Booth Babe May 3, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, work.
Tags: conference, feminism, sexism, stereotypes, trade show
Last week, before leaving for a conference, I posted the following on Twitter:
So if I’m working our booth at the conference, does that make me a booth babe?(That IS a joke, BTW.)
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.