The end of booth-babe culture?

IT isn't immune to the sexism rampant in other industries, but there's something you can do about that

The Wall Street Journal last week ran a page-one, above-the-fold, front-and-center article on a topic you don't normally read much about: the role of sexuality on the sales side of the IT business.

Under the headline " Tech and Testosterone: A Data Storage Titan Confronts Bias Claims," the article described interviews with 17 former EMC salespeople who claimed they had to work in a macho, frat-boy atmosphere that included "locker-room antics, company-paid visits to strip clubs, demeaning sexual remarks or retaliation against women who complained about the atmosphere."

The article also noted that similar allegations are contained in six sexual discrimination suits filed by former EMC saleswomen since 2003, one of whom is now seeking class-action status. EMC's response in the article was that it has never condoned sexual harassment or discrimination and that women sales executives are some of its top earners and handle many of its largest accounts.

The article continued on in great depth, describing specifics of some of the lurid allegations and revealing details about the history, composition, and compensation of EMC's sales force. However these allegations play out, what caught my attention was the public, head-on focus on issues of sales and sexuality in IT -- a geeky industry that publications such as The Journal typically talk about in terms of speeds, feeds, and IPOs.

I'm used to reading about the gender issues associated with hard-driving, play-to-win, boys-will-be-boys cultures in financial services, real estate, or Washington, D.C. politics. But IT? Aren't we more sophisticated than that?

Of course not. Sex sells. We've all been to tech conferences where we caught ourselves eyeing the "booth babes" (women or men, depending on who you notice). We've all been to IT events in Vegas. We're all aware that at some level it's easier to do business with salespeople who are "easy on the eyes."

Now is probably a good time, however, for our industry to think about what it really does and doesn't want from vendors -- and to let them know it. Our industry is changing. There's more competition, transparency, accountability, and short-term-performance orientation in the software business than ever. High-paid salespeople in many cases are being replaced by marketing and support people as the crucial points of customer contact. Those golf junkets might be fun, but do they really benefit your company? Is that truly how you want to be spending your short time on this earth?

Here's a somewhat related analogy: I go to lots of tech conferences, and a couple years ago, I noticed that every afternoon around 2 p.m., the conference organizers would serve amazingly rich ice cream deserts and then around 4 p.m., amazingly buttery and salty popcorn. I could smell this booty a half mile away, and my animal urges would kick in, causing all boredom to vanish. Over time, however, I realized it was unhealthy and stopped snarfing these snacks. Others must have too, because suddenly healthy snacks started appearing alongside the junk.

We all have a conscious choice about what behaviors we support. I have no information or prejudgment about any specific situation, such as the one involving EMC. It's innocent until proven guilty. But I do believe that we as the IT industry can do better overall on this issue, and it's not just up to the vendors. I think we're better than financial services and Washington, D.C. And I applaud The Wall Street Journal -- that bastion of boy-will-be-boys -- for putting the issue front and center.