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18 January 2019
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Who invited the Playboy Bunnies?

1 July 2015 

London, 2015, at the Facilities Show at ExCel – the UK’s largest FM exhibition.

Professionals in smart suits streamed down the carpeted pathways dwarfed by exhibits featuring security, landscaping, cleaners and other industries that service facility operations. 

After my first year in business school I landed a position as a business analyst for one of the exhibiting companies and I was honoured to attend – until a group of young women dressed like Playboy Bunnies tottered past me in platform heels. I was struck by the contrast and, like some men they passed, couldn’t help but turn around to see them saunter into an exhibit booth where they had been hired to work to allure easy foot traffic.

What was that? I naively pondered until realising that they were pawns in the grand scheme of some employer’s sex-driven marketing strategy. I told myself to ignore it and focus – I was there to review the competition and learn about market trends.

I noted a few other exhibitors with young women hired to wear risqué uniforms. I avoided these stands, but it wasn’t until later that I realised I would have been embarrassed to visit these stands. I wasn’t their target audience, clearly. How else would that company see me, a young woman, other than something frivolous and pretty to look at on a good day?

These companies were not small entities, either. These companies have salaried, full-time female employees on the payroll. Had any of them been present they would have felt as uncomfortable as I did.

In business school we often talk about the importance of creating a professional environment inclusive of under-represented minority groups. The Graduate Women in Business club hosts speakers and events to inspire women to work in traditionally male-dominated fields. Every week, I’d call home to describe my progression with my parents, who couldn’t be prouder of me.

Stepping into the Facilities Show I felt empowered by this, ready to rock ‘n’ roll. But something changed when I saw how those big companies were using those women. I’d be doing a disservice to my education and all the women who worked their tail off to open the doors I’ve walked through, to just let go of the objectified women I saw at the FM show.

Using women as sexual objects at trade shows is nearly a thing of the past, mostly seen in the entertainment industry. But FM? I asked sales and help desk aides staffed to field questions about this practice and it became clear quickly that I wasn’t the only one who felt uncomfortable.

In an era when women continue to advance in traditional industries, I was disappointed to see that, for some companies, a woman’s value lies in attractiveness, not her ability.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. More trade shows now have standard professional dress codes that guarantee presenters look like they came from a business, and not a party in Las Vegas.

Coco Owens is an MBA candidate and president of the student body at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in Charlottesville, Virginia. Please email Coco at owensc16@darden.virginia.edu for general enquiries