Booth babes and tech bros: How sexism is holding back women in fashion tech

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After working as a professional model for several years, Olya Ishchukova was starting to feel worn out by the financial insecurity. She moved from Russia to San Francisco in 2010, when she began taking marketing and public relations projects at tech companies to pay the bills. It was then she discovered she could supplement her salary with a lucrative side hustle: promotional event modeling.

Event modeling in Silicon Valley typically entails showcasing products for startups at trade shows and industry events. In recent years, these models, largely comprised of young, attractive women, have become known infamously as “booth babes.” Ishchukova recognized the demand for this type of woman and saw an opportunity to capitalize. In 2013 she created her own modeling agency, Models in Tech, dedicated to staffing events for tech companies.

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For some women who work in technology, the presence of models at shows and events exacerbates a climate of sexism that’s pervasive in the industry, according to Marija Butkovic, co-founder of Women of Wearables. After Ellen Pao, a former junior partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, unsuccessfully sued her company for gender discrimination in 2015, a group of women in senior tech positions launched the “Elephant in the Valley” survey to unearth insight on sexism in the industry. Their findings showed that 84 percent of female respondents have been told they were too aggressive, 66 percent felt excluded from networking opportunities for being a woman, 90 percent had witnessed sexist behaviors in the workplace and 60 percent fought off unwanted sexual advances.

“I find hiring booth babes at tech events, regardless of the vertical, disrespectful toward all women — not only those in tech space, but especially toward those in the tech space,” Butkovic said. “The technology industry has a very bad reputation. It’s very male-dominated, and we don’t need an additional layer of sexism like this to make things even worse.”

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