By Wendy Lee and Greta Kaul San Francisco Chronicle.
Anne McDaniels' wavy blond hair tumbled over her shoulders as she posed in front of a "Ghostbusters" car in a cleavage-baring jumpsuit.
Inside E3, one of the biggest trade shows in the video game industry, McDaniels had been hired to market a new mobile game, "Ghostbusters Puzzle Fighter." Her outfit looked just like the game's ghost-busting male characters, except McDaniels' jumpsuit didn't have any pants. Instead, her bottoms were made ultra-short, exposing every inch of her long legs. A crowd of male gamers gathered around her, some snapping photos, others waiting to wrap their arms around her for a selfie. Others just stared.
McDaniels is what's known in the events business as a "booth babe." Popular at tech conferences, where most attendees are male, a booth babe's job is to stand around and lure people in.
The routine predates tech -- back in the mid-18th century, attractive women in front of saloons were called "butterfly catchers" -- and plenty of modern marketers say staffing a booth with an attractive woman, whether in a costume or a cocktail dress, is still money well spent.
"You're going booth to booth. You're seeing this nerdy-looking guy. Is that really who you want to talk to?" said Patrick Dalal, owner of the San Francisco office of Push Models, which provides models for large conferences including E3 and Dreamforce.
And yet as the tech industry wrestles with workplace gender disparity and complaints about sexual harassment, a chorus is calling for the era of the booth babe to end. A few notable conferences -- including the San Francisco computer security gathering RSA Conference and gaming conference PAX -- have recently banned booth babes or made new rules regarding them.
Some female conference attendees, frustrated with the stereotypical image of the airhead booth babe and being mistaken for one, are sporting buttons that read: "I am not a booth babe. Ask me a question."
'Zoo-like atmosphere' At E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the gaming world's divergent views of women were easy to spot. At the front of one expo hall, Redwood City's Electronic Arts touted how female soccer players would be included for the first time in its newest FIFA game, with their photos lighting up a big screen. But in back, other companies' booths included women dressed in provocative low-cut gear, posing as video game characters -- with some knowing little about who they represented.
For some conference organizers, a future without booth babes can't come soon enough.
"If you have this kind of zoo-like atmosphere, it's not really conducive to business," said Sandra Toms, curator for the RSA Conference, which banned booth babes this year.
"It seems like every event should be doing this," Toms said. "It's just a policy whose time has come."
But Dalal at Push Models says that having attractive women around means male attendees are more likely to learn about a product.
His company has provided models for Salesforce's Dreamforce conference, Nintendo's booth at E3, and various companies that throw after-parties at Oracle conferences. For tech conferences, his models wear "business casual attire," at product launch parties firms favor cocktail attire, he said.
But other companies find that a pretty face doesn't actually help them sell anything. Performance Designed Products once hired booth babes and DJs for its E3 station, but not this year.
"We wanted to have something that was more focused on the product, not just (something) using sex appeal," said spokesman Jacob Strouckel. When the booth's entertainment isn't product-related, convention-goers can get distracted.
When Farnaz Kermaani, president of San Francisco event talent group Cre8 Agency, hires talent for tech events, she looks for people who know something about the industry.
"If you're going to say you're tech savvy, you'd better be tech savvy, and I will ask you questions about it because I am" tech savvy, she said.
Long hours, few breaks At E3, gaming business Capcom let fans pose for photos sparring with male and scantily clad female "Street Fighter" characters, including Chun-Li and Cammy, who wore a revealing bodysuit and a beret.
"Our goal was to find models that most closely resemble the iconic characters in the game," spokesman Jason Andersen said via e-mail.
Being a booth babe isn't easy.
The money is decent -- several at E3 got paid $250 a day -- but models work long hours, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., standing on their feet, smiling and posing for fans with few breaks. Despite what they wear, it's important to maintain a professional demeanor, even if guys ask sexual questions, get handsy or ask for dates, models said.
"I lead with being professional and with a genuine smile versus being overtly sexual," said costumed McDaniels, who dislikes the term "booth babe" because she thinks it's derogatory.
Many booth babes wear tight company T-shirts; others chic dresses. Some are hired to wear costumes of characters from games or comic books -- known as cosplay.
Even when wearing a costume that she considered modest, conference worker Stephanie McCall, 29, said she experienced harassment at a past event. While decked out in a T-shirt, shorts and a cape to dress as Zod from "Man of Steel" for a Mattel booth at San Diego comic book fair Comic-Con, a Mattel employee warned her to watch out as she reached to pick up toys.
"There was a man across the way capturing photos of me bending over," McCall said. "I was kind of shocked."
According to the Associated Press, conventioneers at last year's Comic-Con said they had been groped, followed and unwillingly photographed during the four-day event, prompting three Philadelphia women to gather 2,600 signatures supporting a formal antiharassment policy. Comic-Con International said its rules bar harassment and other offensive behavior.
Sexual Harassment Bingo The way men treat booth babes has caused trouble for other female conference-goers as well. At the 2013 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, women circulated a Sexual Harassment Bingo card, with boxes like "Indecent proposal: Inappropriately propositioned for sex" and "Tailgating: Stared at your butt."
Fara Hain, a co-creator of the "I am not a booth babe. Ask me a question" buttons, said the button came out of an interaction at a tech conference. Hain is director of corporate marketing at Zerto, a data recovery startup, and her colleague, Jennifer Gill, was talking with a male conference-goer.
"She was answering a very specific question about our product, and at the end of her explanation, the guy she was talking to was like 'Hey, you actually seem to know what you're talking about,'" Hain said.
Though booth babes have emerged as a flash point in debates over sexism in tech, the debate may distract from more serious issues in the industry, says Nina Huntemann, a media studies professor at Suffolk University. People who think banning booth babes solves the problem are missing the point, she said.
"If the industry wants to take the issue of women in games seriously, they shouldn't be concerned about booth babes at all," Huntemann said. "They should be concerned about hiring more developers and promoting women in the industry."
Gaming a holdout At this year's tech conferences, big companies seemed to be making new efforts to diversify their staffs and speakers. Female executives at Apple spoke for the first time ever at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference keynote in June. And in two years, Google nearly tripled the percentage of women who attended its developers conference by making a conscious effort to recruit them.
But gaming may be a holdout for sexism. Over the last year, the gaming world has been polarized by the fight over Gamergate -- a culture war between those who want gaming to be more inclusive of women and minorities and others who don't want things to change.