That women are treated as objects to be exploited at IT conferences and trade shows is hardly anything new. There is a storied tradition of companies using "booth babes" to get the attention of predominantly male attendees at IT events. It's nothing more than a harmless acknowledgement of the simple fact that sex sells, some argue, so making a big deal about it is a needless exercise in political correctness. But what do they say when that culture of exploitation is interpreted as a license to engage in sexual assault?
Sexual assault at IT events happens, and it almost certainly happens more often than it comes to light. That's why so many people were so heartened when Noirin Shirley, a technical writer at Google, had the courage to disclose in her blog that she had been the victim of an assault during last month's ApacheCon event in Atlanta. Here's an excerpt from Shirley's account:
He brought me in to the snug [a small, private room in a pub] and sat up on a stool. He grabbed me, pulled me in to him, and kissed me. I tried to push him off, and told him I wasn't interested (I may have been less eloquent, but I don't think I was less clear). He responded by jamming his hand into my underwear and fumbling. I broke away, headed back to the group, and hid behind some of the bigger, burlier infra guys
Shirley reported the incident to the police, and the case is under investigation. Now we're left to ask, how could this have happened and how can it be prevented from happening again?
Clearly, people do stupid things everywhere and on any occasion, so the fact that this particular assault occurred during an IT event and involved IT people can't be extrapolated to infer that it happened because it was during an IT event and involved IT people. That said, I have an experience of my own to share that might at least contribute to the how-can-this-happen discussion.
In 2007, I wrote a column titled "Using Women" that dealt with something that took place at the Gartner Symposium/ITXpo in Orlando that year. In a nutshell:
One of the exhibitors, Vanco, a U.K.-based network service provider, set up a display with a boxing theme, complete with a half-scale boxing ring that featured two inappropriately attired women. Michael Piddock, Vanco's group marketing manager, described the women as 'ring girls' who were there 'to create the complete boxing experience.'
I went on to speak out against the poor judgment of Vanco in arranging the spectacle and of Gartner for allowing it. The column drew a lot of e-mails from readers who expressed a range of views on the matter, but there was one in particular I'll never forget. Here it is, in its entirety:
Nice try Don, but women are not going to flock to your 'manly but sensitive' door ready to give themselves to you. The jig is up on the 'sex and drugs and rock-n-roll' generation's attempt at telling everyone they cannot do what we did. The politically correct manure wagon ran off the trail and over the cliff. People are no longer willing to let the news media tell them what is acceptable and what is not. If naked women offend you, then you and your boyfriend should leave. We don't really care what offends who. The world can't, because a cure for cancer would offend someone. If I have offended anyone, place your thumbs (assuming you have thumbs) in the appropriate areas, wait a minute, then switch! Grow up, sex sells. Always has and always will. It seems real men enjoy the semi-nude female figure, and it took a company from the U.K. to put it back and say it is okay to be a normal man. America, you are such a mess. So are you, Don.
The e-mail was so ignorant on so many levels that it's difficult to know where to begin in any analysis of it. But what I found most troubling about it was the "it is okay to be a normal man" line. What, I would ask, is a "normal man"? Is it a man who simply doesn't care that the female attendees at a conference might feel insulted or dismissed by a vendor's use of scantily-clad women to attract men to their booths? Is it a man who sees no harm in a friendly smooch and panty-grope after a hard day at the conference?
Hopefully, Shirley's willingness to share her experience, and the awareness that it has created, have brought us a step closer to the point where a "normal man" is one who respects women enough to be committed to preserving their dignity the way he wants his own dignity to be preserved. Men in any profession have the capacity to set the example in that regard. Why shouldn't it be IT?