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.
The thing is, Shapiro doesn't even need to ban booth babes (or bros). He doesn't have to institute new policies. (At least not yet.) He doesn't need to require pants. But the very least he could do is take people's concerns seriously. Instead, his dismissive response to the BBC's inquiry only serves to served to highlight how out of touch the CEA can be. Instead of innovating, it's bringing up the rear. No wonder Apple and Google and now even Microsoft have chosen to ignore it.
We love CES. It's our chance to swim in a giant pile of gadgets and talk to smart people about how their amazing products work. We just want to make sure that the world doesn't pass it by. If Shapiro and the CEA really want to represent the future, they ought to be leading the charge to make sure CES is an inclusive environment for everyone. We reached out to the CEA, hoping to get an interview or at least a comment from Shapiro. They declined.
To give Shapiro the benefit of the doubt, CES is a tough week for everyone, him especially. He appears tired or groggy in the video, in fact. But it's over now. And he's had plenty of time (not to mention considerable urging) to reconsider those remarks and articulate a more thoughtful response.
Mr. Shapiro, if you'd like to clarify your position on this matter, operators are standing by.
Update: We just received a reply from Gary Sharpiro via email. It's presented in full below.
I want to take you up on your suggestion that I clarify my remarks from the BBC story. Perhaps you're right that I was tired from three straight hours of media interviews when the BBC surprised me by asking if I thought "booth babes" were consumer electronics professionals. I was trying to focus on the great innovation at CES – our best show in history – and the BBC reporter frankly befuddled me with a story angle that was bizarre and ultimately irrelevant to what we try to accomplish at CES.
So, instead of conjecture about who I am and what I stand for, let's look at the facts. I don't decide the gender or manner of dress of people in CES exhibitor booths. More, I can't speak for the marketing decisions of specific companies — if they choose to employ models in their TV commercials, promotional activities or trade show booths, that is their decision. Whether I think it is a good idea or not that companies use models in their booths is simply irrelevant – I don't matter to their decision making process, and if some companies think it works, they are going to use models in their booths. As long as they don't violate show rules, I can't do anything about it. That's the point I was trying to make, along with my observation that fewer companies use untrained models each year.
What I can speak for is CEA itself, the organization I run and that owns CES. The suggestion that somehow I don't support women in the tech industry or at CES is demonstrably false. First, I led the internal battle to ensure our divorce from the adult video show. More, nearly all of our senior show team is female including our entire show operations department. On the opening eve of CES, I delivered the keynote remarks at the Women in CE Annual Awards event, where I noted, to applause, that not one woman in the room had advanced in our industry through any criteria other than competence.
The fact is our nation and industry suffer from too few women scientists, engineers, mathematicians and IT professionals. Being married to a surgeon, I have some understanding of the hurdles that women face in what some call a traditionally male profession. But I am also mindful that companies market as they choose and the market determines their success.
I am proud of my record of supporting women in the technology industry, through CEA and the International CES. I hope that a media "gotcha" piece doesn't distract from our important efforts.
President and CEO
Consumer Electronics Association