November 27, 2014

It’s Time To Speak Out Against Sexism In IT Recruiting

I have waged a long-standing battle against the sexist and offensive use of scantily-clad, non-technical “models” at technical trade shows. Sometimes known (offensively) as “booth babes”, the use of women in this way harms our entire industry and makes companies look stupid to boot. But when a recruiting firm uses such offensive tactics, it does even more harm, verging on illegal!

“Booth babes” perpetuate the “men only” stigma of high-tech

Sexist Tech Marketing Is Wrong But Legal

Let me be clear: I’ve got nothing against sex generally or sexy imagery specifically, especially when it’s consenting and in context. Clothing, luxury goods, alcohol, and perfume companies pour on the sex because that’s essentially what they’re selling! If you didn’t think a certain t-shirt or drink choice would enhance your personal allure, why would you pay 10x the price?

My field of enterprise IT is entirely different. Storage arrays aren’t sex objects. A better server won’t help you land a better mate. Yet marketers too often resort to the same tactics to sell these things, and this hurts more than their company’s reputation. Sexist marketing hurts the entire industry! Let me explain.

Contrary to the stereotype, there are lots of smart techies who happen to be women. But women tend to stand out in tech due to their scarcity: Many are assumed to be less-technical just because of their gender! My women techie friends tell tales of mistaken identity (“you’re the sales girl, right?”) and even serious harassment due to these assumptions. This is especially prevalent on the floor at events, where attendees, accustomed to vacuous “booth babes”, often refuse to talk to technical women!

Note that some conferences and events have a Code of Conduct that would seem to prohibit sexist marketing. For example, the Interop Code of Conduct states that “clothing that is not suitable for a professional work environment, that is provocative, or otherwise potentially offensive” is prohibited. This would seem to block any excessively-skimpy “spokes-model” attire without banning models from the floor.

I suppose there’s nothing illegal in selling tech with sex. But it creates an atmosphere that excludes women and exacerbates the already-harsh career environment they face in technical areas of IT. “Booth babe culture” keeps women out of tech, and this wrong is a serious issue for the IT industry.

Want to attract nerds to your company? Hire this guy!

Sexism in Recruiting is a Crime

Note: This post was inspired by a specific situation with Storage Staffing, a specialist recruiter who routinely uses scantily-dressed, logo-clad models. I will not link to that company because I do not wish to drive any SEO their way.

Women considering a career in IT already feel unwelcome thanks to “booth babe culture” and an environment of sexist sales and marketing ploys. But the use of these tactics by a recruiter just might be illegal!

The U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Sex-Based Discrimination guidelines seem to apply here. “The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring”, according to their web site. “It is also illegal for an employer to recruit new employees in a way that discriminates against them because of their … sex”, according to the EEOC. And liability cascades from the recruiting firm to the hiring company!

So, would a recruiter that used “booth babes” be guilty? I am not a lawyer, but I believe so. According to the EEOC, “employment policies and practices that have a disproportionately negative effect on applicants or employees of a particular … sex” are prohibited. Since women are unlikely to be attracted to a recruiter using scantily-dressed models, I believe that such a practice falls within these “prohibited practices”.

When I pointed this out on Twitter, I received a flood of support and just a few dissenting voices. Yet the company in question defended their practices, proclaiming “we are proud to use models to promote our brand.” They also claim to believe that “the implication that anyone hiring models is actively keeping women out of tech is ridiculous.”

Stephen’s Stance

Many of the women I spoke to about this issue are hesitant to come forward about their feelings. They worry that, as one publicly pointed out, they will be called a prude and excluded further. Others fear “booth babe” witch hunts that mistakenly blow back on technical women who happen to be attractive. This is heartbreaking. And this is why the entire industry needs a unified, no-tolerance attitude towards sexism.

Sexism is rampant in enterprise IT, driving women out and creating a negative “frat house” atmosphere. I have decided to speak out, and have begun with the pernicious case of a specialist recruiter whose practices have a disproportionately negative effect on the career prospects of women. But I will continue to point out sexism and fight “booth babe culture” in my industry. I welcome your comments.

The illustrative image at the top of this post comes from the twitter feed of Storage Staffing. It, in fact, the only image this recruiter has posted on Twitter, and they seem rather proud of their reputation for using models to attract attention.

Further reading:

  • Marko

    While I wholeheartedly support the view that booth babes diminish the reputation of the company and promote the men-only image of hi-tech, did you ever stop to think what the effect of “no booth babes” policy will have on those girls/women whose career choice is to look good so they get hired in those positions? What would you have them do – prostitute?

    Just a thought.

  • http://blog.fosketts.net sfoskett

    Give me a break. They have TONS of other options. Most of the booth models I’ve spoken to were, while non-technical, quite well educated. This was good money, so they took it. They could easily get some other kind of job. And those without prospects have lots of other spokes-model opportunities in other fields. As I said, there’s nothing wrong with them being real models for clothing, etc!

  • kasia lorenc

    Thanks for bringing attention to this issue; it’s often hard for us ladies to talk about this, as you’ve noted. It would be so nice to have vendors at tech conferences show just a bit of respect to women who have worked so hard to break into a male dominated industry.

  • Nancy Hurley

    Marko- do you realize your comment is actually more sexist than the idea of using booth babes in the first place. You are actually suggesting that beautiful women have two choices- be booth babes or prostitute. So actually you are saying that beautiful women can only use their bodies otherwise they would be unemployed. Talk about a terrible and degrading stereotype.

    As a woman in hi-tech I agree that there is no place, or need, for booth babes at IT shows. Car shows? Boat shows? Let’s just all accept that those vendors are selling the idea of power which many people then equate to sex, so in that context they can work. But in an industry that is about using your mind and technology to solve complicated problems, there is no need to try and sell sex. And yes, it does make those of us women at the show uncomfortable for good reason. Not because we are jealous of those women, but because we would like men to see us as peers, not objects, and if one booth is selling a woman as an object then it’s hard for us to not feel as though we are being perceived the same way.

  • http://www.grace-cheung.com/blog Grace Cheung

    Hi Stephen, thanks for writing about this issue. As a young female working in tech, I will say that it is already uncomfortable enough attending conferences where I’m the only female (or one of two) representing my company. I find it downright offensive and degrading that technology companies would stoop to this level to attract attention to their brand. These brands do not deserve our business or our respect, and I would never work for a company that resorts to these cheap marketing tactics.

    To Marko below, attractiveness and intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive. Just a thought. Those women should have plenty of other career opportunities.

  • http://gminks.edublogs.org gminks

    Also – you are sort of implying that women who have careers in high tech don’t look good.

    Not to mention implying that the women who model have the option of being a booth babe or being a prostitute …which is really harmful because most of the booth babes I’ve talked to are very young and are doing this to make quick extra money *right now*, not because they are desperate.

  • Gamer Girl

    I have been recently feeling really sad about the women in IT debate that seems to crop up at least once a week in various online forums at the moment. My heart tells me I want to engage, and challenge, and add to the debate and have a rational discussion which would aim to educate and fix the problem. My head tells me to stay the hell out of it, because the loudest voices are often trolls and against them you just cannot win and it only results in stress (clearly there are stronger women than I).

    I had a few problems this week after I posted a review of a computer game online, and identified myself as a girl. The post got stickied by the mods, and there was a backlash from the male community who suggested it was ONLY stickied because I was a girl. Unfortunately they might have been right. In fact I will never know if it was praised on the basis of it’s relevant and interesting content, or ‘merely’ that I was a girl. Perhaps it was a bit of both? I had not intended for the post to be stickied – I was just trying to participate and – yes – use my unique perspective as a girl gamer. I was told that I was not ALLOWED to do that, while also having any feminist views (not that I had mentioned anything remotely feminist in my post).

    This is what I think is so sad. Women are not allowed to use being a girl as an advantage in life, while also feeling strongly about equal rights. I don’t think this is a valid conclusion to come to. Frankly if I had not used the fact that I was a woman during my career, I may have never got a job in IT in the first place. I was allowed onto my Computer Science degree course – at least I strongly believe so – because they needed to improve their female demographic. I have succeeded in many job interviews for technical positions, and during those interviews I would explain that a woman can offer different qualities to a man in IT – being good at communication, particularly in IT support roles or certain strategic or analytical functions (whether this is true or not has no relevance at all, I made it up in an interview as my opinion – and they believed me so that’s their lookout!)

    So the fact that you have to use whatever angle you’ve got to survive in a world that is traditionally set against you, seems like reasonable behaviour to me. And I can’t help that I am still using those techniques even after that world has massively improved. It is learned behaviour. I hope one day I will feel that I don’t need to do it.

    Sometimes companies have used me as a ‘booth babe’ of sorts at tech conferences. They used to wheel me out as the ‘girl geek’. In my youth I found it funny. Now I would tell them where to go. To many girls are treated this way in the younger days in the career while they are too naive to understand that the way they are being treated is wrong.

  • mrmises

    What do you think of the Lily Ledbetter article in this month’s Mises Academy newsletter? I think it is spot on.

  • mrmises
  • will

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  • http://twitter.com/cloudtoad Derick Winkworth

    I agree with the sentiment, but am wary of “no-tolerance” or “zero-tolerance” language.

  • http://twitter.com/c_weil Christina Weil

    My first resume out of Engineering school attracted zero interviews… I changed Christina to Chris and voila, the calls came in. I followed silly rules for dress codes, and have since thrown all of that out the window. My daughter, 4.0 and consistent 99 percentile in math and science, has repeatedly returned home with ‘career placement’ guidance for journalism, nursing, and teaching. You want to see me go bat crazy?! There is the trigger :D Media and the stereotype of the nerd, had led her to question and reject her natural aptitude, despite the fact that all of her casual media consumption is science fiction, action, and analytical problem solving fare. Finally, finally, she started enquiring about careers in physics… that’s right @gminks:disqus ! Quantum compute :D maybe her future career will have less friction in sales or marketing, as mine has, but maybe not, if we continue to push awareness. But for now, I am thrilled that STEM is finally on the table. Thanks Stephen for rattling the caveman cage!

  • http://www.healthyparanoia.net/ Mrs. Y.

    I will continue to humiliate and mock vendors who participate in the “Booth Babe” practice. It’s demeaning and annoying.

  • Hank Yeomans

    You gotta admit though…those storage arrays get…sooo..hot

  • Hank Yeomans

    I work with women in the tech industry on a daily basis. Frankly I don’t take any woman any less seriously or discount their abilities in any way because of a model I saw at a booth. One is a model selling sex and the other is clearly a woman who works in the tech industry. I think the problem is more than just booth babes. Clearing out booth babes only keeps you from seeing the problem. People lack personal responsibility and respect and can’t differentiate between the model and the engineer in the next cube. I’m neither for or against because babes don’t make me buy (or not buy) a product or visit a booth.

  • Tech Guy

    Booth babes are the least of the problems. Seriously you think booth babes keep women out of tech? My daughter, despite being perfectly capable and despite all I do to encourage it as a father has 0 interest in tech outside of her talking or facetiming on her iPhone. She has no clue about booth babes. The issue is way deeper than booth babes and your making a mountain out of a mole hill. Bloggers with nothing better to do.

  • http://www.iexcella.com/ Mobile Application Development

    Yes, IT is male dominated. But any woman that gets into IT industry is in it because that is her passion, and sexist opinions
    (which are everywhere, I hate to burst your bubble, but in especially
    male dominated industries) are part of the landscape

  • Ronny

    Sexism is discrimination against a certain sex. You discriminate against heterosexual men whose sexuality you seem to despise. It is natural for 99% men to be attracted to attractive young women. So live with it and stop the hatred.

    And those women who “feel offended”: yes, it is sad you cannot compete. Live with it and compete in other fields.

  • Jonathan Davis

    I’ve got a problem with companies who use ANY model, mouthpiece, or glad-hander, male or female, to help sell a product. I expect people wearing company paraphernalia, to be able to answer my questions. If I am asking a fairly technical question, they should be able to ask the right questions back to be certain that they pass me on to the correct expert. You can be certain that if I am referred to the techies in the back of the booth, I will leave. When this takes place, the marketing arm of the company has made the decision that at a technical conference, the company techies don’t matter.

    This goes well beyond just booth babes. There are plenty of companies who use the same tactics with Account Managers and Outside Sales Reps for recruiting companies and VAR’s. I can quickly count off five beautiful, but incapable people in these roles, which I have had to deal with over the last few years.

  • Jonathan M

    I am a male, WASP, late 30’s. I have worked in over a dozen IT depts ranging from govt, education, and business.

    In every IT dept I did see sexism. The PBX tech was usually a woman and there was one or two women in entry level desktop support, not very capable, and often rumors about who they were sleeping with to get the job; so my perspective was skewed about women in IT.

    I think of those IT departments now as immature and adolescent stemming from the IT managers being system administrators who were promoted into management.

    However at my current company, let’s call it TA&A; I have not seen that type sexism despite nine years and working with hundreds of people. In fact, some of the most capable individuals here are women. I can list dozens that I greatly admire and respect.

    I believe the reason for this difference is the higher caliber of management from the top down; a strong legal department and the quick investigation of any complaints and the replacement and demotion of managers who do not quickly react to complaints.

    This company effectively implements diversity in hiring and promoting. There is a mix of racial, gender, and orientation even in senior level IT positions and because of that the IT organization is very mature and professional and is very effective.

    This is not a plug. It is an honest appraisal of my current IT department.

  • Alex G

    Marko,
    Maybe you should be a “booth babe”. Your analysis skills are fairly skewed.

  • G5Man

    Maybe if you took the name girl out of your handle and identified as just a ‘gamer’ you would have better luck. You want to be treated the same, yet you also want to be clearly identified as different. Which is it? Not being trite. Serious question.