By Clare Grant
Each year there is an entire day dedicated to women, International Women’s Day, which falls annually on March 8th. The occasion earlier this month was marked by events—and demonstrations—across the world, with a view to raising awareness of the issues facing women today. These issues include domestic violence, pay and job role inequality, and the denial of abortion rights, and vary in terms of their relevance and seriousness from country to country.
Readers will also be aware that International Women’s Day followed hot on the heels of Mobile World Congress 2012 (Feb 28 – Mar 1), one of the biggest and most important industry gathering of the year. This year, as in past years, the tactics of certain exhibitors suggested that the industry has much more use for cutting edge technology than cutting edge attitudes toward gender equality. This year, as in past years, a small but significant number of companies felt it was appropriate to bring in young women wearing attention-grabbing outfits to ‘adorn’ their stands and secure the interest of male delegates.
The worst offender, and somewhat notorious for it, was Russian IT and telecoms business, CBOSS. CBOSS’s team of girls, imported from Eastern Europe, danced for delegates every hour, on the hour, in an eye-catching range of outfits. When they weren’t dancing, the CBOSS girls spent their time handing out leaflets around the stand. Unfortunately they were unable to describe their employer or their employer’s services in any depth. Worse still, it has since emerged that CBOSS also offered executives ‘romantic dinners’ with the dancers; The Telegraph quotes CBOSS as saying “We have no doubt that the champagne, caviar and a beautiful girl conducting a vis-à-vis interview are sure to raise the most correct wording of your thoughts from the depths of the subconscious.” The strangeness/awkwardness of that wording aside, this is compelling evidence that there are strong anti-progressive forces at work in the mobile industry.
Before we flatter ourselves that these forces are only made up of companies based in countries with anti-progressive attitudes to women I should also point out that Microsoft was one of the companies guilty of bolstering out-of-date industry attitudes at this year’s show: they held their MWC party at a burlesque club (check out the photo at the bottom of this article) – a decision for which they were rightly criticised by CNET’s Natasha Lomas. Furthermore, the GSMA – the organisation responsible for the show – once again did nothing to curb the antics of CBOSS and its ilk, despite criticism from Vodafone and many women’s groups. And I haven’t even pointed out yet that the problem goes much, much further than MWC – check out this piece on the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas; the picture alone is quite unbelievable.
Some people, when confronted with this issue, don’t think it’s that important – after all, ‘sex sells’ is both a seasoned adage and a tried and tested tactic. Who’s being hurt by the ‘booth babes’? One answer is – female technology professionals. We are already hugely under-represented in the industry – figures for mobile are hard to come by, but a 2008 Guardian piece put the proportion of female IT and electronics workers at only 16% – and there doesn’t seem to have been much change since then. The same piece attributes the shortfall to a ‘lack of female role models’ in the technology sphere, and that’s a problem which the ‘booth babes’ are making worse – their existence implies, however subtly, that a woman’s place is not in the boardroom or the lab, and that’s an implication that has the potential to effect the thinking of both women and men. And it’s not just bad PR for the industry, it’s bad for the industry – as this article on the female contribution to creativity in technology suggests.
Happily, a number of organisations have been set up to advance the cause of women in technology industries. One such organisation working specifically within the mobile space is Women in Mobile Data. WiMD is a community-led network aimed at enhancing representation and career prospects for women in the mobile sector. It supports and engages women working across the mobile telecoms, media and technology value chain. Another, less active, women’s group which exists in the industry is Women in Mobile – this one’s actually part of the GSMA, the same organisation which tolerates chauvinist tactics on the part of its members, so it’s fair to say it hasn’t yet acquired much clout.
Although technology trade shows and sex are an incongruous combination, it’s obvious to anyone who witnessed CBOSS’s recent efforts that hiring women and dressing them up (or down) to attract men to a stand does work, especially if your objective is to create the impression that your stand is a busy, buzzing place. However many women we inspire with the confidence to get involved in the mobile tech industry and however many men object to being demeaned by cheap and degrading sales tactics, booth babes will always find an audience. That’s why we all need to call on the GSMA to show some leadership and effectively regulate its members’ activities. Everyone stands to benefit.
Clare Grant served as Antenna’s VP of Marketing and Communications and as a noted Mobile Masters blogger.