September 1, 2011
I like conferences. I really do. I like them because they typically offer valuable tech sessions, valuable training, and the all-important hallway track. I'm also not afraid to admit that I also like going to the vendor expos, too, but maybe not for the reason that a lot of people go.
You can tell at a tech conference who's been to the vendor booths and who hasn't - mostly because the people who have are usually laden with plastic gizmos, pens, notebooks, flash drives, rubber ducks, stress balls, t-shirts, and other generic crap, all stored in a bag (or several bags, depending on how much swag they felt like taking).
My friend Stephen Foskett went off on this back in 2009, and I agree with most of what he says.
The only real difference between his opinions and mine are that I actually do like flash drives (as long as the company has put a decent amount of information about themselves on it in the form of PDFs, videos, and the like. Before I take a flash drive, I actually ask the people if there are any information about their company on it. If there isn't, I don't take it. I can buy a 32GB USB3 flash drive for 50 bucks. Why do I want a crappy 2GB USB2 flash drive?
The reason I do take the ones with information is because that's why I'm there. I'm go to conferences to learn about the companies that are presenting. I want to learn what they do, how they do it, and why they wanted to come to the show. By actively seeking out new companies and technologies, I can stay near the leading edge of the profession. Companies that make it a point to present their information well help me do that. Which brings me to the point...
There are too many companies using "booth babes". If you're unfamiliar with the term (and I don't see how that's possible, but lets make sure everyone is on a level playing field), it refers to people (usually women, but I have actually seen a male booth babe dressed in a costume) who are hired and brought to the company's booth, dressed provocatively, and used as bait to lure in potential business contacts without providing any actual value or having any real knowledge of the company.
I'll admit, as Stephen does in the article I linked to above, that they do get my attention. I'm a heterosexual male, and as such, I'm sort of hard wired to pay attention to that type of thing. Fortunately, we have the ability to control our hormones and use reason. Because we have these abilities, no one pays any attention to the booth babes in terms of talking about the business of the company because they're contracted specifically for the conference.
And really, this is the core of the problem, and the effects are much more harmful than just ignoring scantily clad women at a trade show. What you end up with is the situation where you, as a conference goer, walk up to a booth and, because you're no stranger to how this works, ignore any attractive woman and talk directly to a male at the booth. You assume immediately that any attractive female is there simply for their physical appearance, not for the value that their knowledge brings. This is wrong on every level, and it's an insidious form of objectifying women - it happens gradually, over time, and the more booth babes you see, the more ingrained it becomes.
I hate it. I hate it a lot, and maybe one of the reasons that I hate it is because there are times I find myself falling into the trap. I've blown past women in booths to talk to the men, and I kick myself for it every time I realize I do it. I just have to work that much harder to counteract my initial tendencies.
The long-term effects of this are damaging. By being conditioned to treat women as intellectually inferior to men, we are actively discouraging them from joining our environment. Read this paper, titled A cultural perspective on gender diversity in computing if you want to see some causes and effects of societal treatment and its effect on women. Essentially, by marginalizing women, we are automatically halving the number of potential colleagues and collaborators.
If you honestly believe that an increase in diversity leads to better and more creative solutions, then you see the problem - we're not nearly as inclusive as we should be. Think of all of the potentially valuable contributors out there who have been told or shown that they can't be in IT. They were lied to, and that's a shame. We all suffer the loss.
So what can we do about fixing it? A great first step would be for companies to stop using booth babes (or, to go a step further, make it a habit of only bringing people who can contribute to explaining your company's business and technology). That, by itself, would help stop people from overlooking women in a booth, because you can start making the assumption that anyone there can talk about the company.
Of course, that isn't going to happen - there's a reason that beer companies use pictures of bikini models on the sides of trucks rather than just pictures of beer. So there must be a better solution. And I think I've got it, but it's going to take some self control and we're going to have to be resolute. The techniques I'm suggesting implement negative reinforcement rather than positive reinforcement because subtlety doesn't work on marketing people.
The goal: To discourage companies which hire booth babes from continuing that practice, by using a combination of peer pressure and negative reinforcement.
The Tactics: Actually, this part is pretty simple. When the first person at a booth approaches you, treat him or her exactly the same way you would a sales or implementation engineer. Ask questions regarding the technology. Ask about planned life cycles of the software, on use counts, and other things. Treat them exactly as you would an equal.
If this person is a booth babe (or a clueless marketing droid), they will inevitably hand you off to the lead technical (or sales) person at the booth. Here comes the important part: Demand to know why they wasted your time with manning the booth with clueless people. Don't discuss sales or tech with this person (which is what they will desperately want to do at this point). Ask why their company wastes everyone's time and their investors' money using people who provide no value. Tell them that you will not be doing business with them, regardless of their technology, because you believe that any company that needs to hide behind tricks, gimmicks, and sex appeal, can not offer you any value. Point out that a great number of their competitors don't need to use flimflam to sell their wares. Then walk away.
Your doing this will probably not unsettle the person. But the second time it happens at the same show, they'll take notice. And the third. And the fourth. It's more effective the more times a company encounters it. The next show they go to, they'll remember what happened, but sadly, they'll probably do the exact same thing. But when they get it again, and again, show after show, they will eventually stop because they'll see that we are not interested in their worthless ploys.
Something like this needs to hit critical mass. If you agree with the goal, and you think the tactics will work, tell other people. Spread the word. Booth babes hurt our industry, they're unfair, they're wasteful, and they provide nothing of any real value. Join me in discouraging companies from using them.
You may also find this article on TechTarget enlightening about the same subject.