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Computer networking babe goes ballistic … or gets kind of annoyed

Disclaimer: This author attended a snooty liberal arts college and may have registered for one too many womyn’s studies classes.

A couple of recent blog entries by my colleagues at Network World Cisco Subnet warmed my heart: “Special Cisco Live Contest – Hottest Booth Girl” by Michael J. Morris, and: “Who’s the hottest video game chick?” by Jimmy Ray Purser.

The first closely examines which of the booth babes at Cisco Live was hottest, while the second goes a bit deeper, exploring the relationship between a father and son (Purser and his boy) through the scope of which video game vixen each finds sexier (i.e. The family that lusts together stays together).

I fully support my Network World colleagues in conducting such in-depth analysis of networking technology and its implications on network engineers. Great work, guys.

I also thank them for highlighting just how welcome women are at networking technology conferences and other forums for serious technology discussion.

Last year I attended LISA Usenix in Baltimore, which was easily the best conference I had attended all year. It was populated by long-haired, academic engineers rather than Docker-wearing product marketers (read Interop). In my first two hours at the conference, I had three in-depth conversations: one about open source network management tools, another about open source community tactics in networking technology and a third about where The Clash went wrong. I was in heaven.

But when I walked into lunch the first day, I was also struck by the very same problem that hits me at every tech conference I attend: I could count the number of women in a room of around 200 on one hand. At least at LISA there were no half-naked chicks selling switches or promoting firewalls, and as a result, I felt welcome to discuss, contribute and learn. But it is very hard to feel like a serious participant at a conference like Cisco Live where (according to Morris’ blog) BlueCat Networks thought it best to have two girls in spandex explain IP Address Management, while NetOptics went the route of selling network management tools through a girl in short-shorts and a sailor cap.

In a response to the Cisco hot chicks blog, one of Morris’ readers sums it up perfectly:

We encourage women to train for high-tech careers, and this degrading attitude doesn’t help,” the reader wrote. “Your editorial staff should consider your liability for a civil rights lawsuit, for creating a hostile work environment for women.”

As a journalist, freedom of speech is my religion, so I wouldn’t go as far as a lawsuit. But I do wonder why we journalists so easily waste this freedom – and further perpetrate a culture that ultimately shuts out women and the innovation they could contribute.

Then again, these two blogs may have had less to do with sexism and more to do with a desperate – and clumsy – grab for attention. In fact, I think my editorial director Susan Fogarty said it best in a quick email regarding the blogs, “This is just playing to the lowest common denominator and stirring the pot to spike up the page views.”

I choose a different path. I’ll take my page views from actual networking technology coverage and use my right to speak for things that matter.

In the meantime, we have a duty to work toward an IT community that fosters growth for women and encourages their contributions.

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Twelve years ago, in another life, I was an acquisitions editor for a publisher of software development books. I'll never forget the time I went to the Software Development conference in San Francisco. I was there to meet with authors, but I brought an editorial assistant (EA) along to manage my company's booth. The EA was young, just out of college. She was attractive. She showed up at the conference in a suit, dressed very professionally. It didn't matter, given the environment of the showroom floor. You had booths manned by women in mini-dresses or skintight spacesuits. On the very few occasions that I was around the our booth, I heard men ask the AE questions like "So... are you the booth babe?' One man even asked her to dinner. I was embarrassed both for her and for these ridiculous guys and their poor attempts to interact with women as anything other than an object on display.
Fascinating that at our company we had this exact same debate, about the exact same show. Some looked at the booth traffic that these companies at Cisco Live generated, and at the show's mostly-male demographics, and instantly concluded that this booth babe approach was right, just because it worked. The women were "conversation starters", not "booth babes", was the argument. My argument was that the all-male demographic has been caused by tactics like this, and that the message we were sending was that women were unwelcome in this environment. I am unwilling to accept this attitude and will fight against it, but it's ridiculous to still be having this conversation in 2010.
Veronica, I totally agree. There are so many other forms of "conversation starters" and more importantly, I can't believe that with all of the work that has gone into creating fairer corporate environments, nobody at the C-level of these companies puts their foot down and demands that marketing and sales people come up with more innovative tactics.
I really agree with your statement and i appreciate your blog. Thanks for sharing this type of information.