The debate rages every year: Is it possible for the tech and auto industries to wean themselves off the use of barely-dressed women to lure men onto company stands at industry events like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the Delhi Auto Expo or the Detroit auto show? Every year, people fed up with the practice write about it, and every year we hear the same tired old excuses.

This year is no different. Kate Bevan wrote for The Guardian:

“Tech remains an industry that’s perceived to be male-dominated. Yet women buy tech, use tech, write about tech and are senior players themselves in the tech industry – so every year, I continue to be baffled as to why the booth babes are still considered acceptable. It’s perhaps unfair to single out CES: the habit persists elsewhere in tech, particularly in publishing.”

Olivia Solon wrote for Wired:

“As a woman who writes about technology, I find booth babes insulting, embarrassing and anachronistic. Glamorous assistants have been largely banished from TV game shows […], but they are pervasive at technology trade shows and in certain tech magazines. They imply that only men are interested in technology and that women are just the accessories that dangle redundantly from your mobile phone. Anecdotal evidence even suggests that some of the booth babes ignore female journalists who have waded their way through the pointy-panted men taking photos to actually find out more about the products.”

The idea that because sex sells we have to just put up with companies using semi-nude women to promote products is vacuous, weak and fundamentally misogynistic.Reuters

Solon goes on to quote Belinda Parmar, founder of Lady Geek, an agency that specialises in ‘helping businesses sell technology to women’:

It positions the technology industry as a ‘backward’ industry and secondly, this old fashioned male-centric approach does not reflect that women are nearly equal buyers of technology. Lady Geek/Forrester research shows that four out of 10 high-end tech gadgets now are bought by women. CES needs to reflect this change in demographic and drag themselves into the 21st century.”

But again, when you read the comments on these pieces, half the readers seem have had trouble dragging themselves out of the stone age. To paraphrase, sex sells and because sex sells we should simply accept the pretty laydeez as a part of life and move on.

If you want a particularly egregious example of this, watch this report from the BBC and wait for Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association which runs CES, to justify the use of almost-naked women by vendors.

“It does work,” he says of the use of models, and therefore the BBC’s “effort” to get a story out of booth babes is “cute” but “frankly irrelevant”.

But this isn’t just about perceptions, it’s about the actions that those perceptions lead to. Here on Firstpost, an auto expo model wrote about how she was touched twice by a customer, illustrating how some people have trouble drawing a line between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour.

“His name was Rahul. He was a 6 feet tall, bald, well built guy. He said he was a senior manager in one of the 5 star hotels in Delhi. I was representing an auto magazine in the auto expo 2008. The pavilion was chock-a- block. He appeared sophisticated. He began with inquiring about the product I was endorsing. The conversation went on for around 10 minutes. As we were talking he kept coming closer to me.

Then…he touched my neck.

I tried ignoring it and continued talking to him. He touched me again.”

We have a serious problem not just in attracting women to work in the tech industry, but also in keeping those who do start their careers in tech. Treating women as objects and putting them into a position where they may be harassed or abused is an issue that needs to be taken seriously. It’s not good enough to say that it’s acceptable because it works.

Ultimately, though, the answer is simple: Ban booth babes. No hiding behind the “business attire” line or vague definitions of what appropriate clothing is. No fudging the rules so that they can be bent out of shape. Just a simple prohibition on using either hired models or people employed by a company temporarily for the show because of their looks. If companies want to change their hiring policy to only employ attractive people, then they can deal with the fallout that such a stupid practice would cause.

If CES made this a blanket rule and enforced it, it would be a level playing field for every vendor attending. Products would have to stand up on their own two feet, without the assistance of a pretty assistant.

This doesn’t mean that CES needs to become dull – there are plenty of other ways for insecure companies (and conference organisers) to pull the punters in, as Solon points out:

“If your don’t have confidence in your products, then there are a range of other techniques you can employ to get attention: pyrotechnics, celebrities and, my personal favourite, baby animals. I’m holding out for booth kittens next year.”

It would probably be even more effective to use comedy to bring people in. I’m sure Will It Blend would be only too happy to destroy a few of the shiny new gadgets on display, although they might have a bit of a hard time getting an entire car in their blender.

The idea that because sex sells we have to just put up with companies using semi-nude women to promote products is vacuous, weak and fundamentally misogynistic. Sadly, Gary Shapiro seems quite happy to be seen as vacuous, weak and fundamentally misogynistic himself, so change at CES might be a long way off.

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