Cheerleader outfits and weird looks: I went to the biggest tech industry conference of the year for the first time, and it’s clear CES still has a woman problem

  • CES, an annual tech trade show, took place in Las Vegas last week.
  • Despite months of attention paid to sexual harassment and misconduct in the tech world and beyond, the show still featured “booth babes,” scantily clad women working the parties, and zero women giving keynote addresses.
  • The male-dominated show has a lot of work to do in order to become more inclusive for women.

I had heard the stories long before I ever attended CES: the “booth babes,” the hordes of men, and the parties where women were asked to dress in suggestive costumes.

But I thought things would be different this year. Since the last CES, we’ve seen the rise of the #MeToo movement, which has encouraged women to share their stories of harassment and assault. Men in positions of power at venture capital firms and tech companies have lost their careers over allegations of sexual misconduct and gender bias, and the business world – and beyond – is paying closer attention than ever before to appropriate workplace behavior. The general feeling lately has been, at least from where I sit, that treating women badly will no longer be tolerated.

Because of all that, I thought the world’s biggest tech show would have changed, too. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Booth babes and cheerleaders

I arrived in Las Vegas on Monday, and when I walked into my first CES event that night, I saw groups of young women in cheerleader uniforms working the party. There were no men in cheerleader uniforms – actually, I’m not sure there were any men working the party at all. I attended the party with two male colleagues, both of whom were equally appalled.

By the end of the night, groups of men were clustered around the cheerleaders, and they didn’t appear to be asking them about the free tote bags. The kicker was that when I walked by two of the women talking among themselves, the only words I overheard were “sexual harassment.”

When I arrived at one of the showroom floors the next morning, the first booth I saw was run by women in bright blue, skin-tight, off-the-shoulder dresses and towering high heels. They looked beautiful, but I can’t imagine they picked those outfits out for themselves.

On day two, I showed up to a product demo early in the morning. In a parking lot full of about 30 startup engineers, I was the only woman as far as the eye could see.

And of course, there were the famous robot strippers. Vegas is Vegas, so the fact that strip clubs are a key fixture of the landscape and that they figure into the industry conferences that take place in the city is not exactly shocking. But the bizarre CES attraction on display at the Sapphire club – naked robotic women with screens and cameras instead of heads – was the perfect embodiment of the problem with the conference.

And then there were the little things. The last year has made me hyper-aware of how men treat me in professional situations, since I realized – as I think a lot of women did – that there’s so much we brush off for the sake of our careers. I vowed to pay closer attention to those little interactions and comments this year, and there was no shortage of material at CES.

Take the name tag, for instance. All CES attendees are required to wear name tags around their neck that say their names. This is helpful in a lot of situations, but not when you’re a woman in a sea of men. For women, displaying your name prominently like that gives people license to act like they know you. Strangers would eye me up and down and say things like, “Hey there, Avery” as I walked past.

Another day, I was working in one of the media rooms when someone approached me and asked if I was in the middle of working on a story. I pointedly said yes, but he ignored me, then peered directly down into my lap where my name badge was dangling, and said, “Oh, I just love your publication.” I handed him my card in hopes he’d leave soon, and then he texted me several times that night and the next day.

He may simply have been an overzealous PR person trying to push whatever product or company he represented. But that’s the the problem with creating an environment where women aren’t treated as equals — it’s difficult to gauge what “normal” is.

Throughout the show, I would approach men at their booths to ask questions, and they’d look at me like an alien had just asked them to explain their product. They wouldn’t look me in the eye, and they’d barely shake my hand. I thought it was just me, until I ran into a friend on my last day. She was handling PR for a company showing at CES, and as we sat down for a minute to catch up, she turned to me and said, “Isn’t it so weird how the men here don’t understand how to treat women?”

If this past week taught me anything, it’s that the men of CES were comfortable ogling all the women, but they weren’t always comfortable treating us like equals.

Work to be done

People may say that CES has been around long before I was even born – that decades of history precedes my four days there. That’s true.

People may also say that there are plenty of men who work in tech who attend shows like CES and don’t treat women badly or make them feel uncomfortable. That’s true too. The majority of my experiences over the last week were professional and pleasant.

But the fact remains that for the second year in a row, there were no women scheduled to give keynote addresses at the show. There seemed to be significantly fewer women covering the show than men. And despite months of attention paid to the ways, big and small, that women are subjected to mistreatment because of their gender, companies still trotted out the booth babes and handed out cheerleader uniforms.

So until all my experiences at CES – and the experiences of every other woman present – feel equal and inclusive, there’s still work to be done.