BEFORE THIS YEAR'S Mobile World Congress, we asked whether given all the advances in gender equality in the last year or so, most significantly the #MeToo movement, this would be the first year we saw a truly unsexist tech conference.
Well, MWC has finished for another year and I'm happy to report that it was the most gender-inclusive tech conference I've ever been to. It wasn't perfect, but there was noticeable change in the way women were included and treated, and it makes my feminist heart sing.
Let's take the changes one by one.
No booth babes, anywhere
I can't say for certain there wasn't a single booth babe (the industry term for women who are basically used as 'decoration' for show stands, in skimpy costumes, usually not knowing anything about the product they're repping) at MWC, but I'll be damned if I could find one. This alone is a huge step forward. In previous conferences, there were some in every hall. I dragged my sore feet through eight entire halls and didn't see one. And I was looking.
I also had my fellow Qualcomm trip attendees on the lookout, and only one saw what he thought might have been a booth babe, in hall 8.1 (apps). But despite a lot of effort, I couldn't find her, and not a single other stand had one that I saw.
I deliberately approached stands that usually have them, and noticed a distinct change that seems to have happened all at once: while many booths did still have groups of uniformed, conventionally attractive women on the stands, they were dressed more like air hostesses than club hostesses.
I still winced at the sight of anyone wearing high heels on the show floor, just from a pain perspective, but they looked professional and appropriate at least - and many were wearing flat shoes, too.
More female reps and attendees
Even better, noticeably more brands had women on the stands, just doing their jobs, knowing stuff about tech. They weren't there to look pretty, they were answering questions and running demos. And so many of them were wearing casual clothing like the men do: hoodies, jeans, trousers, t-shirts, comfortable shoes. That alone sends such a positive message: these women are here to work. They're part of the industry. They're not set-dressing.
Does this mean I didn't see anyone in revealing clothing? Oh hell no. I saw thigh-high leather boots, plunging necklines, tiny slips that made me worry for their health in the freezing rain - but the difference is, these women were show attendees. They'd come to see the tech, and they felt so comfortable in that environment that they were able to wear exactly what they wanted without feeling the need to match the men. It was so good to see.
Anecdotally, there seemed to be more women attending overall, too -- though it still looks to be about 70-30 in favour of men.
I mentioned in my pre-show article that the GSMA, who run MWC, had gone to some effort to put on female-centric tech events but that they mostly felt like lip service. The awful colour-by-numbers programme name 'Women4Tech' didn't help.
But what I didn't expect were all the little touches that the GSMA included to make women feel welcome. They didn't shout about these, they were just there. While on my hunt for booth babes, I came across a breastfeeding room:
And there were free sanitary supplies in the women's bathrooms, everything from tampons to baby wipes (though gender-neutral bathrooms would have been better still):
Judging by the rate of depletion, these were greatly appreciated:
More women on panels
The overall balance of conference attendees, keynote speakers and panellists was still skewed heavily in favour of men, but it takes a long time to move the needle, and there was still a noticeable improvement. For instance, some panels were actually majority female, and for once they weren't ones about women in tech or innovations in online shopping (*rolls eyes*).
For instance, the Wednesday morning discussion on Leveraging Mobile for Your Brand had five panellists, four of whom were female. Another one later the same morning had the same ratio. App Annie CEO Bertrand Schmitt, the only male on the second panel, told us that it had been a refreshingly well-conducted debate:
"It was a pleasure to speak at the event and it felt like the conversation organically lead to interesting topics, with each speaker respectful of each other's viewpoints and each other's time to speak."
More creative ways to draw interest
Speaking of App Annie, you likely noticed their stand due to the large queue around all sides: they were giving away free ice cream, talking to people about their services while they stood in line for it. This was another trend we noticed at MWC18: the use of creative, fun ways to draw people to stands that had nothing to do with half-dressed women.
Of course, crowd-pulling tactics aren't new to MWC, but the point is that they stand out so much more when they're not competing for attention with sexist ads and 'brand models.' There are so many ways to bring people to your stand without alienating half the population, and the booths that previously relied on outdated tactics will have to step up their game to compete. Like Eskadenia Software:
But that was just about the only sexist poster we saw at Mobile World Congress, and the difference is enormous. I felt so much more welcome and included this year, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one. Equality is winning, and thank goodness, that goes for #MWCtoo. µ
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