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Confessions of a former booth babe

Another tech show, another fracas over sexism. You know how this could have been avoided? By not having booth babes at all, that's how.

Another tech show, another fracas over sexism. The offending company this time was Asus, which caused a minor hoo-ha when it tweeted a picture of a booth babe from the Computex show in Taipei last week with the caption: "The rear looks pretty nice. So does the new Transformer AIO."

Doesn't it make you want to do a great big sigh? You know how this could have been avoided? By not having booth babes at all, that's how.

But hold the phone -- this was hardly the fault of the attractive woman pictured, it was all down to the social-media monkey who sent the tweet. No one, it seems, warned the poor, potentially now unemployed fool that sexism is the metaphorical elephant in the gadget-filled convention centre.

Before I go on, there's something I must confess, a little secret I must share with you: I used to be a booth babe myself. It wasn't for long mind, and I was working as an established member of a company's marketing team, rather than just as hired help, but I've done the lot -- everything from the sheeny shiny Gadget Show Live to grubbier trade-only trade shows.

I've spent more time than any human should have to pacing 3x3m cells at ExCel, Earls Court and the NEC, smiling, flyering, demonstrating and being subjected to the terrible music taste of my neighbours (*cough* Virgin Media *cough*).

There are those of you who might already be judging me, or maybe just silently goading me for taking liberties with the word 'babe', but despite what the modern, forward-thinking chaps at CVG might have you believe, booth babes aren't a separate sub-species of woman who are ripe for objectifying, regardless of what they might or might not be wearing.

I can empathise with aspects of Michael Kan's 'day in the life of' article on last week, which provided rare insight into what it's like to be a booth babe. Nine straight days of stalking a convention centre floor without letting the smile slip from your lips can indeed be tiring at times.

The story that really filled me with dismay, however, was the woman who was disillusioned by the sexism she faced -- and increasingly tiny garments she was expected to wear -- and was leaving the industry to take a new job as a product manager at a biotech company. It makes me sad to think whoever employed this clearly capable young woman didn't have the smarts to realise she had more than her body to offer.

For the record, I'd like to let it be known that just like the lady in Asus' twitpic, I did wear clothes -- jeans and a polo shirt, sometimes with a cardigan -- and I wasn't the only one either. There are always plenty of us around, booth babes with clothes and genuine marketing responsibilities, and while an abundance of garments shouldn't be required to protect us from the threat of sexism, in reality it kind of does.

I was never knowingly on the receiving end of any misogynistic comments, neither did I feel patronised or like I was being overlooked in favour of my male counterparts (booth boys?). My employer respected me, and never treated me as if I was a mere human display unit.

My colleague Natasha Lomas addressed the culture of booth babes earlier this year when the CNET team received an invite from Microsoft to attend a burlesque party at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. She made the point that when it comes to semi-naked ladies, it's all about the context. The problem isn't the presence of booth babes at trade shows, but the hypersexualised version of femininity that many brands are pushing while promoting their products, which only serves to reinforce the notion of the tech industry as a male-dominated space.

There could well be boardrooms and development teams full of women squirreled away in Silicon Valley, but what use is that if the women representing the public face of a company are openly dismissed by their employers as little more than tinsel-toting totty used to bait a presumed audience of straight men into taking their flyers and photographs?

It's not only the tech industry that's guilty of enlisting scantily-clad promo girls, but it needs to recognise it's never going to tackle its gender imbalance or encourage a culture of respect by consigning women to small talk, smiles and uniforms picked out from the Ann Summers costume range.

The industry also needs to adapt its marketing to a changing audience -- and I don't just mean in the context of trade shows. As The Atlantic reports, Intel researcher Genevieve Bell has recently discovered that women are the primary adopters of new technology, as well as the vast majority of owners of all Internet-enabled devices.

My own experience would support this -- it's a generalisation, but while most of the men I spoke to at tech shows were interested in the concept and innovation behind the technology, it tended to be the women who asked questions about practicalities and purchasing.

Tech companies should be flooding their booths with babes women -- we have as important a role to play there as anywhere else in the industry -- but they should also give them proper product knowledge, genuine responsibilities, possibly some sensible shoes and, most importantly, a little respect.