing the subject, defending the practice, and silencing discussion.
It’s not that this is not a conversation worth having, it’s that it’s a conversation that they don’t *want* to have. Pondering privilege, power, and potentially problematic practices proves to be painful for some people. The problem is, the status quo benefits those who defend it, and if they can put off these conversations they can avoid the uncomfortable feeling of having to acknowledge the potential problems and power dynamics at play.
From my perspective this hits close to home. I am a queer female-identified person in the music industry and while I’d never give that up for anything, I can sometimes feel invisible in the “boys’ club.” And when I am visible, it’s all too easy to feel dismissed by some of those that still subscribe to the “old school” as Shapiro put it. These exact same silencing techniques are used every time there is an attempt to have the conversation. And they always make me feel small and powerless. As if I’ll never be able to break down the door to visibility and success if I don’t present and behave the way some in the industry expect or prefer.
As I said on my own page, I feel like these conversations are going to happen whether the Shapiros of the world want them to or not. But they can show some maturity and lend a different lens to the discussion if they’d just sit down at the table, instead of dismissing our concerns or desire to work on these questions.
i am in/have been in so many “boys club” type environments in both my hobbies and past jobs that it makes me rage hardcore about things like booth babes and male dominated industries in general. they bitch about the women’s market being tough but then treat female gamers like we only want to play Barbie’s Horse Adventures or some shit. I like to play good games with good stories, and to be honest, I could do without the extremely tight latex boob uniforms that most games seem to provide because I don’t need in-your-face sexification all the damn time to keep my attention to play.
I would never go to a CES type convention for the very fact I would probably feel really foreign, and pissed off at the things I’d overhear with the other 99% of male gamers present there. I won’t go into my thoughts on booth babes… but why is it such an impossible feat to make a CES about electronics that acutally focuses on electronics. If yo shit ain’t that interesting, boobs can only help so much. Now excuse me while i rage-extinguish with some BF3 (voice off of course).
“It’s cute but it’s frankly irrelevant”.
Also, the whole concept of “buy the stuff from the booth with the hottest chicks” is exactly what Molly McHugh (first interviewee) said: uncomfortable.
Have you seen an oil industry show …. it’s worst !!!!!
98% of men workers + 2% of female workes
100% of “booth babe” everywhere
This article, and the following responses, have been so articulate. I find myself sitting here at a loss for words. Thank you for writing this, Taylor.
I’m horrified – very naively so, it seems. I don’t work in a male-dominated field, I am very lucky in that way. The spectacle at CES was something that I should have anticipated, perhaps, but I didn’t. In fact, before I clicked this link, I thought “Booth babes? CES? This probably ties into the AVN awards somehow?”
Let me back up:
The Adult Video Network Awards (and expo stuff) are very strategically held at the same time as CES, more or less across the street. They attempt to (and succeed in) getting more foot traffic and exposure by doing this. I’ve read essays about the “booth babes” there, and it’s pretty horrible stuff. These are women who are in the business of selling sex-related products, so having scantily clad women posing on pedestals at the AVN expo is – while definitely wrought with serious feminist issues – somewhat unsurprising. (The way those women are treated is often appalling, but this isn’t the place for that particular rant).
To see similar techniques being used a few doors down at CES is so very sad. If you’re selling sex-related products, using sex as a marketing technique makes sense. If you’re selling consumer electronics, using sex as a marketing technique is lazy. Worse, it allows a culture of casual misogyny to flourish at CES, and that is inexcusable.
thanks for talking about this, taylor! i’m honestly completely ignorant about trade shows and had never heard of booth babes before (i thought maybe that was just some kind of nickname for the couple of women at the show), but i definitely feel the day-to-day man-dominatedness in tech at my job. not from my company–they totally stand behind me and other women–but from customers who would rather be helped by a man. it’s really no wonder, considering that they keep getting the message–from industry leaders no less–that technology is masculine.
I attended a huge pet industry trade show at Mandalay Bay (2500 booths)and there were only a few who devolved to the booth babe strategy. The majority of buyers were female, and we want detailed info on the products, period.
There were many many sexy looking poodles and parrots, however, who seemed to know how to take advantage of our weaknesses.
That’s my kind of show!
Great article and the bbc interview was brilliant, I may have cheered when I saw the Romi feather earring.
Booth babes annoy me and I doubt they’re anywhere near as effective or work as well as some guys claim, they just have them because that’s the way it’s always been done. At least companies seem to be realizing it’s not a great strategy after all.
The further I get in science, the more the male-dominatedness of it puts me off.
Is this what I have to look forward to when I get out into the real world?
Arghhghhghhghh. That is how I feel.
Urgh, I can feel Taylor’s pain.
Attending conferences in the engineering industry can be uncomfortable as a woman. The amount of times I’ve been mistaken as the conference staff (i.e. the people organising food, rooms, etc) is ridiculous. It’s partly due to me being younger than the average attendee, but it’s very much due to my gender. Seeing peoples horrified embarrassment at their mistake confirms that for me.
But more back on topic, being a nerd-type-person I attend science fiction gatherings, comic conventions and so on. The ratio of men to women is typically very much weighed towards men. Some of these events really cater to the more teenage-minded of these guys, with ‘models’ (in quotation marks as these girls are not attractive) wandering about in various states of undress. It conjurs rage in me, the frustration of years of being a female nerd, basically the demographic ignored for years by comic book writers, games developers, film makers (though I do feel that’s changing)
^Very much this, even my local little convention had a “Maid Cafe” with skinny girls dressed as slutty maids serving tea and cakes, and man was it awkward, I know one of the girls who did this even, and she is umm…confused about what kind of attention is good attention. These practices should just stop, or we can put some Booth Boys in there, all oiled up in those Chipn’Dales outfits XD
What I find most bitterly ironic in this issue is that the tech industry is built around the concept of innovation. Would you trust a company to be innovative that falls back on stone-aged methods to promote their products?
I have no trouble reconciling my sex positivity in this situation, because any company is free to try and sell their product however they want. It’s not the stupidest way to sell tech (maybe this is?), but from a wider industry perspective it seems unhelpful at best.
I feel confident in saying that if someone sees a non-sexual product being promoted using hyper-sexualised female imagery, their response is that this product is not aimed at women. The presence of booth babes sends out a clear signal that this event, while not actively against women, is not for them either.
Having worked for a global IT company and been involved in more “getting girls involved in IT/science/tech” events than I can remember, all of that seems pointless if one look at TV shows that a women’s place in tech is to merely hold it, ideally somewhere close to their barely-covered boobs.
The tech industry has this huge skilled-worker shortage, that could be addressed by luring capable women before they drift into other professions. Booth babes might be a great draw and excellent saleswomen, but if you want to grow the industry, you gotta tap-up some different kinds of women.
‘to say that it’s somehow sexism, imbalancing — it’s cute, but it’s frankly irrelevant in my view’
so great to hear an upper-class american white male telling the rest of us what is and isn’t relevant to sexism. thanks for speaking out gary!
Interestingly, the whole booth babe tactic has a Howard Stern quality to it, in that those who dislike the practice are often the ones who are most influenced by it. Meaning – everyone notices the “babes” whether you are male or female or for or against it, and that’s why the practice continues.
In a trade show where small companies are trying to fight for attention with the likes of Sony, Samsung and Panasonic, there are few ways as sure-fire to draw people in as a beautiful woman in a revealing outfit.
Not that it can’t backfire. I refused to speak to the folks at the Soul booth precisely because their babes outnumbered the company reps by a ridiculous ratio and it was clear to me that they were compensating for er, something.
Of ALL the booths, I was 100% completely ignored at the Soul booth by a booth babe preoccupied making small talk to two guys in suits.
I literally was the only other one hovering around and she was the only rep I could find. I tried to speak to her multiple times to get a press kit, and I was standing right in front of her…she wouldn’t even look me in the eye. It was really, really weird.
I don’t care if they were investors or whatever else, handing someone your press kit doesn’t take 15 seconds.
Well done, Taylor. Well done.
I smell a new column on AS: Taylor’s Teachable Moments with Tech Leaders
Should we send him some AS swag so he can really feel the team spirit (who’s with me!) ?
“I don’t know any women who would chose that world so say over….shopping. Or cooking. Or taking care of kids.”
That booth babe just looking into my soul and sang my hopes and dreams back to me. It was good.
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