International CES: Women in technology versus female objectification

Our editor Wendy Schuchart examines how the nude women at International CES are an indicator of the sexual harassment women in technology still face.

When it comes to women in technology, we've come a long way, baby. However, sometimes the technology world turns a blind eye to female objectification, which can be detrimental to the very talented women that are part of the IT world. I've rallied before about booth babes, and while there were plenty out in force at International CES 2013 earlier this month, one particular vendor has drawn boisterous criticism for its use of naked models wearing body paint to sell cell phones. Or hard drives. Or something . (Image potentially not safe for work.) No one actually cared what the vendor was selling actually because omg, naked fembots!

Yes, you heard it right. One vendor (whom I won't name because I don't want to give them even more press) hired four models to stand silently in bikini bottoms and body paint. It's pretty sad when your booth shows less decorum than an average Hooters restaurant. These models invited the male gaze to the booth, while the ladies in attendance were reminded once again that they were just tolerated visitors in this male-dominated landscape. Ironically, when I passed the booth myself, the models weren't out in force and I actually filmed the moving parts of the booth for one of our International CES Update Videos on our Twitter stream. Had I known about the offensive female objectification that was about to go down in that booth, that footage definitely wouldn't have made the cut.

Who honestly thought that mute naked models was a great way to sell technology? Did it drive buzz? Absolutely. Was it an offensive level of female objectification? Absolutely. Obviously, the vendor knew that naked women in a sea of male International CES attendees would draw attention -- and they say "any press is good press" -- so it decided that the end justified the means in this case.

However, the double standard is sometimes so engrained that I'm not entirely sure it even occurs to the teams that their initiatives are offensive. Take, for example, a session I attended at Gartner Data Center in December. The IT vendor was explaining their initiative Project Ginger, purportedly named after the Titian-haired beauty on Gilligan's Island. Assuming that they didn't know that there was also a notorious adult film of the same name, it's not so bad, right? I mean, the character of Ginger was arguably the most attractive resident of the island, so that name certainly wasn't offensive or sexist on the surface, as the vendor was trying to say that they had created a beautiful product in a desolate landscape. However, then the vendor bragged that their service was "Ginger in the front, Mary Ann in the back." Whoa, really? Now we crossed the line into female objectification, folks. And when I spoke with the vendor later, he was genuinely unaware that the slogan could have been even somewhat offensive.

And I get that. I get how teams work. I get how an internal culture can develop, how you can get away with saying things because "it's just us," and there are private jokes that develop that become so much a part of the fabric of the project that the story around the project no longer has the same meaning as it did a year or two ago. I totally understand.

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However, I think the fact that these two separate vendors ended up showing something concretely offensive to women is much more insidious than it appears on the surface. I'm willing to bet that these ideas were vetted to female staffers and they gave them the thumbs up, which offered plausible deniability to any misgivings the vendors may have had. What's important to remember here is that women in tech are often the only female in a room (or maybe one of two) during most meetings. They balance on a precarious precipice of being "one of the guys" and representing women in technology.

You pick your battles. You don't want to always be the person saying, 'That's offensive.'

I know from experience (both my own and that of other women in technology) that you pick your battles. You don't want to always be the person saying, "That's offensive." You don't want to be labeled a "hairy-legged feminist" or a "fun killer" or any other much less print-worthy labels. Studies have proven that victims of sexual harassment who speak out usually suffer further sexual harassment and are socially punished for speaking up. So you hold back your true feelings to preserve your standing in the team because you tell yourself that it's not that bad, or maybe you hope that someone else down the line will throw up a red flag and say, "Guys, we might want to rethink this one."

Studies have shown that more than 90% of women who work in hostile workplaces and endure "minor" sexual harassment suffer from varying mental distress such as sleep disorders, inability to perform their job, headaches, anxiety, nausea and depression. Every CIO I know would be very distressed to find out that their female staffers were dealing with that level of job dissatisfaction, but the reality is that those staffers generally keep that to themselves for fear of retribution. Good senior leaders are proactively preventing sexual harassment by focusing on a culture of support toward women in technology.

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The ironic part of this entire discussion is that everywhere at International CES, there was technology being specifically marketed to women. From gadgets to fitness sensors to devices and tech accessories, there were more pink and rhinestones than I've ever seen at Nordstrom. For instance, Kate Spade, a luxury purse brand, has just released a $260 cross-body leather bag designed entirely for toting a tablet device. The manufacturers certainly acknowledge that a woman's tech dollar spends like any other, so why are some vendors unafraid of losing it? Until sexist advertising and branding becomes harmful to a vendor's bottom line, it will continue to happen.

Next time you wonder where the women in technology are going, consider this model whose body has been painted to literally disappear into the wallpaper (SFW photo) at International CES. We wouldn't tolerate racist messages that alienated some members of our IT staff, so why do we tolerate sexist messaging and oblique sexual harassment from the companies who sell IT services and products? Why are booth babes still considered "good clean fun"?

It's time to stop tolerating the sexual harassment of women in technology at the major and minor levels. CIOs can start by telling vendors that we won't buy your products until you start respecting our workforce -- every last person.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Wendy Schuchart, Site Editor. For midmarket IT news and updates throughout the week, follow us on Twitter @ciomidmarket.

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This was first published in January 2013

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