How you can help #banboothbabes at CES

This week saw the birth of the “#banboothbabes” campaign, kicked off by a news story calling for action on booth babes at CES, a large consumer electronics show (sign the petition here). The company behind CES, the Consumer Electronics Association, said they hadn’t received “a single formal complaint” about booth babes, apparently discounting the blizzard of press coverage on the subject every year.

Alicia Gibb, founder of the Open Source Hardware Association, decided to call CEA and register a formal complaint. She summarizes the results this way: “They don’t have a process to register formal complaints and don’t know who you should talk to.” (The company later set up an email address to collect complaints.)

What are booth babes and why ban them?

Ban booth babes
What exactly are “booth babes” and why would we want to ban them? In the words of the Geek Feminism wiki page on the subject, booth babes are “People, usually women, employed to staff booths at trade shows and use their sexual attractiveness to entice people to buy the products being advertised. Frequently they are dressed in demeaning outfits and pose for pictures with attendees.” A more accurate phrase might be “sexualized booth staff.” Booth babes are occasionally not women, but seldom in communities that already have a problem with sexism towards women.

What’s wrong with this picture? When companies employ booth babes, they are usually sending several messages:

  • Women aren’t customers, they are objects we use to sell to our customers
  • The only customer we care about is not only male, but also straight, sexually unfulfilled, and not very bright
  • Our customers make buying decisions based on feelings of lust, not features or price
  • Demeaning our women employees is part of doing business
  • Our marketing department and our management views our customers with contempt

Or, in a sentence: “Women are not people and men are fools.” (And if you’re neither male nor female, they really don’t care.)

Let’s be clear: the problem is not “women who are too sexy” – by which people usually mean women who look or act in a way that many straight men find strongly attractive. Some people argue that banning booth babes would require instituting a dress code for all female attendees because to them, attractive women and booth babes are impossible to distinguish.

There’s nothing wrong with being a good-looking, attractively dressed, well-groomed woman at a conference. The problem starts when women are turned into sexual objects, dehumanized, and used to sell products to or attract attention from men (or rather, a certain subset of men).

The Ada Initiative’s approach to ending booth babes

The Ada Initiative has opposed “booth babes” since our founding because they send a clear, obvious message that women are not welcome or valued. One of the first updates to the example conference anti-harassment policy added a clause covering sexualized booth staff:

Exhibitors in the expo hall, sponsor or vendor booths, or similar activities are also subject to the anti-harassment policy. In particular, exhibitors should not use sexualized images, activities, or other material. Booth staff (including volunteers) should not use sexualized clothing/uniforms/costumes, or otherwise create a sexualized environment.

We prefer this wording because it focuses on the real problem: turning women into objects to sell to straight men who make poor buying decisions. It’s little known reality that in some open tech/culture communities, sexualized booth babes are volunteers, so it’s important to include unpaid staff as well.

How you can help

For CES, you can make a difference right away:

For any event or conference, you can take any of the actions that help get an anti-harassment policy adopted (just be sure to include the booth babe clause): emailing the organizers, starting a petition, refusing to speak at conferences that allow booth babes, etc.