Monday, May 14, 2012

A meandering rant on sexism.

This has been a bad year for technology.  Not necessarily for the business of technology (although it is very hard to discuss the current state of the tech and InfoSec biz without using the word “bubble”), but for the culture and future of tech.

I commented on the depressing “booth babe” situation at RSA in this year’s RSA wrap-up blog post, it is an ongoing embarrassment.  As I’ve said before, in the right contexts I have nothing against attractive people, fast cars, or other things normally used to sell cheap beer- I just don’t believe tech and security events are the correct contexts.  There are not very many women in tech, and that is not a simple problem to fully diagnose or correct.  There is plenty of blame to go around, starting with the way we market to and educate brainwash young folks, but what we do inside tech industries is our responsibility and we have a lot to fix.

A couple of weeks ago I was at Infosecurity Europe in London.  It is very much like a somewhat smaller (but still big) RSA San Francisco event.  The attendees (at least from my perch in the Tenable booth) were much more likely to be customers seeking information on the latest products and services than attendees at RSA, which certainly gets a lot of customers- but is really a business-to-business event IMHO.  I had many great conversations with customers, prospects, and folks who just wanted to chat.  I’m looking forward to going back next year- but I’m working out my schedule so that I can get over to BSides London next time.  BUT, the booth babe phenomenon was a blight on Infosecurity Europe, too.  Probably worse than RSA.

Last week I was at InterOP Las Vegas.  It is a big networking show, with a healthy dose of cloud, and a touch of security.  I enjoyed the event, and hope to put together some thoughts about what “security” means to a non-security crowd.  Sadly, there were more “booth babes” than in years past.  Special dishonorable mention goes to WatchGuard for succumbing to the lure of the booth babe over technical innovation in a field they dominated a decade ago.

And then there was the Dell fiasco.  Dell had a partner event in Denmark and the moderator they hired for the day was, well, not moderate.  In a series of demeaning and sexist remarks following Michael Dell’s talk Mads Christensen said some really inappropriate things.  The primary source of coverage is this post at Elektronista (if you are a sentient being, you’ll probably want to skip the comments), and Molly Wood has a good follow up post on why we need to keep talking about women in tech.  Sadly, Dell has only apologized weakly thus far, and no actions appear to have been taken.  It looks like Christensen issued a non-apology (I’m sorry if you were offended…).  The ability to hire and retain good employees is critical to a company’s ability to execute, and with a dire shortage of candidates for many security and tech roles Dell’s mistake and subsequent inaction may cause them some HR pain.  Let’s hope it does.

And, not to be completely negative here, ExtraHop Networks gets credit for going in a different direction to draw attention to their booth.  And they are doing it because what they do works, not as a political statement. Because it works, the excuse for using booth babes, is turned around here.  See this post at Network World for details and links.

As a reminder, I’m an old, white, heterosexual male with a great job.  I’m supposed to be part of the problem, not one of the voices ranting about it.  I can’t imagine my outrage if I were a woman trying to deal with the tech industry.  It is unacceptable.

By the way, I’ve been an “old boy” for a while now, and yet I have not received a single invitation to join any of the much-heralded Old Boys’ Clubs.  Perhaps I’ve done something to offend the Old Boys’ Clubs, such as not wanting this industry to be one.




Anonymous said...!i=1817161222&k=pCBGpz3

Jessica said...

Rambling thoughts: As I read the comments on the article I linked to I'm only getting angrier. There seems to be a mentality that is prevalent in all sectors; women’s abilities don’t matter they are here for one thing and one thing only. Isn’t it also sexist to say “I want more women in IT so there will be more women around” as if women are here for your amusement and pleasure. I am tired of the shocked looks on people’s faces when I can talk tech, or the comments that “women just aren’t interested in this field” or “why do we need to encourage women if they aren’t interested, we aren’t encouraging boys to become nurses?” well how about because IT is a high paying field and we are pushing women into lower paying jobs so they still have to depend on men to support them?
Women are just as capable as men and if they aren’t choosing this field perhaps it is because they don’t want to deal with the environment men have created. I blame women for not pushing to change the system almost as much as I blame men for creating it. The issue is when companies like Dell don’t take more responsibility for the message they are sending.
I’ve attended a few tech tradeshows and it makes me uncomfortable to see booth babes. When I mention this I’m called a buzz kill or a shrew. How can anyone say there isn’t a hostile environment in tech when these kinds of things still happen.

Jesse said...

This is getting old. When you test fully mature adults, men score a little bit higher on IQ tests. Men also have a higher SD. This combination will lead to men dominating in areas that require high IQ even in a perfectly fair system.

There is no conspiracy. Pointing out facts is not sexist.

Jack Daniel said...

I don't like to delete comments, but I really do not see the relevance of that image to this discussion. She is smart, and in the infosec biz, and presenting at a con.

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, I'm not sure what your point is. Are you saying that because by some measures (created largely by males) males perform better than females (at the end of an education cycle which steers women away from technology) that demeaning commentary and behavior are acceptable? I strongly disagree with that, and don't buy the fraudulent underlying premises anyway.

Those who use booth babes are not pointing out any facts, they are generally obfuscating them. Mads' comments about women are unacceptable in a business environment and certainly don't point out any facts.

I'm happy to engage in an intelligent discussion, but if you just want to troll, the entire rest of the Internet awaits you.


Jesse said...

Liberalism is a religion, and egalitarianism is its dogma. Otherwise highly intelligent people who are capable of weighing evidence rationally, liberals demand absolute proof of anything that undermines their egalitarian, "blank slate" dogma.

Jack, please consider the following criticism with an open mind. You ask, "Are you saying that because by some measures (created largely by males) males perform better than females (at the end of an education cycle which steers women away from technology) that demeaning commentary and behavior are acceptable? ...I...don't buy the fraudulent underlying premise anyway."

You imply that IQ tests are biased against women because they were created largely by men.You also clearly reject out of hand the notion that the lack of women in high-IQ fields is itself evidence of inherent sex differences. On the other hand, you take it as a given that "[the education cycle]...steers women away from technology."

If I were to demand proof of the latter assertion, you would scoff and say that it's self-evident. The truth is, we cannot so easily discern causes within systems as complex as human societies. The lack of women in tech is no more proof of a bias against women as it is proof of inherent sex differences.

My point is that the liberal must infer oppression or conspiracy from inequality in all cases of differential results between groups, because under the dogma of egalitarianism inherent group differences are simply disallowed. This leads to the liberal demanding infinite evidence for inherent group differences while taking differential results between groups as proof in and of itself for oppression or conspiracy. Such a "deduction" is only the illusion of reasoning.

Jack Daniel said...

Interesting, but irrelevant to a post primarily about demeaning treatment of women. And liberalism, nice redirection, we're not talking entitlements.

The intellect argument also assumes that is the only qualification for making a contribution to a field or endeavor.

As far as education steering females away from tech, you are either ill-informed or very lucky. I know the experiences of my sisters, wife, and daughter- as well as many others. But, back to the core point, even if I were to accept all of your assertions, how does that justify demeaning women (or any other group)? Similar arguments have been used against a myriad of ethnic and religious groups throughout history, find a metric and use it as a weapon. I wonder how we avoid ceding power to the Asian people who consistently outscore Anglo-Americans in educational studies.

And as far as "inferring conspiracy" being a liberal trait, clearly you are not a Ron Paul supporter, and are probably a better person than I and have ignored the pathetic mania which has passed for a Republican Primary race. Thanks to conservatives' failures we are doomed to another four years of Obama (and no one should be more disappointed by that than real liberals).

Jesse, we are just not going to agree, but snark aside, I do appreciate your added response.


Anonymous said...

A half naked person presenting is good?

A half naked person handing out flyers is bad?

Can you objectively explain why one image is fine and one causes so much hand-wringing?

Do other females look at either of these activities favorably?

Feel free to delete - my point isn't to add graffiti to your blog.

lil_lost said...

Jack, I appreciate your public stance. The greatest thing for me professionally is being in a room (generally surrounded by men) and have them hear my opinion and accept my work as an equal, with no basis on my gender.

Becki said...

Thanks for writing about this Jack. I grew up with men (lots of wild uncles) and working with them in tech for more than 40 years. I've always been in their world and never really thought about this topic until several recent events including this one with Dell, the Shanley Kane conversation with the fellows at Geeklist (1), and the video game broohaha (2).

What's struck me the most about all of these is the language used by the men in every one of these incidents. It's angry and agressive. I've never been subjected to that type of language in the workplace or public setting, and I served in the Army.

This anger concerns me far more than the number of women who choose a tech career. These men, most of them much younger than I, apparently think it's OK to use agressive language toward women. No man has ever done that to my face. Why? I don't know, but I don't recommend it. I was raised to respond to aggression in kind and have the skills to do so.

But why do these men feel the need to act this way? Why do they feel the need to threaten and intimidate? Are they just bullies? Are they intimidated and acting out? Is it because they had awkward teen years? Are teen girls so vicious that men seek revenge as adults?

Speaking for myself, I've never asked for or supported any type of quota, and I don't think women are asking for that. I think many are asking some the same questions I'm asking (for the first time). Why are these men so angry toward women?



Norm said...

Jack, you are bang on... and it's not just the tech industry. I work for an energy company and some of our trade shows are probably worse. Come to think of it, I won't take my pre-teen daughter to some supposed "family' restaurants because the waitresses dress like "escorts".

Jack Daniel said...

OK, thanks for the clarification. Personally I see a big difference between a speaker submitting a talk, having it accepted on technical merit, then choosing her (or his) attire and someone choosing the attire to get attention at a trade show. In the first case, they are given attention by virtue of passing a vetting process, in the second by their clothing or lack thereof.

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Anonymous said...

I think you are rationalizing.

Or, extending where you seem to be going, would you be fine with a company that dressed up their attractive female employees (smart, vetted) in bikini's instead of hiring "booth babes"?

Jack Daniel said...

Hmmm, you raise an interesting challenge. I don't think it is rationalizing, Georgia already was going to have people's attention- she was chosen as a speaker and had the podium regardless of attire. I think that is different from pleather-clad models without technical competence (at least in IT/InfoSec skills) who get attention because of attire (or lack thereof).

As far as what is "appropriate" attire in what context, I'm someone who dresses up by putting on my good Carhartts- I'm staying out of fashion.

Anonymous said...

Also being a white, heterosexual male, I probably shouldn't chime in. I'm very empathetic, but there are limits to accurately understanding something like this (kinda like talking racism to a minority).

I think there's a slight difference between sexism and the booth babe issue (which honestly can be expanded to strippers at vendor parties, yes?).

In one case, it is clearly demeaning and offensive and uncalled for. With booth babes, is it demeaning or just a "look at us over here" marketing effort?

I do like Jessica's mention that she feels uncomfortable, and that's maybe indicative enough that it is demeaning or at least sending the wrong message. In which case, this isn't a discussion anymore (hence why I tend not to chime in, since my opinion really doesn't matter compared to the ladies).

Still, I think the whole booth babe thing is a marketing problem; a business function that just wants eyeballs and attention. And hopefully businesses that don't want to be associated with that, send the correct message to their marketing partners.

I've also known businesses that won't necessarily have "booth babes" in the traditional sense, but the employees manning the booths ARE good looking and specifically sent to such events for that reason. They talk just enough about the business to get contacts, but that's about it. Of course, maybe they're in marketing partly because of this "talent" anyway?

Then again, people shouldn't be penalized for being pretty. And if I had a stripper's body, I'd maybe happily flaunt it if I could (speaking from a guy's point of view).

I guess the only important opinions are:
-ladies in the audience
-the booth babes in question
-anyone influenced by such an environment or the resultant tone

The sexism topic is a far darker issue than "just" booth babes.


Anonymous said...

There was a huge debate over this in the IETF about a month ago. Very on topic. However, while the majority (if not a totality) of booth eye candy is female, I don't think it is inherently unfair. As long as us guys are okay with an equal number of similarly dressed male models. We could get into the evolutionary psych differences between male and female reactions to visual erotic stimuli (sex sells for men a lot more effectively) but it would still gain a decent draw from female engineers I would assume. However, I don't think the skin marketing is driven by inherent sexism, but rather a generic assessment that there are far more men than women, and losing the womens' interest in favour of the males' is a decent business trade off. The same assessment could probably be applied to ethnicity and the models as well.

Skyline of Canada said...

The booth babe is an interesting strategy, but as you have shown it definitely turns some people off and the success of using a booth babe really varies.