Scantily clad booth babes at tech trade shows get wardrobe check

RSA Conference follows other associations in writing new dress codes for its exhibitors. And that means no more tube tops, minidresses or bodysuits for women -- or men -- staffing their booths.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
5 min read
RSA Conference is adding dress codes for exhibitors during its April trade show. Getty Images/Onoky

Anyone who's been to a technology trade show is probably familiar with so-called booth babes -- attractive women, wearing as little as possible, hired to tout tech products.

Some don bikinis, short-shorts or minidresses; others come dressed in tight leather outfits or costumes, a la Catwoman, Xena the warrior princess, and Star Wars' Princess Leia in a gold bikini. In one notable case, an exhibitor had their booth babes dressed in paint and little else.

Booth babes are the Vanna Whites of the technology world, meant to reel in bedazzled male onlookers and then show off a company's products. But they've also been the subject of debate, with many critics saying it's demeaning for companies to treat women as sexualized props.

A few groups are now looking to end the practice of provocative clothing at tech trade shows. RSA, which hosts the world's largest security conference, announced last week it's banning scantily clad dress -- for women and men -- at its five-day trade show in San Francisco next month.

"We want everyone to feel like they can comfortably enjoy all of the sessions and activities that this year's show has to offer," said RSA Conference Vice President and curator Sandra Toms.

The change comes amid renewed discussion about sexism in the technology industry. It kicked off with a comment in October by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella who said at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (of all places) that women shouldn't ask for promotions but instead rely on "karma" to get their due. Nadella was roundly criticized for his remarks given that women in Silicon Valley are paid on average 39 percent less than their male counterparts, according to a February report by research organization Joint Venture Silicon Valley.

In the past month, the gender discrimination lawsuit between prominent venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and former junior partner Ellen Pao, has captivated the tech industry. While the jury ruled in favor of Kleiner Perkins on Friday, the case escalated debate over how women are treated in Silicon Valley. The majority of top tech firms have less than 32 percent women in their workforce, with even lower numbers in leadership and in the technical ranks, according to diversity reports released by 11 companies, including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter and Facebook.

Booth babes are seen as an example of why women continue to be relegated to diminished roles in tech.

Watch this: Meet the next tech entrepreneurs: young women

"The outcome of dressing women inappropriately, establishing them as eye-candy or as decorative objects or hypersexualized figures, results in people taking women in general less seriously and being less inclined to hire women and promote women into positions of authority," said Carol Colatrella, author of "Toys and Tools in Pink: Cultural Narratives of Gender, Science, and Technology" and co-director of the Georgia Tech Center for the Study of Women, Science and Technology .

Instead of booth babes, "why not just have a neon bulb that goes off to attract people's interest?" Colatrella said.

The RSA Conference's new exhibitor rules say that all expo staff should dress in a way that's "considered appropriate in a professional environment" and that clothing of an "overly revealing or suggestive nature" won't be permitted. That means no tank tops, halter-tops or tube tops. It also means no miniskirts, minidresses, shorts or Lycra bodysuits. RSA says these guidelines apply to all staff -- both male and female. If exhibitors defy the ban they may be asked to change clothes or leave.

RSA expects at least 400 exhibitors and 28,000 attendees at this year's event -- typically about 15 percent of the conference attendees are women.

"The new language in our Exhibitor Rules and Regulations was added to ensure that we provide an environment that is both professional and respectful of all attendees," RSA's Toms said. "I think it's a long time coming."

The search for 'appropriate attire'

While RSA is the latest association to put the kibosh on booth babes, it's not the first. Eurogamer Expo, one of Europe's largest gaming conferences, adopted dress codes in 2012, as did the ChinaJoy gaming expo in Shanghai, China. The GSM Association, or Groupe Speciale Mobile, which brings together the mobile-phone industry at Mobile World Congress, outlined attire guidelines in its exhibitor rules in 2010.

"In recognition of the many cultures and nationalities present at Mobile World Congress, attire of an overly revealing or suggestive nature is not permitted," the GSM Association's guidelines read.

But not everyone agrees with business casual dress codes. The Entertainment Software Association, which hosts the popular computer and video game trade show E3 in Los Angeles in June, says that individual exhibitors can make attire decisions for their booth personnel -- within limits. An ESA spokesman said the association enforces "strict standards" that ban costumes or uniforms that are sexually explicit or provocative, including bikini bottoms and any other items that involve nudity or partial nudity.

The Game Developers Conference, which hosted its annual confab in March in San Francisco, didn't respond to a request for comment.

The Consumer Electronics Association is another major group that still allows booth babes. CEA puts on the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas every January, which draws more than 170,000 people from the tech industry. As the largest tech trade show, it has been repeatedly criticized for allowing companies to employ booth babes.

After a slew of critical news articles about booth babes at CES 2013, the CEA said it hadn't received any formal complaints about the show's lenient dress code. Even so, the association decided to change its guidelines in 2014, adding a note to its Exhibitor Attire Policy that says it "reserves the right to make determinations on appropriate attire." Booth staff may be asked to "alter" their dress if deemed unsuitable.

A CEA spokeswoman said this policy has worked well so far, with the show receiving "few if any complaints" during the 2014 and 2015 conferences.

The CEA, however, still won't define what exactly is or isn't "appropriate attire."

Colatrella believes the RSA Conference and the other associations instituting dress codes is a positive move. "I think it's the right step to treat women as people and not as hyper-sexualized objects," she said. "Whenever you have a professional situation, it's better if all of the professionals are on as equal footing as possible."

Or at least dressed.

Updated at 11:25 a.m. PT to clarify the ESA has dress code requirements that ban nudity or partial nudity and to add that 15 percent of RSA Conference attendees are women.