I just got back from one of the biggest tech conferences on earth – Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona- where the theme this year was “creating a better future.” Unfortunately, what doesn’t seem to be a part of a creating a #betterfuture is women. What does it feel like to be a woman at a show as grand as MWC?
I just got back from one of the biggest tech conferences on earth – Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona- where the theme this year was “creating a better future.” Epic tech brands like Samsung and Google shared their biggest innovations in 5G, automated cars, connected homes, and augmented reality for curing things like vertigo to the more than 100,000 attendees from all over the world.
Unfortunately, what doesn’t seem to be a part of a creating a #betterfuture is women – by my estimations, less than 10% of the attendees were female. There were so few women that when I would see another woman going the opposite way on the escalator, I had to resist the urge to lunge at her and say – “Can we hang out?”
Even more unsettling – I only saw 3 black women at the entire conference. What does it feel like to be a woman at a show as grand as MWC? At times I felt objectified, and other times I felt invisible.
The sexualization of women at tech conferences
It’s not hard to believe that women are still objectified at tech conferences around the world, even in the era of #MeToo, when booth babes still exist. They were apparently in less numbers than years past, but the poor, skimpily-clad women stood by their booths in the app exhibit hall, offering swag, a nice girl to look at, and absolutely no product information. A company with “booth babes” was no more than 50 feet away from where I was working for the week. More startling than booth babes, however, is that according to one woman I spoke with who saw this firsthand, dozens of prostitutes were bused in from outside of Barcelona and delivered to an elite party.
According to some, this was the most “gender-inclusive” MWC event ever. As this was my first time attending, I find this extremely depressing. Yes, they played lip service by offering a mother’s room and tampons in the bathroom – but that didn’t change the culture of the conference itself.
MWC isn’t just the conference in isolation, it’s the endless networking dinners and parties – formal and informal – in which techies from all over the world are “connecting.” Many conversations I had, at the conference and outside, were really thoughtful; owever, at one party of about 150 people, where I was one of 4 women, I found myself cutting multiple conversations short when they had moved from business to commenting on my blonde hair. How that was relevant to the context of the methodology of the company I work for is unclear.
Many companies made efforts to bring incredibly smart, technically talented women to the show. A friend at Intel, after giving multiple tech presentations on augmented reality, was followed around and told she was “very beautiful.” She felt frustrated that she even needed to explain she was “hired for her brain, and not her body.”
Another female attendee shared that while she was alone at dinner, next to a boisterous all-male table, she overheard an American business man loudly (and drunkenly) asking what breast milk would taste like in Spanish coffee.
At the booth where I worked for 4 days for my very progressive company, I had many great conversations with clients, prospects, and my international colleagues. When I was alone at the booth alone or just with one other woman, however, I was called “fine,” had multiple pictures taken of me, and at one point was grabbed by the arm as someone I had never met “jokingly” tried to take me to their booth to have a drink. (I declined).
What was even more infuriating, somehow, than being objectified was being completely ignored. Walking into the grand tech booths, almost no one talked to me. It’s common at these booths to approach people that have walked up and give them a demo, ask what company they’re with, etc. I was often only approached by other women working there. The men either didn’t notice me or didn’t think I was important enough to approach this despite my 10 years of experience in tech, including control of a major budget for a high-growth company.
As I mentioned, at our booth, I had many thorough and thoughtful conversations. I spoke in both English and Spanish to interested parties and potential partners about the inner workings of our unique technology. On two occasions, however, after explaining the technology, the contacts I was speaking with ignored me when a male colleague walked up.
Is this how we’re “creating a better future?” I sure hope not. A better future needs to include equal perspectives of both sides, and we need to create spaces where women feel comfortable.
Here are some additional things that the MWC, or anyone organizing or attending a conference could do:
Whitney (Stefko) Dover and I have launched a new community for women and supporters to share stories and advice – visit us at badassladybosses to learn more.