LAS VEGAS — For decades, companies have recruited attractive women to draw attention to their products at CES, tech's largest trade show.
The number of "promotional models" or "booth babes" — the term coined for women whose job it is to lure foot traffic at CES — has declined in recent years. But paid female models, sometimes clad in skintight or skimpy clothes, are still a fixture for this show, an uncomfortable reminder to some women in tech of the everyday sexism they encounter in the male-dominated industry.
At the Orion Car Audio booth, Ivette Flores and three other women in tight black and red outfits, with their midriffs bared, danced and posed for pictures for attendees who had wandered into a section of the Las Vegas Convention Center featuring cars and stacks of speakers.
Orion general manager Edgar Cedeno, who hired the women at a day rate of $250, says it’s not about being sexist but about breaking the ice with conventioneers.
“The girls are giving out (product materials). My girls are well covered. They’re not showing more than they’re supposed to ... nothing too sexy,” he said.
Flores would prefer to be called a "booth model" than a "booth babe."
“You’re not always going to look this way, and if you can find your way to monetize it without jeopardizing your character and having people respect your boundaries then you should do it," she said.
A few minutes later, those boundaries were crossed when a man reached around and grabbed her buttocks as she took a picture with him.
That kind of behavior — which Flores said she quickly stopped — contributes to the pernicious sexism that women in tech say keeps them from advancing or even entering the industry at all.
The “Elephant in the Valley” survey found that nearly all of the 200-plus senior women in tech who responded had experienced sexist interactions, with 60% of them being subjected to unwanted sexual advances.
Last year marked a breakthrough moment for women speaking out about tech's boys club. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was forced to step down, in part, for fostering a corporate culture in which sexual harassment was tolerated. The same fate befell several prominent venture capitalists who were accused of making unwanted sexual advances.
This year that cultural reckoning came to CES, which was slapped with the hashtag #CESSoMale for the anemic representation of women. About 20% of the attendees and a quarter of the speakers were women, and none of the headliners delivering the keynote addresses.
Executives from the Consumer Technology Association, which runs CES, have pledged to add more women to the speaker lineup in 2019. But they say they are restricted by their own policy that restricts the top slots to company presidents and CEOs, most of whom are men.
Joanna Popper, a media and technology executive who spoke on two panels, says she was so disappointed about the lack of women in visible roles at CES that she led a successful effort to recruit various women for existing all-male sessions on virtual reality. But, she says, the show floor was welcoming, and she didn't spot "booth babes."
Fewer models on the CES show floor was a relief to Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies and a regular at CES. But she says she noted an uptick in athletic women in snug, skimpy fitness gear.
"While still showing more skin than I think is necessary, it reflects what the fashion at the gym is nowadays," she said. "That said, while at the gym you might go unnoticed, it is hard to think this is the case on a show floor where most of the audience is male."
Entrepreneur Liz Klinger's theory: "Booth babes" are being replaced by "virtual babes," as in virtual reality. Klinger, whose company makes a smart vibrator, says she saw men lined up at the adult entertainment company Naughty America’s VR booth.
"Though the scantily clad models may have left, they’ve merely been replaced by the ones tech professionals can comfortably ogle at through headsets," Klinger, who's co-founder and CEO of Lioness, wrote in a post.
Models appeared at the inaugural CES in 1967 as "CES Guides," according to The Verge, which got access to the show's photo archive. The backlash began in the 1990s when Network World's Dave Breuger wrote that most of them "wouldn't know an ATM module if it bit them on their overexposed games," The Atlantic says.
In 2006, video game show E3 responded to criticism by enforcing rules around nudity and partial nudity. Peak outrage with CES "booth babes" came in 2013 when Apple accessories-company Hyper dressed topless women in body paint and skimpy thongs and encouraged people to share the photos using the hashtag #getmore.
For years CES organizers shrugged off the use of models by vendors. Consumer Technology Association CEO Gary Shapiro told the BBC in 2012 "it is a little old school, but it does work. People naturally want to go towards what they consider pretty."
But women who attended the show — particularly from 1998 to 2011 when it ran concurrently with the Adult Entertainment Expo — say the spectacle of women dancing and posing on the show floor made them feel they were not in a professional place where they would be taken seriously.
"The booth babe thing is unfortunate, and it would be ideal for CES to get rid of all of that," Lorraine Twohill, Google’s chief marketing officer told AdWeek. "I think there’s still a lot of work to be done to make CES feel inclusive of women."
Some large tech conferences have done just that. RSA, the annual cybersecurity conference in San Francisco, three years ago instituted a policy in its exhibitor contract that banned tops displaying excessive cleavage, tank tops, miniskirts, Lycra bodysuits and "objectionable or offensive costumes," an aim at making the conference respectful and welcoming to all attendees, it said.
In a statement, the Consumer Technology Association said that each company exhibiting at CES "should choose how they want to represent themselves."
"Ultimately, CES reserves the right to make determinations on appropriate exhibitor attire," the statement said. "If apparel worn by an exhibitor’s employees is deemed objectionable, we will ask the company to remove the individuals in question at the exhibitor’s expense."
At the American Bass car audio booth, Gurwin Ahuja says he hires models for a simple reason: It works.
"Given our core consumer audience, males 18 to 34, it just brings attention," said Ahuja, whose father owns the Solon, Ohio, company. "You’ve got all the biggest companies in the world competing against each other at this conference. … Every year it gets harder and harder to get attention. Everyone’s trading on attention."
On the third day of CES, the two models Ahuja hired were gone — he only brought them on for the two busiest days.
"Today’s the first day we don’t have them," he said. "Fewer people are here."