What it’s like to attend CES as a woman

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CES 2018John Locher/AP

  • 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.


CES 2018John Locher/AP

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.  



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