Thursday, August 18, 2016

The prostitute factor: Why we're not serious about women at conferences

We've made a lot of progress from the days when women were forbidden to attend, or to speak at, conferences. We have conferences setting quotas for women speakers and conferees reporting about how many women they see in the program or on the stage. We're advising women and conferences to avoid window-dressing the program with high-profile female moderators, but no female speakers. There are people keeping tallies of women speakers, making lists of women speakers who are available, and doing research on the most effective ways to get more women on the program. Women in the audience use Q&A to ask why the panel is all male, and men are pledging not to participate in such panels.

But even with all that, I can tell we're not serious about including women at conferences. Not until major conferences put a stop to prostitution and escort services at their meetings, and the more frequent use of highly sexualized entertainers and "booth babes."

I'm not just talking about those episodes where male speakers make sexual jokes or show sexual imagery and refer to women as bitches from the stage, although those occurrences are troubling and do happen more than we like to admit. I'm talking about conferences that seem to attract--and ignore--attendees who are in the world's oldest profession, prostitution.

And before you shake your head and say, well, that just doesn't happen at a proper conference, I give you two important international conferences where it has been observed in abundance: The Noah conference in Berlin, a tech gathering, and the high-profile World Economic Forum, sometimes called "Davos" for the city in Switzerland where it takes place. In addition, a recent third conference for gamers in San Francisco featured a Microsoft-sponsored party with sexualized female entertainers.

In the escort scandal at the Noah conference in Berlin, a hundred or more female escorts flooded the conference reception. Noah is no fly-by-night startup conference. Axel Springer and Credit Suisse were sponsors, and Uber's CEO and Daimler's chairman were among the speakers. Yet this happened:
According to multiple reports of the event, male attendees found themselves approached by attractive, glamorously dressed women who were not part of the conference and who began flirting with them, touching them and handing them their cards. Many people at the party concluded that these women were escorts. According to accounts heard by Fortune, some male attendees then mistook female entrepreneurs for escorts, and asked them if they could offer them any favors....However, attendees of the party—who wish to remain anonymous—did not buy this version of events. They noted that there were around a hundred of these women, and the party had strict entry requirements involving tickets and wristbands.
At Noah, a prostitution app was blamed for the influx of "visitors." But it also is commonplace at the World Economic Forum to see escorts and prostitutes mingling with the conferees at social events. One of the only accounts I've seen, what it's like to be a woman at the old boys Economic Forum, sums it up this way:
It’s the kind of place where if a woman turns away to exit a conversation and looks back just quickly enough, she’ll find her posterior aesthetic being carefully dissected by the man who just asked her for her business card — even if he is the CEO of a major bank. When we weren’t being asked how we got here, we were constantly being stared up and down by CEOs, hedge fund managers, finance ministers and embassy heads. 
“You see how men sometimes look at women,” said one television reporter from the Middle East. “They say how pretty a woman is, or, what is she doing here? Does she deserve to be here or not? Who pushed her to come in?”
Why are women ogled so openly at an economic forum? Women attendees make up less than 15% of the conferees at the Forum, which has set and failed to meet its own gender quotas, even after offering free tickets for women included in delegations. But more than that, it's very likely that women attendees and speakers are outnumbered by female prostitutes. The prostitution at Davos is so widespread that it's covered as its own annual event, part of the so-called "horizontal trade."

Both conferences take place in countries where prostitution is legal and regulated, and both conference's organizers denied responsibility for their presence. But they didn't seem to do much to encourage their absence, either.

In countries where prostitution is illegal, you can still see conferences featuring "booth babes," scantily dressed models showing off cars and technology, free for the ogling. Microsoft recently came under fire for hiring women to dance in tiny Catholic school outfits at a party for developers at a gaming conference, as you can see in the video tweeted from the event, below:
As game developer Brianna Wu noted, Microsoft--considered one of the "good guys" on gender due to its policies and trainings--wiped out that good record with one party. From the article:
“Microsoft is doing so many things right on this issue,” she says. “They instituted mandatory unconscious bias training this year. Their Hololens team has a ton of extremely skilled women engineers. They are working hard to be part of the solution. This undermines all that great work. I’d like to see accountability from the Xbox marketing team.”
In those settings as well as those where female prostitutes are not discouraged, how are women speakers and attendees ever to feel comfortable, let alone treated with parity, respect, and equality? It's the clearest sign I can think of that women are unwelcome, unless they are present to serve for men's pleasure.

You may be wondering by now whether these conferences have codes of conduct, a tool increasingly used to set and enforce behavior at conferences that forbids sexual harrassment and harrassing speech. (Check out my post Does your conference have a code of conduct? I wish mine did for more on codes.) To my amazement, the World Economic Forum's code of conduct is a scant one-page document that includes not one word about sexual harrassment nor creating a safe environment for attendees, nor any related issue. Participants are asked not to invite others to the meeting, but there's nothing about preventing attendance by outsiders. Thus, anyone wishing to complain would find no ground on which to stand here, and there's nothing to enforce, either. In the same vein, neither the Game Developers Conference nor the Noah Conference had codes of conduct of any kind.

Recently, a global summit for women was announced. Dubbed a "Davos for women," it is to be held next year in Tokyo. The nickname infuriates me. Why can't women simply be included in the real meeting at Davos in a way that does not demean them nor put them at risk of harassment or unwanted sexual attention? Why don't the conferences take responsibility for enforcing who attends, rather than blame apps or others? Why don't sponsors insist on appropriate behavior? Where are the codes of conduct and, right behind them, actual enforcement? All these episodes demonstrate male privilege, in case you didn't have any other clear examples before you. They say to us, "We want to have women here who represent our vision of women as sexual creatures here for our pleasure, not colleagues we have to listen to or take seriously as peers."

The simple fact is that we can make all the lists of women speakers we want, and propose all the codes of conduct possible. We can call out conferences publicly for these events and episodes. But until conferences take responsibility for what actually happens to women at their meetings, you'll see fewer women attending and speaking--both because they will be less likely to attend or accept a speaking slot, and because they're less likely to be invited. With conference conditions like these, we can all tell you're not serious about having women at your conference in roles that matter.

(Creative Commons licensed photo of booth babes by Miss Nixie)

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