Why we won’t stop talking about CES’s booth babe problem

There’s nothing like a woman poured into a skintight red dress and heels, draped over the CES show floor like a bear skin rug. It really gets the blood going. Of course, where that blood is going remains largely a factor of which side of the male gaze you find yourself on. Ours? Still boiling.

In 2012, Consumer Electronics Association Gary Shapiro told us that we shouldn’t worry about booth babes. If we could only sit idly by, the booth babe phenomenon would vanish all on its own. 

“Well, sometimes it is a little old school, but it does work,” he said in 2012 in an interview with BBC (yes, two of us from the Dot are in the video, though we were with other publications at the time). “People naturally want to go towards what they consider pretty. So your effort to try to get a story based on booth babes, which is decreasing rather rapidly in the industry, and say that it’s somehow sexism, imbalancing—it’s cute, but it’s frankly irrelevant in my view.”

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But three years later, it’s clearly still not irrelevant. Three years later, companies continue to decorate their show floor spaces with hyper-sexualized young women. To be clear, no one should be shaming the individual women paying the bills with a CES gig—the onus is on the system itself and the people in power who keep it that way.

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Those of us who’d been to CES before asked ourselves if it seemed like there were fewer booth babes than years past, or if their outfits were less revealing. Coming up with concrete answers was difficult: Maybe? Yes? Sort of? It’s not like we’d ever kept a count, and the only reasonable conclusion we could make was that as always, many, many booths featured women in spandex or short skirts, reciting promotional lines and offering free shirts. 

As always, plenty of people leered at these women and whispered lewd comments to friends. And as always, the dissonance between women covering the show and those costumed for it was obvious and jarring. 

The Daily Dot

The Daily Dot

Last week in Vegas, we documented every instance of this our all-female tech team ran across. Of course, determining who met booth babe criteria is more of an art than a science. We took a few questions into account. Were there men present dressed similarly? Were there low cut shirts or high heels? Are these women standing apart from the PR team and providing no apparent purpose beyond eye candy? There were many more than you see here—our team was very small, after all, and CES is huge beyond description.

Here are a few of the companies that featured booth babes this year: 

  • Midland 
  • D-Link 
  • Roocase 
  • HDBT Alliance/Valens 
  • Polk 
  • Audio Technica 
  • Dive 
  • Hampoc 
  • iWorld 
  • CellAllure 
  • Xi3 
  • OSVR
  • Ooma
  • iFit

There aren’t many big names that stand out here (no Samsungs, no Sonys—which have used scantily clad women at CES before, so perhaps we are witnessing improvement). Still, this list is a cross-section of an anachronistic tech industry tradition, one that venerates those in the upper echelons of tech’s boys club while dismissing the rest of us as eye candy if not altogether invisible. 

The Daily Dot

The Daily Dot

The Daily Dot

The Daily Dot

The Daily Dot

The Daily Dot

The Daily Dot

So is it “getting better”? Does it even matter? I suppose we’re at risk of making the booth babe reflection a post-CES staple, right up there with “10 coolest booth displays” and “Our 9 favorite phone cases.” But every year, it’s necessary to issue a sort of gut check here. That CES perpetuates this cliche isn’t just stereotypical, it’s hurtful to an industry that continuously pledges to better invite women into STEM fields

For now it feels like all we can do is hope that next year the list is shorter and the photo opps fewer. 

Photo by Taylor Hatmaker

Taylor Hatmaker

Taylor Hatmaker

Taylor Hatmaker has reported on the tech industry for nearly a decade, covering privacy and government. Most recently, she was the Debug editor of the Daily Dot. Prior to that, she was a staff writer and deputy editor at ReadWrite, a tech and business reporter for Yahoo News, and the senior editor of Tecca. Her editorial interests include censorship, digital activism, LGBTQ issues, and futurist consumer tech.