This last week, Microsoft made the news, and not in a good way. At the Xbox Game Developers Conference, female dancers mingled with the audience and performed on stage dressed in sexy school girl uniforms.

The good news is that there was immediate outrage and Microsoft is clearly (and justifiably) embarrassed and chagrined. There was no delay in apologizing and internal memos suggest just how seriously leadership takes this sexist incident.

The bad news, of course, is that there are still plenty of people in corporate America that don’t understand rape culture and sexism enough to recognize that this was wrong. It’s appalling that this kind of thing can still “slip through” and happen at a corporate event.

My immediate inclination is to think that the decision was made by men. The gamer culture is dominated by men and  the treatment of women in video games has been a topic of heated debate. Chances are good that most of the people involved in this decision were male, the type of male who doesn’t even squirm or get an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach when such an idea is proposed.

That’s disturbing.

Booth babes and sexism

Seeing this event unfold reminds me of an incident that happened to me in the early eighties.

I was twenty-one and working for a very small startup in the technology field. The company was run by a man. His two top officers were both women in their late twenties/early thirties. One was kind of a beach girl who assumed the person of spacey-blonde and good-naturedly accepted—nay, participated in—jokes about her persona. The owner nicknamed her the Islander.

The other was a more business-like, shrewd woman who had previously been a real estate agent. She was a no-nonsense woman who considered herself not just smart, but cunning. The owner nicknamed her The Baroness. (No, I’m not joking. This is all true.)

Me, I thought of myself as smart, technically savvy, and capable. I expected to be taken seriously, which was probably at odds with my California-speak (like, you know, etc.) and my New Wave haircut, complete with a tail and a purple streak. I wanted to be taken seriously, but I wasn’t willing to compromise the way I looked. I believed that people shouldn’t judge me by how I dressed.

Ah, the naiveté of youth. While I still hold that belief, I’m far more cognizant of the reality that people DO judge nonetheless.

By the time I left that little startup, I knew there was a lot wrong with the people running it, especially the owner. I had finally figured out how much of a master manipulator he was.

But it wasn’t until years later that I recognized how sexist he was. He openly made sexist jokes. He came on to all of us women, again openly, and especially to the Baroness. Getting in her pants was clearly a goal of his, a badge he wanted to earn—even more so because she constantly deflected his advances with an attitude that said, “You’re a nerd and beneath me. I’d never sleep with you. But you’re smart little nerd, and I’m hoping to make some money off your business.”

Despite all of that, I didn’t think much about the sexism. This was the early eighties. While women were liberated, there was no wide concept of rape culture. None of this behavior was unusual or notable.

The one time that I remember really understanding sexism was at play was when we decided to get a booth at a tradeshow. We were going to go to CES, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. In those days, CES was IT—the SXSW conference of its time. It was THE conference to go to. And we were going to have a booth where we’d demo our product.

I was excited. Business travel was still new and thrilling for me. (Remember, 21.) I bought a nice business suit and practiced, practiced the demo. I was looking forward to playing the role of saleswoman.

And then, the t-shirts arrived. Low-cut, tight t-shirts for us women to wear in the booth. And below that, we were supposed to wear either short skirts or tight jeans.

The owner, of course, would wear a business suit.

We women were going to be booth babes.

I was appalled. I wasn’t a booth babe! No way I was going to wear that. I intended to look professional.

Of course, the owner tried to talk me into it, in his usual, patronizing, “oh you naïve young girl” way. But that wasn’t the bad part. The bad part was the way the two women in the company goaded me and harassed me. They told me I wasn’t a team player because I wouldn’t dress in a sexy manner to draw the mostly male attendees into the booth.

Even the Baroness, the smart business-woman, considered me a traitor to the company.

I wasn’t a traitor, of course. But if I were going to be a traitor, I’d rather it was to the company than to my sex.

Schooling about sexism

Fast forward to today. As I said, I expect the people at Microsoft who made this decision were men. I sure hope they were men. Because it’d be a damn shame if a woman let this through.

My high school daughter and her friends, I can’t imagine them letting this slide. These days, girls and young women speak up. They are cognizant in a way we weren’t in the eighties and even nineties. They are taking stands, with media stars like Lady Gaga making those stands in public, like at the Oscars. Add to that lots of individual women taking small stands in business.

We’ll be doing even better when the women hired to do the dancing take a stand and refuse. Because, as far as we’ve come, there are at least two more steps we need to take:

  • Refusing to be the sex symbol.
  • Raising boys into men who refuse to sexualize women.

Women need to say no to playing the role. That’s hard, because it can mean turning down a job or not going to that conference in Las Vegas. But when women refuse to be booth babes, refuse to be the sexy dancer at a mostly male business event, and refuse to play the role in television of the gorgeous girl hanging on the arm of the successful man purely as evidence of his success—well, then we’ll be getting somewhere.

And when we raise boys into men who stand up and put a stop to sexualization in the workplace, then we’ll really be mostly down the road.

There’s a history here. Blacks fought for their rights and won them. But part of the reason was because whites came out and fought by their side.

Gays fought for hard for their rights for decades. When straight people started marching in the Pride Parades and putting bumper stickers on their cars for gay rights, the homosexual community gained even more ground. At a time when many gays still had to stay in the closet at work for fear of losing their jobs, it made a huge difference when straight people stood up for them at work.

It can’t be just women fighting this fight. We need the men to fight with us. The men that we, as mothers, teach and we, as sisters, call out for their bad behavior.

There will come a time when most of the average men in the room, the individual contributors or information workers or linemen speak up. When it’s the man that says, “Wait a minute. That’s sexist. How do you think that’s going to make the women at the event feel?” When that time comes, it will mark another seismic shift in our culture.

When movies stop conveying to us that a man is powerful by showing beautiful women as silent accessories, when female musicians stop producing videos where they shake their asses at the screen or look like they’re ready to give the mic a blow job, well, then we’ll be getting somewhere.

So, women take a stand. And women, speak up—but especially speak up to your sons, your brothers, and your male colleagues so we can move even faster and further down the road to equality.

Image: “Creative Commons School Desk Steelcase Node” by Steven Depolo is licensed under CC BY 4.0

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