Why I chose to speak at a tech event which had booth babes

It was only a week ago that I wrote a blog entitled “where are all the women in tech” having been at New Zealand’s largest tech conference as one of only 13 females out of a total of 117 speakers. Not ideal, but moving in the right direction and working hard to create a safe place for smart females to feel respected and valued.

Last weekend I was scheduled to be one of two female speakers at the Digital NationZ Expo, a family friendly event that fills an arena with the newest technology and games.  My talk was about the power of nanotechnology in our gadgets and devices and covered everything from why aluminium atomic slip theory was responsible for the iPhone 6 bending through to quantum theory explaining the potential power of Q-dots.

It was all going to plan until my twitter feed exploded with people frantically tagging me in conversations about sexism at the expo I was about to speak at.

Screenshot from the Netguide facebook page advertising booth babes promoting Techday

Screenshot from the Netguide facebook page advertising booth babes promoting Techday

There, on my twitter timeline was a photo of two young girls wearing very skimpy bikinis at one of the booths in the expo. I felt like I had gone back in time to the days when booth babes used to sprawl themselves over cars luring men in to the arena.

I’m pretty sure Netguide didn’t do their market research which shows that 45% to 48% of gamers are female and at a predominately gaming conference, they were pushing away half of the attendees.  As a female gamer, and a female engineer myself I can tell you that bikini clad girls will not entice me into your booth.  However, the bigger question to ask is what sort of message was this sending to our daughters about their value and to our sons about respecting females?  This was a family event, there were lots of smart curious children excited about interacting with new technology, and yet the message they were being sent was that success for females is through selling their bodies over their brains.  It goes against everything I do as NanoGirl promoting confidence in young girls and encouraging them to take an interest in science and technology.

Being a woman in tech, attending an event with booth babes creates an environment where I’m made to feel that the perception of a woman’s purpose is just to be an attractive object which decorates a stall.  That the endless bare skin and cleavage are meant to be only use for a girls body and her intelligence is never even considered or questioned.  It instantly creates a space where women are made to feel conscious of their bodies and that they are not respected or welcomed as an equal, but instead just seen as an objectified product.

Why on earth would women feel safe working in the tech field if this type of sexist mentality is allowed?

It seems that Techday agreed and back in January published an article titled “Why booth babes don’t work” which discussed research by Spencer Chen showing from a marketing perspective that there is no advantage to using scantily clad females to sell your product at shows.

So I had to make a decision, should I stand down as a speaker in protest against an expo that allowed this sexist behaviour?

I felt that I needed to take a stand, I’m a female who is constantly discussing the difficulties of being taken seriously and as an equal in the tech field.  However, this was not an easy decision as by standing down, I would now reduce the number of female speakers at the event from two to one over the whole weekend, and I would also let down members of the public who I knew were coming to see my talk.

I needed to do some digging to make my decision, and so spoke to the event manager Peter Hall who I have been friends with for many years and who I knew was an avid supporter of women in tech.  His response was anger, anger that the exhibitor had specifically gone against written and verbal instructions that booth babes were not allowed at the event.  I checked with other vendors at the event and when I spoke to Joanna Graham from Logitech, she was adamant that Pete had not only e-mailed them with strict instructions that there were to be no booth babes but he also verbally clarified that this was clear when she said she was bringing an event team.

Knowing that the event was anti-booth babes and that both written and verbal instructions had been sent out, I wondered why anybody would violate such specific rules and was surprised to find out Netguide was an official part of the Techday network, the same network that published the article against booth babes only 9 months prior.

Surely this was just some sort of mistake, perhaps the events agency that the girls were ordered from mixed up the type of children friendly event that Digital NationZ is with some alcohol fueled nightclub event.  So I called Michaiah Simmons from Deluxe events and asked about the process of renting female brand ambassadors for events like Digital NationZ.  She told me that every client specifically requests the type of clothing that her ambassador girls wear for the event, if they ask for jeans and t-shirts then they get that, if they specifically ask for bikinis then they come in those.  Her girls do not come in bikinis as standard, they have to be specifically requested from the client.  This means that Netguide must have specifically asked for bikinis for the girls on the first day of the expo, which is when the media first saw them. Deluxe events supplied two companies with brand ambassadors at the conference that weekend, Netguide and Harvey Norman Direct, both were dressed to the specifications that each company requested.  From the facebook photo’s below you can see which company ordered which specific outfit.

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Photographs of brand ambassadors ordered from Deluxe Events taken from their facebook page showing girls ordered to work at the Digital NationZ conference

Going against the rules of Digital NationZ, a different set of bikini clad girls were brought in on the first day for the public (the previous day was a media only day), and only when the public started to complain via social media did they address the issue, one whole day later.  In my humble opinion, it would have been easy to ask the girls to come fully dressed on the second day of the expo if you were serious about complying with the rules, to have them come again in bikinis and then scramble to find t-shirts to cover them with seems like a difficult argument to believe as was pointed out by Amy Shand in this tweet:

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Twitter conversation showing Digital NationZ’s strong stance against booth babes, and Netguide saying the issue was resolved this morning, even though the request was put in the day before.

I’m not against booth babes in principle, and I understand that using females to interact with customers can be an effective sales tool, but there are ways to do it which show off women for their knowledge and Sony lead the way at the Tokyo Game show this week.  Instead of promoting their female brand ambassadors by their lack of clothing, the women in Sony’s booths knew their products inside and out and were able to guide attendees though difficult parts in games, advising on strategy due to their vast knowledge of the new games that were being demonstrated.  It was obvious to attendee Iain Garner that Sony had prioritised staff training and knowledge over shorter skirts.

booth babe

Sony provided smart, trained, fully clothed females for their exhibit at the Tokyo Game show this week, where males were impressed by their depth and breath of product knowledge. (Photo Source Games in Asia)

So after a lot of digging, I was happy that the conference itself supported women in technology and did not support booth babes with the violation being carried out by one single exhibitor which was dealt with.  I made suggestions to the event organiser that there should be a clear code of conduct made publicly available so that all attendees and speakers knew the the official stance of the event, and suggested they read a few from other tech events including one of my favourites Gather which they immediately did.  I turned up for my talk and was overwhelmed by the interest in the topic, including a whole group of the audience who came up to me after the show to ask more questions and look at the demonstration materials I had brought to show science and technology principles.

Giving my talk about nanotechnology powering our future gadgets and devices at Digital Nation

Giving my talk about nanotechnology powering our future gadgets and devices at Digital NationZ, no bikini required! (Photo credit Walter Lim)

I’m grateful to the community on twitter for creating an immediate awareness highlighting the issue to put pressure on the company to dress their girls.  What would have been mostly ignored 10 years ago was now covered by media sources in New Zealand including TV, newspapers and news radio channels.  The public is starting to have a voice through the power of social media and they voted with their purchasing power by not attending the event, due to it being tainted by this sexism, and negatively impacted other companies who had chosen to exhibit there respectfully.

I am yet to see any official apology from TechDay or NetGuide regarding their stance and explaining their thoughts behind their decision.  Although they did tweet an apology, I do not think that justifies the serious nature of the issue and am hoping to see an explanation on their website soon.

It’s sad that we are still having these conversations in this day and age, but hopefully it’s creating an awareness for what is no longer acceptable and how to promote females for their intelligence and knowledge in the tech environment so that we can encourage more girls to study science and engineering and keep the women already in these fields in an environment that allows them to feel safe and smart.

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Nanotechnology gives super sensitive touch for early breast cancer detection

Breast Cancer is New Zealand’s 3rd most common cancer and in the US, almost 40,000 women died from breast cancer last year.

Women are encouraged to self examine their breasts so that they become aware of any changes or lumps which may appear at which point they are advised to visit a medical professional where a clinical breast exam (CBE) will be carried out.

This involves a doctor or a nurse using their hands to examine the patients breasts using their fingers to try and feel any lumps or bumps under the skin.  If something is found, then the next step is to refer the patient to a mammogram or to have a biopsy.

The big issue is that due to the poor sensitivity of the human hand, clinical breast exams typically don’t find a lump until they are 21mm in length, yet early detection is crucial as if a cancerous lump is found in the breast when it is only 10mm it improves a patient’s survival rate by more than 94% compared to patients that do not have early detection of tumours.

In my Radio Live interview last week I discussed a new nanotechnology film that is being dubbed “electronic skin” which could help to create an image of objects that lie underneath breast tissue.

Imagine a thin strip of plastic being placed over your breast and the doctor carrying out the breast examination over the strip creating a savable image of any lumps within your breast.  A different doctor could then carry out the same test over a film a few months later and could compare it to the previous results.  This type of reporting has not been possible using standard breast examinations because the results are qualitative and very much based on what the doctor feels and records which could vary by their experience level and touch sensitivity.

Created by Chieu Van Nguyen and Professor Ravi Saraf from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, this thin film was created and put to the test by placing lumps of objects inside a piece of silicone to simulate a tumour within the breast tissue.

In lab tests, using the same amount of pressure that a doctor would use in a clinical breast exam, the thin film device was able to successfully identify lumps down to 5mm in diameter and up to 20mm in depth which far exceeded what human touch would be able to detect.

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The 150nm film was able to image subsurface objects in silicone identifying their shape and size.  Image adapted from original paper

Their research published in the journal American Chemical Society Applied Materials & Interfaces  describes how their 150nm ‘skin’ is filled with alternating sandwich layers of gold and cadmium sulfide nanoparticles.  These nanolayers have a constant bias of 18 volts across them and when the surface of the film was touched, the pressure from the finger touching them converted the local pushing force into a buckling within the film layers diverting the current.  This film was connected to an electro-optical device which measured the change in current from the buckling and converted it to an optical signal where the variation in light emission created an image on a camera (as shown in the blue image on the right).

So as amazing as this technology is, it’s still in the research stage.  Ravi Saraf estimates that a prototype device could be made within a year at the cost of about  $1.5 million however no reports have been made regarding and securing of funding for commercialisation yet.

Where are all the women in tech?

My keynote at the Microsoft Teched Conference

My keynote at the Microsoft Teched Conference

I’m just winding down from the fantastic Microsoft TechEd conference last week and was lucky enough to be one of the keynote speakers in front of an audience of over 2500 at the Vector arena.

However, there was something startlingly different about me compared to the other keynote speakers. It wasn’t because I was the youngest or the shortest. It wasn’t because I was a hardware engineer rather than a software one. It wasn’t because I was the only non-Microsoft affiliate or the only academic. It was because I was a woman, the only woman on stage as even both of the MC’s were male which is something that we females who work as a minority gender in an industry really notice.

Photograph taken of audience members at TechEd conference

Photograph taken of audience members at TechEd conference as published in Computer World

The difference was obvious, as I stared out towards the huge audience, I saw a sea of males with a few of the 3% female attendees scattered through the crowd.

This was New Zealand’s largest tech conference, boasting its largest female attendee number ever, yet to me 3% was nowhere near enough. The organizing committee worked really hard and gave a huge positive push to encourage more women to attend and speak, but the numbers spoke for themselves, not just at the conference, but as the 2013 census data shows, in the industry as a whole.

So where are all the women, and why are they not in tech? The job market is booming, I’m constantly hearing from ICT CEO’s about their struggle to find talent in New Zealand as they move to recruiting from overseas to find skilled candidates.

However, our problem is twofold and not about just encouraging girls into the pipeline to study STEM subjects which the new ‘science in society‘ National Science challenge is aiming to do.  More importantly, we need to make sure we retain these women in the male dominated tech sector once they graduate.

So does having a female speaker at a conference make a difference, and if so how can we get more women to speak?

Based on the feedback I received from other female attendee’s it made a huge difference. Women came up to me throughout the week and thanked me for helping them to feel that they were welcome at the conference and emphasized that they were much more comfortable asking questions in sessions where the talk was given by a woman.

Conference organisers please take note, women like to feel welcome and when we are, we interact more and feel less intimidated. A recent study showed that the number of female speakers at a conference could be increased by simply adding a female to the conference organizing committee.  Our voice is just as important and we can often give a unique perspective based on our different experiences.

Dad’s often approach me asking how they can encourage their little girl to take more interest in science and technology and my answer is always the same.

Make it fun, make it creative and give your child the freedom to learn that failure is sometimes the best way to learn how to make things better.

It’s time to remove the stereotype and show our daughters (and sons) that there are women in tech, that they love what they do and there are a whole range of disciplines that are fun and exciting. Learning to code using angry birds or creating your own flappy bird game is easy through code.org, one of my favourite ways of combining coding with characters familiar to children. Visit your local library as many of them are being filled with 3D printers so your children can learn to draw in CAD and print out something unique. Go home and take apart an old device or computer to nurture a curiosity for how things work.

Also don’t forget that as a man you can really help the issue but taking a stand against speaking at events with only male panel members.

I’m grateful to TechEd for really making an effort to try and encourage more women to take part, but I think there is so much more that needs to be done to try and balance the gender diversity in the tech field.