I am not a booth babe. Ask me a question

Commentary: There's been increasing debate about the role of women in the tech industry, and how they are perceived and portrayed at tech shows. One group has created a new symbol for women who want to stand out -- but not as a booth babe.

Fara Hain
Fara Hain is director of corporate marketing at Zerto, a maker of disaster recovery software. She has spent almost 20 years in technology marketing and has worked at Seeking Alpha, Rhodium, Delta Three and Gemini Israel Ventures.
Fara Hain
3 min read


My colleague was at a tech industry trade show earlier this year helping a prospective customer evaluate our technology.

"If you moved away from replication in the storage arrays to the replicating VMs in the hypervisor, you would be able to create virtual protection groups which maintain application consistency including write-order fidelity and automated re-IP addressing upon failover..."

They spoke for about five minutes about the pros and cons of virtual replication. "Huh," was his reply as the conversation came to a close. "Nice talking to you. You really seem to know what you're talking about."

Jennifer Gill, Zerto's director of global product marketing, is a 15-year veteran of the tech industry, with a degree in biomedical engineering and an MBA. She's worked as a developer, in technical support and in technical sales. The trade show prospect had no idea of her credentials, but given the depth of the dialogue, he meant his comment to be a compliment.

But if you've ever been a woman in technology at a trade show, you know the drill: At least once during the event, you'll be bypassed by a man who is, "Looking to talk to someone technical" on the assumption that a woman working a trade show booth is there purely to serve as "eye candy" or to restock the swag shelves.

Guess what? Lots of us are technical and I am optimistic that the trend is increasing. While the number of women in the technology workforce remains stuck at about 30 percent, here's an encouraging data point: During the first nine months of 2013, 39,000 jobs were created in what the US government calls "computer systems design and related services."

Just over 60 percent of those jobs went to women, compared to just 34 percent for all of 2012.

See also: Scantily clad booth babes at tech trade shows get wardrobe check

The interaction drove the idea for a campaign. In a planning meeting for VMworld 2014, Gill retold the story and suggested creating buttons for the women of Zerto to wear at the event that read, "I am not a booth babe. Ask me a question."

The button was created to gently but firmly challenge the dated stereotype of women's roles at such events -- but like most great ideas, this one had a mind of its own. What started as a reminder to people at the show that women can answer any technical question that a man is capable of answering, turned into something bigger. The idea got picked up by popular VMware blogger Hans de Leenheer and he printed buttons in different colors to hand out at shows. Women from different technology companies wear the buttons in pride at events, creating considerable buzz both about the buttons and driving conversation -- both technical and button-related.

From de Leenheer's blog:

"One of the places where you feel micro-aggression all the way up to straightforward misogyny is on the expo floors at IT conferences.

The historical use of women -- that are just there to attract male attendees -- as booth babes is merely part of the issue. The bigger issue is that in general, women are not respected enough in a technology environment to be expected to answer any question. [When I saw the button] I knew immediately that this would have a lot more value if we could take it beyond the Zerto team and into the Enterprise IT community. This was by far the most positive way to raise awareness that I have seen so far. You notice the button, it puts a smile on your face because you 'get it', and you will remember this for the rest of the conference and hopefully beyond."

More and more conversations around the buttons started taking place, as well as about the evolving place women have in leading technology organizations. We posted the artwork to a website www.iamnotaboothbabe.com so women don't need to hunt us down to get a button. In addition, we've seen a groundswell of support happening not just here in the US; we have had dozens of women around the world wear them at shows.

If you are a woman in tech headed to a trade show soon, you might want to pick up a button. Apart from all the great new gadgets and tech news unveiled, it might just be one of the most interesting topics of conversation.