‘Booth Babes’ prove sexism is alive and well in big business

Have you ever been to a professional trade show? While it’s certainly full of booths and businesses hawking their wares, there’s one angle people rarely think about: sexy, objectified women.

Yes, no matter how much progress women may have made in the business world, we still live in a structure where the underlying societal norm is that men are expected to handle business and women are paid to look pretty.

My first experience at a large-scale professional trade show was in Frankfurt, Germany. The city’s event center is roughly the size of your average German rural village and, for the week-long lighting and interior design fair that is held there every two years, the place functions as sort of a town center, as well. Temporary food stands and medical centers are set up, salespeople push their products while visitors catch up on what’s new in the business over a coffee or Saran-wrapped sandwich. The cultural setting quickly comes to mirror what one would find outside the convention center’s doors and, unfortunately, so does the social structure.

As a female sales representative at an event such as this, one already immediately feels conspicuous. Greatly outnumbered by men and already overwhelmed by the unfortunate realization that business remains an old boys’ club no matter where you are, be it Frankfurt, Germany, or Las Vegas, Nevada. In my first day “womaning” my company’s small booth, I had been looked at condescendingly by engineers as I explained the technology behind our product and had been visited frequently by a well-meaning young man who, throughout the day, brought colleagues to come look at me, his elected crush for the week.

All of this was bearable and, unfortunately not wholly unexpected to a certain extent, but what really blew my mind were the booth babes.

“Do they still do that?” my colleague asked our CFO when he told us a Belgian company had brought some babes with them on the road. “You can’t miss them,” he affirmed, “They’re wearing neon green spandex unitards.”

“Booth Babes” are an unfortunate vestige of the days of fraternizing and three martini lunches in the business world, when men were expected to handle business and women were paid to look pretty. Despite the fact that it has been shown that booth babes don’t work, some companies still insist on hiring “marketing events consultants,” or hot college girls to wear suggestive clothing and hover around your booth for the duration of the event, with the intent of luring visitors in to promote a company’s products.

While some organizations, such as the Seattle-based PAX gaming show, have been progressive enough to ban booth babes at their events (also not allowed: drugs and punching or kicking people), booth babes remain a common sight wherever businessmen convene. Embracing what author Stephanie Coontz calls “the hottie mystique,” some staffing service companies now send promotional e-mails with subject lines like one I recently received from a company called Live Talent which announced: “The past: Booth Babes. The future: Beauty AND Brains!”

The message this sends is that brains are only a desirable quality in women if the woman happens to also be a babe. Despite the fact that women represent a growing number of Fortune 500 CEO positions, the world of business retains its boys’ club mentality in many respects, proving it’s not enough to be LinkedIn, but women also have to lean in and if that doesn’t work — a skimpy spandex outfit will get you in the door.

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Photo credit: ranplett/iStock/360/Getty Images


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