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Booth Babe May 3, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, work.
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Last week, before leaving for a conference, I posted the following on Twitter:

Now that I’m back, I realize that comment should’ve been taken as a bad omen.  I actually didn’t expect there to be booth babes (and if you’re not sure what I’m referring to, please read this), but I was very wrong about that.  There were, in fact, booth babes at the show.

I went to this conference because I was invited to give a talk about my research.  However, my employer said they would provide my room and board for the trip if I helped work a booth at the trade show promoting our services and capabilities.  We frequently work with private industry, and it was assumed that having a handful of intelligent people showing what we could do is good for the bottom line.  I’m in favor of having an income and love talking about my work, so this seemed like a reasonable deal for me, as well.

But back to the booth babes, I’m sad to report that this was not the most disturbing part of working our booth.  The most disturbing part was interacting with some of the people who came to visit us, many of whom apparently have interacted with them.  I was chatting with a fellow, and toward the end of the conversation, I gave him my card.  He read it and said, “Oh!  You’re an engineer?”  I responded I was, and he then asked, “And you actually work at the center?”

Then there was one person who was talking to a colleague about one of my demo projects at the booth.  When the guy asked this colleague for a card, he said he didn’t have any but said it was my project.  The visitor looked at me for a moment, open mouthed, and said, “This is YOUR project?”  I nodded and introduced myself, and gave him my business card.  He looked back and forth between myself and my colleague a few times, looking like he wanted to give me back my card.  Then he said thank you and walked away.  He apparently didn’t want to have a conversation with me.

Admittedly, these were some of the worst cases, but it was obvious that about half of the people who came to talk to us had no desire to talk to me, asking to talk to someone who was “in charge.”  Others, when I approached them while they were reading our posters, would say they were waiting to talk to an engineer or faculty.

One colleague, when I complained about the situation, said I need to just “prove them wrong.”  I agree that this is the right spirit to have, but it is overwhelmingly frustrating when you’re sitting there, and someone obviously comes to the conclusion that you’re an idiot by virtue of your sex while the people around you are obviously competent for the same reason.  It’s a horrible experience, and I seriously doubt most men really understand how hard it is to be motivated to ‘prove them wrong’ when you have to do it with every single person you meet.  Men, in similar circumstances, are accorded this respect simply by breathing.  It certainly doesn’t require the equivalent effort a female would have to put forth.

I will say that it is somewhat understandable that people would make the assumption that I’m a salesperson given that most of the women on the trade show floor were, in fact salespeople…or booth babes.  In many cases, it ended up that once people got over the surprise that they were talking to a living, breathing, female engineer, we were able to move on and have some extremely interesting conversations.  Unfortunately, the shocked look every time I was introduced as a researcher got old very quickly.

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1. John Schuch - May 4, 2013

Well I understand what you’re saying, and I think I get what you’re feeling, but having spent the first half of my career attending trade shows and the second half doing booth duty I have to say you’re partially missing the point and kind of ‘doing it wrong.’

The point you’re missing is that if you’re doing booth duty you ARE in sales (marketing). Doesn’t matter what your title is or how many degrees you have, your function at that point is to promote your group and make money happen. So, given that, someone approaching your booth and presuming you are a sales person is not entirely incorrect.

Having attended a few hundred conferences and trade shows, and not being terribly unique, here are my presumptions when approaching a booth: Everyone in here is a sales droid and they know nothing more than I could find myself reading their slick brochures. My mission (for most booths) was to quickly assess if what you’re doing applies to what I’m doing, grab a card or brochure with a website listed on it, maybe swipe some of your candy, and get out of dodge.

So, given that the attendees presume you’re a sales person because you’re there, and presume you’re not that technically aware of what your showing because you’re in sales, what are YOU doing to correct that situation?

I’ve said the same line thousands of times; “Hi, I’m John Schuch, Applications Engineer for XYZ.” If you had that whole conversation with the guy you mentioned above and he didn’t know you were an engineer, it’s not HIS fault! You can not expect anyone to know anything about you that you have not communicated.

The guy that was ‘waiting to talk to an engineer’? The right answer for you was “Well this is your lucky day! I’m Cherish….”

Maybe it’s tougher for a woman, maybe not. But as I was told a long time ago, you can actively promote yourself, or passively become bitter and left behind.

Oh, and by the way, you should never be sitting in the booth if attendees are in the hall.

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mareserinitatis - May 4, 2013

As far as the guys ‘waiting to talk to engineers’, that is in fact, how I handled it. “Well, you’re in luck. I happen to be one!”

This is the first show where I’ve had to work a booth, so it was very much a learning experience. I had assumed that since most of the people I know who are in sales come from an engineering background, that would also be the case here. It may or may not be true given I never had the opportunity to walk around and assess the situation first hand, but it was obvious that it was not the assumption everyone else was making.

I think you’re right about how to approach people and will try that in the future. I always would start out asking if people had questions. (I actually did work sales in a retail store for a while, so this was my standard approach.) We’d start talking, and then I’d give them my card near the end of the discussion, which is when it would come up that I was actually an engineer. Next time, I’ll start out with introductions, and maybe this will keep people from veering off toward my male colleagues.

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mareserinitatis - May 4, 2013

In thinking a bit more about it, it makes sense that the sales people I know come from a technical background because we’re usually buying test equipment from them.

That being said, my husband was also working the booth, and no one ever expressed surprise to find out that he was an engineer, and he never introduced himself as one, either.

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2. John Schuch - May 4, 2013

One more thing ….. your colleague that had an entire conversation with a visitor about your project and didn’t introduce you till the end, is a putz.

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mareserinitatis - May 4, 2013

I may have been talking with someone else, so he was handling this person until I became available. I can’t remember for sure.

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3. Cop Car - May 17, 2013

Frustration, thy name is being female and an engineer. It isn’t every day when a company has enough confidence in the people skills of a technical person to put her/him “out front” on display.

I agree that it is well to lead off with an introduction that includes a smattering of your credentials. Otherwise, people tend to get rattled and feel that they’ve been sandbagged – when they learn that you are not just window dressing.

Hang in!

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mareserinitatis - May 20, 2013

Thanks. In the future, I’ll try to lead off with an intro. 🙂

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Cop Car - June 28, 2013

I found this video on the subject via Slashdot.org.
http://NO.JAVASCRIPT#ooid=ZoYWh1YzrAmq8BOVNq0kGpBEYoRVENHH

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mareserinitatis - June 28, 2013

Do you have a different link? This one doesn’t seem to work.

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Cop Car - June 28, 2013
mareserinitatis - July 2, 2013

It worked. thanks!

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4. Ambassador for the engineers | FCIWYPSC - May 22, 2013

[…] writing about my experience manning a booth at a conference (geez…even how you work a booth at a conference can be phrased in male-centric terms), it has […]

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5. Booth Babes – Should You Use Them? : - June 7, 2013

[…] that they’re not “proper” staff, they’re just there to look decorative. As this writer points out, your female sales staff are likely to get ignored or get chatted up, and don’t […]

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