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Dear CES, Objectification is Calling

by Laurian Vega

“::Ring Ring:: Yes, CES? This is Objectification calling. How nice to talk to you again. Let me start by saying, good sir, that you have outdone yourself this year.”

That is roughly what I heard in my head after watching this video from the BBC showing booth babes at the Consumer Electronic Show (sometimes referred to as CES). In the short three minute video we get to see beautiful women from near and far playing with gadgets, giving away prizes, dancing, plying company wares, and then (my favorite) standing almost stark naked covered in body paint to serve as some kind of installation art piece [see below picture]. These women are otherwise known as booth babes.



(picture from Mashable)

Putting aside my first impulse to fly off the handle in regards to CES, it is important to point out that the use of booth babes has been a topic covered in other posts on the Systers’ blog; it is a long running sub-theme within the larger theme of misogyny in technology.  Here and here the topics of booth babes have been presented from both the point of view as a female attendee at a technical conference and also as a booth babe.

In these articles we have defined booth babes as “women who strategically work in conference booths – usually wearing provocative clothing and having little or no technical knowledge. There are times that the booth babes aren’t even actual employees for the company they represent, but are instead hired models to promote the company or product.” In addition to that definition, it is important to also define the term “work”. “Work” when used in the context of CES means more than just sitting within a booth and explaining the product or service. Some of the booths at CES went beyond using women as people who can describe a project to actually using women as objects. To “work” at some of these booths is to be the product – or at least a representation of the product.

When women or people are used as objects, this is called objectification. And, for a little tutorial that explains the dangers of objectification much more succinctly than I can, check out this short video from Jean Kilbourn on how women are objectified in the media. In the video Jean Kilbourn explains how the use of women’s bodies are depicted in media ads and why this is dangerous: “We all grow up in a culture where women’s bodies are turned into things, into objects… It creates a climate where there is widespread violence against women.”

Objectification is a much larger issue within the media. With the images shown in Jean Kilbourn’s video, Killing Us Softly, the use of women as objects is demonstrated quite clearly outside of technology. This means that the finger isn’t directly pointed at CES, but more at the larger media arena. Indeed, the balance between CES being part of of the technology industry but also being a media event is a juggling act. This juggling is demonstrated with the quote in the BBC video from the woman from the media industry saying that to not use sex to sell at CES would almost be “negligent”. It might be argued that the use of women in an event like CES makes it have all of the media fanfare and turn out that it has.

The use of booth babes is important at CES. CES is perhaps the largest consumer technology conference. It is followed in almost every technical news website that I read and I couldn’t *not* hear about it last week. CES is run by CEA or the Consumer Electronics Association. From the CES website:

“CEA is the preeminent trade association promoting growth in the $186 billion U.S. consumer electronics industry. More than 2,000 companies enjoy the benefits of CEA membership, including legislative advocacy, market research, technical training and education, industry promotion, standards development and the fostering of business and strategic relationships.” [1]

And that is to say nothing of how large each of those individual 2,000 companies are. This event is a really big deal and the impact of CEA on each of those companies is expansive. The impact on the consumers, again, is expansive.

How does the use of women at technical conference make people feel? Well, it makes some of us in tech feel a bit icky. Now take it with a grain of salt that I am a liberal feminist, which means that my social network is also filled with flaming feminist (both male and female). But here is what a few people said (all quotes were obtained with permission):

“There’s another sad but unintended consequence I have seen — sometimes at shows with booth babes, some people will assume all attractive women are booth babes and then ignore them at booths, marginalizing the actual knowledgeable employees. I personally try to let companies know that I feel that their choice in entertainment was in poor choice, usually via email.” ~ Leslie

“I was at Cisco Live last year, and there were some booth babes.  Definitely not as prevalent as at CES, nor as scantily-clad as CES, but still women in tight clothing who are only there to get you into the booth and have nothing to do with the company. I think it’s also important for us… who work for companies who have booths at conventions and conferences to remind our companies that we don’t want to be represented by booth babes.  If our companies sponsor their own conferences, I think that we should raise the concern about booth babes.  In this case, it’s not enough to just make sure that our showcase booths not have booth babes, we should also figure out how to keep vendors who have booths at our conferences from having booth babes.” ~ Nadyne Richmond

“I wonder if the male attendees focused on the sexy sideshow even notice the underlying technology.  I suspect not.” ~Judith

“I am the marketing manager for an industrial computer company, so I attend one or two industry/tech events each year. As a twenty-something female, I am definitely in the minority. That doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is seeing the other twenty-something females walk around in stripper heels and mini skirts or less… sometimes much less… As a fairly modest person, I feel embarrassed for how inappropriately they are dressed for a business event… When men in suits come to talk to me, I inevitably get a few comments like, “Wow, you really know your stuff.” (In my head: “Of course I do; that’s why I’m working here.”) It seems odd to me that this is still common practice in 2013. I routinely ask my male colleagues their opinion, and generally it’s not that different from mine (and they never remember the name of the companies who have booth babes). So… why does it continue? I know some women (and men) make a living on their good looks, and I have no problem with that. However, unless you are selling “smart clothes,” I don’t think models add much value to tech conventions.” ~Anonymous

“I’ve got to say that I was pretty appalled. I expected to see booth babes on the lines of what I see at motorcycle shows occasionally (who have really toned it down), but this was a whole new level of exploitation of women’s bodies. I would leave such a show (and ironically, lose out on all the networking and career opportunities attending such a show could lead to). Whoever said that this would constitute a hostile work environment is exactly that. Not attending is hardly a viable option for most of us though. This needs to stop. Or we need to try some sort of guerilla tactics where every female attendant shows up with a hired model beautiful guy in skin tight clothing or speedos, and take pictures of the guys, so that the male organizers and attendees get a dose of what objectification feels like.” ~Anonymous

You may be asking yourself, why are a few of these quotes anonymous. Well that is because people are afraid of the negative backlash of voicing their concerns over the use of booth babes. Even in writing this blog post, regardless of how many people who read it, my husband who also works in technology said to me, “You should make sure to think about all of the technology companies who are at CES and think about the fact that you will never be able to apply for a job there if you write that article.” Indeed, he has a point. In writing this, in voicing any kind of protest, I am putting myself out there and can be labeled as a flaming feminist who possibly wouldn’t work well at a technology company. It is certainly something to think about. As a mother of two, who thinks regularly about my ability to provide for my family, the thought that by voicing an opposing opinion that I might be doing something to hurt my family’s future is upsetting.

It is sad because what I would hope is that by writing this post that companies would be more self reflective on the culture they are creating within their companies, the image they are creating for the larger technology field, and even more broadly, the impact that that both of those are creating for women in technology.

Women in technology are rare. Booth babes, to stop beating around the bush, are insulting to the minority of women who stick around in the field. To say that CES or *any* technology event is a media event, and therefore facilitates objectification of women, is a copout. Why, when technology is so widespread, so impactful, so important, so meaningful, and filled with people who were bullied and teased as kids, does it put up with the bandwagon of saying, “because this is in Las Vegas and a big deal” that it is ok to make half of the population objectified and much more feel disgusted? It doesn’t make sense to me. We can do better.

Can we not do something to make our voices heard? What is the 21st century equivalent of showing up at a place and burning bras? What can be done as protest? These are questions that are broader than my thoughts, and what I open up for discussion.

General Information. Accessed January 13th, 2012