At CES last week, in addition to all the gear and gadgets, there was something else on display: women. As with many trade shows—especially ones aimed at a male audience—CES was rife with booth babes.
Yet when the BBC ran a story on the practice of hiring scantily-clad models to stand around booths and draw stares from wandering men, it found an interesting defender: Consumer Electronics Association president and CEO Gary Shapiro, the guy who puts on the biggest electronics trade show in the USA.
"Well, sometimes it is a little old school, but it does work," Shapiro tells the BBC. "People naturally want to go towards what they consider pretty. So your effort to try to get a story based on booth babes, which is decreasing rather rapidly in the industry, and say that it's somehow sexism imbalancing, it's cute but it's frankly irrelevant in my view."
Cute? Irrelevant? "Imbalancing?" (Is that even a word?) I'm sorry. Would you care to try again, Gary? (Update: He now has. See below.)
The reason his answer is so bothersome is because as the head of the CEA he is, in a very real sense, speaking for all of us in the technology industry. And that Mad Men bullshit doesn't represent who we are as an industry anymore, and it certainly doesn't represent what we should aspire to become. Technology is about the future, and this attitude is from the past.
Shapiro needs to retract those dismissive remarks. And if he's smart, he'll do more than simply that. He'll get ahead of it. He'll become the example of what to do, rather than what not.
There are two issues at play here. First, there's the gender issue. Women are under-represented in the tech sector. And while there are a thousand theories why that is, the one thing that is clear is that they aren't underrepresented in society, and by extension, the marketplace.
The argument that says CES should be geared towards men because men buy the most electronics ignores that women like gadgets too. If the industry keeps ignoring women in order to market towards men, it's going to lose sales. If you can create a gadget that women like just as much as men (hello, iPhone) you have a hit on your hands.
So why would you want to do anything that might discourage women from showing up? (And it's abundantly clear that some women certainly are off-put by booth babes.) Why wouldn't you want to know what a key demographic thinks of your product before it goes on sale?
But the second issue is arguably more important. It's the cluelessness. To demean the concerns about booth babes as "cute" and "irrelevant" shows a huge disconnect with, I dunno... this century. The drumbeat against booth babes grows louder every year. It isn't going away, and will only get bigger. Other trade shows are at least addressing it, and the CEA should do the same before it finds 60 Minutes shoving a camera in Shapiro's mug.