Objectification of Women
This past Saturday, I attended SummerCon in Brooklyn. Despite being “America’s longest running hacker con,” with less than 200 attendees it’s a tiny event, even for infosec standards. It’s this relaxed|elite|familial atmosphere on which the con prides itself, and it’s pretty much a blast. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, none of the dozen-ish presenters were women. I can’t fault the organizers for this as to my knowledge, no women responded to the CFP. Much has been written about encouraging women to get on stage and present technical content; I won’t rehash that debate here except to say that more than one woman I chatted with yesterday told me in effect, “Are you kidding? I wouldn’t present here. [The environment here makes it] not worth it.”
There was one woman on stage during a presentation, but she was there of her own accord to provide double entendres and eye candy for her boyfriend’s presentation. The only other female to grace the stage was a burlesque performer who carried out the speaker name placards and ran the free-drink raffle between talks. She and some of the other performers are friends with the conference organizers, but in this instance they were there working as paid entertainment.
So by 10pm it was time for the show, which was advertised an official conference event. Because of the lack of female presenters, the show would provide the only representation women would have onstage during the conference. Admission to the con got you admission to the show, which was held on the same stage as the talks, under the same sponsor signs. All the performers were conventionally attractive women.
Throughout the day I asked friends how they felt about the inclusion of a burlesque show at a tech con. I heard the same unanimous sentiment: More women present as attendees and speakers would be awesome. More women should be in the industry, period. But they’re not here now, so we might as well have a little fun. It’s always been like this. It’s like… a tradition. Larger conferences are “work” events, so it’s ok that their guidelines for behavior are more strict. This is a “fun” event, so a few naked ladies on stage are ok. I mean look around, there aren’t more than 8 women here anyway. How can women be affected by an event which they’re not even attending?
By the time the show was about to start, I decided to leave. I stopped having fun and started thinking about how I have three more cons in the next two months where I can probably relive this same experience. As I walked out, I ran into the con organizer. I told him I had to “boycott this burlesque thing,” and he threw up his hands and said, “Hey, you have a point.” With all the beer flowing by then, I don’t really think the exchange meant anything one way or the other.
Over the past decade it’s become generally understood that behavior and entertainment like what happened at SummerCon e are likely to cause you negative public backlash. Objectifying women isn’t generally tolerated at corporate sponsored events. Hell, the grugq’s Barcon party last year at Black Hat didn’t even have sexy cocktail waitresses.
This was also not the most personally offensive experience I’ve had at a conference. In fact, I was not “offended” at all. Naked ladies don’t offend me. However, putting sexy ladies on a pedestal to be stared at by a group of exclusively men creates an asymmetrical gender dynamic which is not appropriate for a quasi-industry, corporate sponsored event. The near universal refusal to recognize that ranks as the most frustrating sentiment I’ve personally heard come from the professional folks and community leaders I consider my friends. It’s been said that lawfulness is what you do when you think you may get caught, ethics are the choices you make when you know you won’t. I respect and adore many of you, and on this one you disappointed me. Saying “It could be worse” is not sufficient. We can do better.