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!
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.
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.”
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.