At CES, Women Executives Are Still Mistaken for Booth Babes
But there are pros and cons to being a woman in what is still a male-dominated space.
"Booth babes" pose at CES. Photo: Kaleigh Rogers/Motherboard
As the two models posed, pantless and grinning, for the photo above, a man walking by side-elbowed his colleague and nodded towards the women.
"I wish I brought my camera," he slobbered.
Booth babes are a staple at the annual Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. Around every corner, scantily-clad models bounce on high-tech fitness machines or hand out freebies while giving perky, well-rehearsed explanations of how a VPN works.
And while some people hopefully claim that they're going the way of the dodo, there was no shortage of women-as-props at this year's CES and a decided absence of Abercrombie-esque shirtless males to balance out the objectification.
These models were not the only women at the show, though. There were plenty of bright female journalists, researchers, engineers, business moguls, and CEOs bustling around the show floor and hosting intelligent panels about the future. But it was clear from a glance the women were greatly outnumbered by men in this realm.
So what's it like for these CEOs to navigate a space where women are underrepresented and, when they are represented, often objectified?
"Not everyone thinks that I and my employees work for the company," Betsy Fore, the 28-year-old founder and CEO of Wondermento, told me.
"They're coming up to us and we're in our 20s and female and they make assumptions, so I hope we're getting out of that now," she said. "That's been really interesting."
Her company was debuting its dog-tracking wearable, Wonderwoof, so Fore and her colleagues were decked out in matching dog-print dresses that she hemmed herself. She said people kept mistaking them for booth babes, instead of the company executives. But Fore laughed it off and said she's proud that being a female-led company makes them stand out.
You have to leverage the hell out of your womanhood
Julia Hu, the founder and CEO of Lark Industries, hasn't been mistaken for a booth babe, but has been to CES many times. Her company makes an app that tracks user's health and fitness activity and then offers suggestions to improve through a virtual chat buddy.
She said she didn't think there's been much change in the presence of women at the show over the years. Hu said the barriers to women entering into STEM fields are subtle and pervasive.
"As an Asian female, I was always taught to listen and be respectful of everyone's opinions," Hu told me. "I didn't raise my hand to ask questions in school because I thought that was taking up other people's precious time."
She also said women leaders tend to have a different management style that some people might not view as confident or aggressive enough in such a competitive industry.
For Lauren Costantini, the president and CEO of Prima-Temp, the emphasis and distinction placed on female business leaders is unnecessary and prohibitive. Her company makes an intravaginal ring that has a temperature sensor to help women track their fertility, and being in the women's health field of technology means the fact that Costantini is a woman gets emphasized even more, she told me.
"I've been in the biotech field for many years and when people would ask me to come talk about women executives I would always say: 'Stop calling us women executives. Start just calling us executives,'" Costantini said.
"People sometimes over analyze it," she added. "The barriers are not as high, I don't think, as they were years ago."
But Costantini said she is supportive of encouraging girls to take an interest in STEM at a young age, so the next generation will be more likely to pursue those paths.
For 29-year-old Hu, being singled out as a woman executive isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"Look, it's obvious that I'm female and I think that there are benefits to being a female," she said, saying a mentor once gave her some advice about being a woman in tech that has stuck with her.
"I didn't want to leverage my young, Asian, female status. I just wanted it to be about the company. She said: 'Julia, if I can give you a piece of advice, you have to leverage the hell out of your womanhood,'" Hu recalled.
"It is a differentiator for us and there are good things that come with that and there are bad things that come with that."