Twenty Years of Being a Woman at Tech Events

Since the early 1990s, I have attended tech events large and small in the US, Italy, Germany, and India. I was usually one of a small number of women attending or staffing in some technical capacity, i.e. able to speak knowledgeably about technologies and products. There were always other women around, but most of those were contracted for the duration of the event to work in a booth, taking business cards and giving out schwag. That work is useful and needed, but was not what I was there for.

I understood early on that I was an anomaly. A few times I even played on it: wearing a miniskirt while on booth duty, then waiting in glee to see how long it would take people to realize that I actually knew what I was talking about. (In Italy, it is not unusual for women to wear miniskirts to professional events.) But, even when I played with it, I wanted to be recognized for my brains and technical knowledge, not for my body.

No matter how I dressed, it was always an uphill battle.

I myself have not experienced overt harassment at a tech event, though I know very well that it happens. I experienced a more subtle (and probably unconscious) form of harassment in having to prove my technical knowledge, over and over. In most people’s minds, a woman in a booth by default is fit only to swipe badges and serve coffee. Then: “Oh, you actually know something! How unusual!” It gets… tiring.

There were more blatantly sexist things going on around me, constantly. Some memorable incidents include:

CeBit, Europe’s equivalent to Comdex/CES: In 1994, three female Italian colleagues staffed a booth for our small company there, and were very popular with (male) partners and customers. The following year, the company sent three men. The same partners and customers would walk up to the booth and ask: “Where are the girls?” – then walk away in disappointment, without leaving so much as a business card. (Of the two groups of three, each time, one person was technical and the other two were sales/marketing.)

But the real attention-getters at CeBit were the svelte women walking around in skin-tight ski suits printed with a Swiss cheese design – a marketing campaign by the government of Switzerland. Men chased them around the pavilions to take photos.

CeBit also featured beer tents which, in the evenings, quickly became rowdy with businessmen drinking and singing. I didn’t go in. Being among few women in such a situation, my best hope would have been to be mistaken for a waitress. No doubt I missed some industry networking opportunities.

The Adult Entertainment Expo used to be co-located with CES in Las Vegas, to “help exhibitors minimize travel expenses and maximize networking opportunities.” One of the years I staffed a booth at CES, we were in the same building as the Expo, leading to scenes in the common hallways of male tech staff chasing after women porn stars for autographs and photos. I was amused, but there was a blur to this situation that I didn’t like: was I there as a subject or an object? Given that most of the women present were there to be looked at, one way or another, people might understandably be confused. At least there was no doubt about the women porn performers’ starring roles in their products, while I, as a woman, was not assumed to be a co-creator in the technology I was selling.

CES hasn’t changed: it continues to feature “booth babes” in scanty clothing (or practically none). This is now sanctified as “tradition” and because “sex sells.”

The idea that women exist primarily for men to look at so permeates tech events that there have been multiple incidents of men posting photos of “the babes of [event]” – including women who were there as attendees and speakers – and claiming that those women should feel flattered!

Then there was the tech scene in Italy, which I’ve written about before.

And I almost forgot to mention, because it’s been so immutable a part of the tech conference experience forever, the very small numbers of women speakers.

In sum: The full impact of how women are presented, perceived, and treated at tech events cannot be fully felt or understood via any single incident, no matter how egregious. What weighs on women in tech is year after year after year of these incidents and attitudes.

So, when we react with rage to the latest example of sexism in tech manifesting at a conference, we’re not being “overly sensitive”. This is a severe allergic reaction, built up over multiple exposures. It’s all the more discouraging to see how little has changed in twenty years – little improvement, and no end in sight.

Read next: Sex and Tech Events

3 thoughts on “Twenty Years of Being a Woman at Tech Events

  1. Janelle Castroni

    I know what you feel like because discrimination against women in the work place has always existed. I never quit but endeavored to persevere. I was examined by a high ranking military board for a civilian management position. I was certified on my first try. Men who had tried several times to earn qualification were the ones selected for the position. It was not the Navy but the civilian employer doing the selection. I have been retired since the 90’s but I have always pushed for advancement and was confident of my ability and qualifications. I was determined just as you. Sometimes there are associates who are championing you without your knowledge. One time a Commander from Naval Sea Systems Command from Washington DC came to ask me about something regarding a navy job. Following my input and analysis He went to my supervisors and told them I knew my “shit”. I was on a temporary assignment but the entity tried to get me to hire me. I stayed with my own organization. It hurts when one is being passed over but don’t quit honey! The only thing you can do is endeavor to persevere.

  2. PM CH

    I went to an event in a progressive(business) but still a bit conservative(culture) country in so I was fairly comfortable being there, I suppose in certain Asian cultures booth babes would be looked down upon especially since some of the sponsors were Muslims with the headscarf. I thought this was a great introduction to a particular tech industry. Then on the first night (so, after) there were networking drinks which was fairly boring because it was in the venue. Anyway, I was in a small group – one of the guys was paying attention to me in particular, making a joke then suddenly put his hand on my shoulder and said “Look at this beautiful woman” and I was like “what the f..” since I wasn’t paying attention to him or his joke. It reminded me that I still get the awareness of being seen as a potential ‘partner’, even if the man is middle-aged and married with kids, it hasn’t really stopped them from making moves.

    I remember a catch up conversation with someone in the industry and him mentioning how a VC just invited him to dinner and I was nodding thinking “Right, I would not be that comfortable saying yes to a dinner”. There are certain situations where even today you kinda don’t want to “go there” but instead it would have been better to put forward alternatives: “I work/study during the evenings”, “I don’t drink”. This also touches on the issue of putting boundaries between your professional and personal life, something I feel is important to help prevent burnout.

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