(Or any trade show, for that matter.)
Trade shows in all industries are notorious for being a spectacle with every vendor competing with the other to be the loudest, shiniest and sexiest. I’m writing to you — any of you involved in the design, staffing or operation of a booth at the upcoming NAB Show in Las Vegas — to ask you to consider how your conduct can help make the exhibit hall a more inviting and inclusive experience for everyone.
Casual sexism is a huge problem in our industry. Trade shows are merely a symptom of a larger issue but they’re a highly visible symptom. Trade shows are maybe the most face to face interactions your company will have with customers and potential customers all year, and your booth and its workers exemplify are a symbol for your company.
We all know that sex sells. You didn’t invent this concept, and at first glance it’s hard to blame a company for using what is proven, especially in a city known for debauchery and sleaze. It’s just a bit of fun, right? Except it isn’t so much fun to feel like the only way I’m being represented in my industry at a trade show is for decoration. To clarify, I have no problem with so-called “booth babes” themselves. I have a problem with a company feeling that the best way to represent their products is with a bikini show. I urge you to think beyond easy, lowest-common-denominator kinds of marketing and strive for something better. Lots of vendors have figured out how to make their booths engaging without sacrificing inclusiveness.
When you’re deciding who will staff your booth, I strongly urge you to place women and minorities in these positions too. The maleness and whiteness of NAB (and trade shows in general) is so common, it’s almost its own joke. I’ve spoken to people about how they staff their booths, and they’ve told me they didn’t think women would want to work in these positions because trade shows are so male-dominated and Vegas is so icky. This is generally an incorrect assumption. You should find women in your organization and invite them to represent your company at NAB. Just like the way you market your products stands as a symbol for your company, the diversity of your booth can represent what you want your company to be. By putting women and minorities in your booth — on stage running demos, on the floor talking about products — you send a strong message about equality to your customers, other companies, and NAB’s attendees in general. When seeing women on the show floor is more common, casual sexism takes a hit.
And if you’re working inside a booth at NAB this year, I urge you to work extra hard to put your internalized sexism aside. Since women are somewhat rare in the sea of guys (both on the show floor and in the industry), there is a tendency for booth workers to make assumptions when they interaction with a woman: that she’s a journalist, an assistant, someone’s significant other. There are plenty of journalists, assistants, and dragged-along-spouses of all genders on the show floor and it’s great to have so many perspectives, but when your first assumption to every women inside your booth is anything BUT a working professional in some area of post production who is currently seeking to learn more about your products to potentially implement them within her organization, we have a problem.
Nearly every woman I’ve spoken to about attending NAB has experienced a booth worker — a both worker of any gender– making assumptions about them and treating them differently than if they were a man. Some have been malicious, and most have been oblivious internalized sexism taking over in that person’s mind. So I urge you to try very hard to look at your interactions with people objectively. Is there a gender bias that is making your approach different? It should go without saying that jokes at the expense of a person’s gender or appearance have no place in a booth or on a stage, but in a male-dominated Las Vegas environment, good judgement sometimes goes out the window.
Solving sexism at trade shows like NAB is not the solution to sexism in the industry, as I’ve documented before. But with the show coming up and on everyone’s mind, it’s worth this reminder: you’re representing your company on an international stage. Do you want people leaving your booth feeling like they don’t belong in this industry? Or do you want to lead by example by making gender parity a priority for your company?