Using Women

If you attended the Gartner Symposium/ITXpo 2007 in Orlando last month, perhaps you saw something that you havent seen at a high-profile IT conference for a while: provocatively dressed women being used to attract attention to a vendors booth.

There was a time when this sort of thing wasnt uncommon at all. Most of us can well remember the old Comdex days, when scantily clad women were a mainstay on the show floor. Ive been to countless IT conferences and trade shows since then, however, and I was under the impression that the embarrassing practice had mercifully died when Comdex faded away.

So it came as a surprise to me when I learned what happened at the opening reception of the Gartner event. One of the exhibitors, Vanco, a U.K.-based network service provider, set up a display with a boxing theme, complete with a half-scale boxing ring that featured two inappropriately attired women. Michael Piddock, Vancos group marketing manager, described the women as ring girls who were there to create the complete boxing experience.

Its difficult to fathom how neither Gartner nor Vanco could foresee that the presence of these women at an IT function might be offensive to many of the attendees. How could something like this happen at an event that was planned and executed by Gartner, one of the most highly respected names in the IT industry?

According to a Gartner spokeswoman, the company has strict guidelines for each sponsor/exhibitor, and they all know and agree to the rules before coming to our events. Those rules, she said, were not followed in this case.

According to Piddock, Vanco used an Orlando-based events agency to deliver the boxing setup, and he relied on the agency to provide what would be appropriate for a U.S. market. Piddock noted that Vanco worked with its Gartner contacts continuously prior to the event to ensure they were aware of the setup, including information as to why the girls were there and how they were dressed.

In any case, once the event was under way and everyone could see exactly how the two women were dressed, it was clear that while the theme was a success, the girls looked out of place, Piddock said. Representatives from Vanco and Gartner discussed the matter, and Vanco arranged for the women to be dressed more conservatively for the remainder of the conference.

Still, its puzzling that the outrageousness went as far as it did, Vancos reliance on a third-party events organizer notwithstanding. A female IT leader who was at the event found Piddocks explanation unacceptable.

They seem pleased with the success of their marketing event, she said despite the fact that, as Piddock had put it, the girls looked out of place.

It was more than out of place, she said. I would have expected Vanco to understand from the outset that the attire was completely inappropriate to the women IT leaders and purchasers at the conference.

Kristen Lamoreaux, founder of SIM Women, an affiliate of the Society for Information Management, agreed.

Its disappointing that any marketing professional would consider having ring girls appropriate for a CIO forum, she said. A boxing theme is perfectly acceptable, but the use of women as eye candy ... is unacceptable.

Lamoreaux faulted Gartner as well.

As hosts of the event, Gartner should have checked each vendor team upon arrival for dress code compliance, she said. If Gartner did approve the vendor theme and the inclusion of ring girls, they, too, demonstrated a tremendous lack of sensitivity to their female attendees.

Lamoreaux is right. And Ill tell you what else is disturbing: Gartners Symposium/ITXpo drew over 6,000 attendees, but the spokeswoman said the firm received only three complaints about the ring girls.

Were talking about women being used. There should have been more of a backlash. There should have been more outrage. And given the demographics of the IT profession, it should have come from more men than women.

Don Tennant is editorial director of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

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