Why I chose to speak at a tech event which had booth babes

By Michelle Dickinson 29/09/2014

It was only a week ago that I wrote a blog entitled “where are all the women in tech” having been at New Zealand’s largest tech conference as one of only 13 females out of a total of 117 speakers. Not ideal, but moving in the right direction and working hard to create a safe place for smart females to feel respected and valued.

Last weekend I was scheduled to be one of two female speakers at the Digital NationZ Expo, a family friendly event that fills an arena with the newest technology and games.  My talk was about the power of nanotechnology in our gadgets and devices and covered everything from why aluminium atomic slip theory was responsible for the iPhone 6 bending through to quantum theory explaining the potential power of Q-dots.

It was all going to plan until my twitter feed exploded with people frantically tagging me in conversations about sexism at the expo I was about to speak at.

Screenshot from the Netguide facebook page advertising booth babes promoting Techday

Screenshot from the Netguide facebook page advertising booth babes promoting Techday

There, on my twitter timeline was a photo of two young girls wearing very skimpy bikinis at one of the booths in the expo. I felt like I had gone back in time to the days when booth babes used to sprawl themselves over cars luring men in to the arena.

I’m pretty sure Netguide didn’t do their market research which shows that 45% to 48% of gamers are female and at a predominately gaming conference, they were pushing away half of the attendees.  As a female gamer, and a female engineer myself I can tell you that bikini clad girls will not entice me into your booth.  However, the bigger question to ask is what sort of message was this sending to our daughters about their value and to our sons about respecting females?  This was a family event, there were lots of smart curious children excited about interacting with new technology, and yet the message they were being sent was that success for females is through selling their bodies over their brains.  It goes against everything I do as NanoGirl promoting confidence in young girls and encouraging them to take an interest in science and technology.

Being a woman in tech, attending an event with booth babes creates an environment where I’m made to feel that the perception of a woman’s purpose is just to be an attractive object which decorates a stall.  That the endless bare skin and cleavage are meant to be only use for a girls body and her intelligence is never even considered or questioned.  It instantly creates a space where women are made to feel conscious of their bodies and that they are not respected or welcomed as an equal, but instead just seen as an objectified product.

Why on earth would women feel safe working in the tech field if this type of sexist mentality is allowed?

It seems that Techday agreed and back in January published an article titled “Why booth babes don’t work” which discussed research by Spencer Chen showing from a marketing perspective that there is no advantage to using scantily clad females to sell your product at shows.

So I had to make a decision, should I stand down as a speaker in protest against an expo that allowed this sexist behaviour?

I felt that I needed to take a stand, I’m a female who is constantly discussing the difficulties of being taken seriously and as an equal in the tech field.  However, this was not an easy decision as by standing down, I would now reduce the number of female speakers at the event from two to one over the whole weekend, and I would also let down members of the public who I knew were coming to see my talk.

I needed to do some digging to make my decision, and so spoke to the event manager Peter Hall who I have been friends with for many years and who I knew was an avid supporter of women in tech.  His response was anger, anger that the exhibitor had specifically gone against written and verbal instructions that booth babes were not allowed at the event.  I checked with other vendors at the event and when I spoke to Joanna Graham from Logitech, she was adamant that Pete had not only e-mailed them with strict instructions that there were to be no booth babes but he also verbally clarified that this was clear when she said she was bringing an event team.

Knowing that the event was anti-booth babes and that both written and verbal instructions had been sent out, I wondered why anybody would violate such specific rules and was surprised to find out Netguide was an official part of the Techday network, the same network that published the article against booth babes only 9 months prior.

Surely this was just some sort of mistake, perhaps the events agency that the girls were ordered from mixed up the type of children friendly event that Digital NationZ is with some alcohol fueled nightclub event.  So I called Michaiah Simmons from Deluxe events and asked about the process of renting female brand ambassadors for events like Digital NationZ.  She told me that every client specifically requests the type of clothing that her ambassador girls wear for the event, if they ask for jeans and t-shirts then they get that, if they specifically ask for bikinis then they come in those.  Her girls do not come in bikinis as standard, they have to be specifically requested from the client.  This means that Netguide must have specifically asked for bikinis for the girls on the first day of the expo, which is when the media first saw them. Deluxe events supplied two companies with brand ambassadors at the conference that weekend, Netguide and Harvey Norman Direct, both were dressed to the specifications that each company requested.  From the facebook photo’s below you can see which company ordered which specific outfit.


Photographs of brand ambassadors ordered from Deluxe Events taken from their facebook page showing girls ordered to work at the Digital NationZ conference

Going against the rules of Digital NationZ, a different set of bikini clad girls were brought in on the first day for the public (the previous day was a media only day), and only when the public started to complain via social media did they address the issue, one whole day later.  In my humble opinion, it would have been easy to ask the girls to come fully dressed on the second day of the expo if you were serious about complying with the rules, to have them come again in bikinis and then scramble to find t-shirts to cover them with seems like a difficult argument to believe as was pointed out by Amy Shand in this tweet:


Twitter conversation showing Digital NationZ’s strong stance against booth babes, and Netguide saying the issue was resolved this morning, even though the request was put in the day before.

I’m not against booth babes in principle, and I understand that using females to interact with customers can be an effective sales tool, but there are ways to do it which show off women for their knowledge and Sony lead the way at the Tokyo Game show this week.  Instead of promoting their female brand ambassadors by their lack of clothing, the women in Sony’s booths knew their products inside and out and were able to guide attendees though difficult parts in games, advising on strategy due to their vast knowledge of the new games that were being demonstrated.  It was obvious to attendee Iain Garner that Sony had prioritised staff training and knowledge over shorter skirts.

booth babe

Sony provided smart, trained, fully clothed females for their exhibit at the Tokyo Game show this week, where males were impressed by their depth and breath of product knowledge. (Photo Source Games in Asia)

So after a lot of digging, I was happy that the conference itself supported women in technology and did not support booth babes with the violation being carried out by one single exhibitor which was dealt with.  I made suggestions to the event organiser that there should be a clear code of conduct made publicly available so that all attendees and speakers knew the the official stance of the event, and suggested they read a few from other tech events including one of my favourites Gather which they immediately did.  I turned up for my talk and was overwhelmed by the interest in the topic, including a whole group of the audience who came up to me after the show to ask more questions and look at the demonstration materials I had brought to show science and technology principles.

Giving my talk about nanotechnology powering our future gadgets and devices at Digital Nation

Giving my talk about nanotechnology powering our future gadgets and devices at Digital NationZ, no bikini required! (Photo credit Walter Lim)

I’m grateful to the community on twitter for creating an immediate awareness highlighting the issue to put pressure on the company to dress their girls.  What would have been mostly ignored 10 years ago was now covered by media sources in New Zealand including TV, newspapers and news radio channels.  The public is starting to have a voice through the power of social media and they voted with their purchasing power by not attending the event, due to it being tainted by this sexism, and negatively impacted other companies who had chosen to exhibit there respectfully.

I am yet to see any official apology from TechDay or NetGuide regarding their stance and explaining their thoughts behind their decision.  Although they did tweet an apology, I do not think that justifies the serious nature of the issue and am hoping to see an explanation on their website soon.

It’s sad that we are still having these conversations in this day and age, but hopefully it’s creating an awareness for what is no longer acceptable and how to promote females for their intelligence and knowledge in the tech environment so that we can encourage more girls to study science and engineering and keep the women already in these fields in an environment that allows them to feel safe and smart.