Update: Babel PR, the company behind the offending article, has issued a rubbish non-apology in response to this post and the surrounding furore. See the end of our piece for more.
IT'S DIFFICULT being a woman at a tech tradeshow. There are already far fewer of us than men on the show floor, and our reward for making the effort is being treated like set dressing. I've personally, repeatedly seen women ignored in favour of men, talked down to, presumed to be non-technical despite being at a tech tradeshow, and - of course - hit-on and harassed.
Mobile World Congress (MWC), Barcelona's massive yearly mobile phone conference, has made all the right noises about increasing the gender balance, but still we're nowhere near parity. And an article posted yesterday on Telecoms.com - and incredibly, sponsored by Babel PR - gives a perfect example of why.
Entitled ‘The seven faces of MWC,' it's your standard listicle of stereotypes - the kinds of characters you might run into at the show. Nothing wrong with that, and normally I'd have chuckled along in recognition and closed the tab. Except that in this list, six out of the seven ‘faces' are men (don't even get me started on the fact that they're all white) - and the sole woman is labelled ‘Sex Symbol.' Here's her description:
That's right, ladies: the only women who go to smartphone conferences are booth babes in low-cut tops, wearing rape alarms around their wrists (yes, really), with a can of pepper spray and a sign saying ‘creep-free zone.' I could almost see this as sympathising with how awful it can be to be female at these shows, if not for this line:
The other 50% of the time will be spent exploiting men who are pathetically grateful for even the tiniest bit of female attention
In other words, women hate being treated like sex objects until there's something in it for us, then we exploit the hell out of it. Coming from someone who's just lambasted "Trump-like attitudes to feminism," that's pretty damn hypocritical.
It's also wrong. Being a female tech journalist myself, I've had opportunities to use sexuality to advance in my job - in fact, one of the best examples of this happened at MWC. A big global brand was showing off a smartwatch in secret, and I wanted to get the story, so I spoke to a rep on their stand to find out if there was any chance of seeing it.
"Maybe if you flash them, they'll show you," he said, miming me lifting up my top in case my tiny female brain couldn't process the words. Seeing the watch would have been a big scoop, and an edge over all the other publications covering MWC - but while I appreciate that the rep's ‘offer' was a joke, in that environment I probably still could have flirted my way to a viewing.
Instead, I gave him the "what the hell did you just say?" face and left as he spluttered some excuse. Later, the same brand repeatedly skipped me in the queue for a demo, in favour of men standing behind me. I had to call them on their sexism to get a look-in at all.
Newsflash: women are people
Believe it or not, the women at tech conferences are people. I'm not saying there aren't still ‘booth babes' - women dressed in overtly sexy outfits, who don't work for the company or know about the product, but are just there to look pretty - they're on the decline, but they definitely still exist. They're not, however, one of the ‘seven faces of MWC,' and they're not typical of the women you'll meet there.
Tech events are attended by women who are smart, knowledgeable and interested in the products on show. They're entrepreneurs, inventors, engineers, founders and tech journalists. They're not there to have things explained to them by the nearest penis-haver, they're not there to give you their phone number, and they're absolutely not there to ‘make up the numbers'. In fact, they've turned up despite knowing there's a good chance they'll be treated poorly for at least part of the day. That makes them, if anything, more determined than their male counterparts.
Articles like this one serve to reinforce the idea that women are not welcome in the tech industry, that the only women you'll encounter at events are essentially prostituting themselves for sales. When called out on the TechJPR Facebook group, the article's author, Telecoms.com Editorial Director Scott Bicheno, doubled down. "It's satire," he responded, before posting the dictionary definition of satire. He also stated:
"I could explain that the satire of that part was to poke fun at the gender imbalance of our industry or even to laugh about some of the awkward social situations we find ourselves in at trade shows but what would be the point?
"I could even make what I would previously have assumed to be a completely redundant point that the seven caricatures are neither exhaustively representative of the demographic breakdown of attendees nor any broader socio-political comment, but I suspect it would fall on deaf ears. Accept it as satire or don't - your choice."
This argument amounts to "it's your fault for not finding it funny." I would love to have found it funny. It would have been wonderful to see some really biting, intelligent satire about the gender balance at tech conferences, but this isn't it. This is a lazy stereotype by someone who clearly has no idea what it's like to be a woman in tech.
Well, Scott, I'm making you the 8th face of MWC: Clueless Mansplainers. Thanks for the inspiration.
Update 23/2: Statement from Babel PR
In response to this article and the many, many critical comments levelled at Scott Bicheno, Telecoms.com and Babel PR, the latter has issued a weak non-apology on its website. It says:
"Given the reaction to this piece from a number of people it is only right that I, as the person who conceived it, should accept that it was misjudged, respond to the criticism and apologise. The entire series was intended as a light-hearted look at some of the characters we all see at MWC and numerous other trade shows.
"The offending character in the series was meant to be a satirical comment on the overt sexism that we regularly see at trade shows like MWC and she was an illustration of a (long suffering) character we often see staffing stands. She wasn't intended as a representation of all women at the show, just as the male characters weren't a representation of all men at MWC.
"Additionally, the object of derision in the text was actually the men but despite all of that, and my original intention, it's clear that what I wanted to convey didn't come across. I would genuinely like to say sorry for the offence caused. Any social media comment from Babel referring to the piece has now been deleted." - Ian Hood, CEO.
Much like Bicheno's 'explanation,' this "sorry but" non-apology puts the blame squarely on the reader for not seeing that it's actually totally hilarious satire at the expense of the men. Except it wasn't, because the men weren't representing men - they were representing MWC attendees. The woman was representing women: her characterisation was all about her gender, and trying to claim the article was actually making a feminist point is ludicrous considering the woman in question was described as exploiting her sexuality for sales.
Clearly, neither Hood nor Bicheno actually understand the criticism of their piece, and think they're just being unfairly attacked by evil feminazis who wanted to see 50/50 men and women when that's not the reality of trade shows.
All we can recommend is reading our article again. After all, we had to read theirs - in between manicures, obvs. µ
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