Women now work in all facets of the automotive industry, not just as models rolling around on the hood of a car.
“Are you a product specialist?” I asked the woman standing next to me as she wriggled out of her fishnet lace-up boots, groaned, and rubbed her toes.
“Huh?” she asked.
That was the politically correct term for auto show model, I knew, but I tried another tack.
“Are you an auto show model?”
We stood there at the technology charging station, at the end of the first day of the Los Angeles Auto Show, waiting for our phones to juice up before leaving the convention center. It was the inaugural day of the two-day media preview before the show opens to the public. I was there because my day job entails writing about vehicles.
“Oh,” she said. “Yeah.”
“So…what do you do? As an auto show model?” I felt sorry for her for two reasons: first, she was an auto show model, and two, she was about to become enmeshed in my conversational style, which is commonly described as interrogational.
“I work at the booth for the tire company, Pirelli.”
I glanced in the direction of the now-deserted Pirelli display. “So you stand next to tires all day?”
“Yeah, I just stand there and talk to people.”
“What do you talk about?”
“Anything but tires.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, just guys hitting on me all day.”
I knew what she meant, because as one of the few women on the floor—model or otherwise—guys had hit on me all day, as well. She said it as though it was just another day on the job. And it was, for her. But I’m not a “product specialist;” I’m a journalist. For me, it was an unwelcome intrusion on my work, a sad reminder that women still need to crawl through a minefield of double standards and objectification for doing the same jobs as their male counterparts. This reminder was shoved in my face all day long, with models staffed at nearly every auto show display I visited.
I had watched male colleagues (a term I use loosely, none of them were, thankfully, people I worked with day-to-day) line up at Pirelli, eagerly lobbing anecdotes meant to amuse vacant-eyed models who couldn’t care less. Frankly, it didn’t speak well of either gender. But more alarming was that the behavior the men showed—condescending flirtation, I’d call it—seemed to trickle onto the rest of the showroom floor.
Call me asexual, but we’re here to work, not to flirt. This is 2014. Almost 2015. Women are now employed in all facets of the automotive industry, not just as models rolling around on the hood of a car. So how did I end up at a professional conference standing next to a woman in fishnet boots (yes, fishnet boots are a thing) trading on little more than her physical appearance? Especially during the show’s industry-wide days not open to the general public? Is it to distract the many male journalists from analyzing the actual product? To elevate the mood and inject more levity? I don’t know how the auto-show model charging her Android phone next to me felt about it, but I felt degraded enough by her job for the both of us.
People always ask me what it’s like to be a woman in the auto industry. I say it’s fine because I want to believe it’s fine, but my conversation with the model made it apparent that it’s not. It’s clear why there are so few female automotive journalists, not to mention so few women in any industry that hosts conferences featuring pretty women as entertainment, as “booth bait.” It doesn’t matter whether they’re half-naked or in a sheath dress and pearls. The message is the same: This is still a man’s world. I should walk into an auto show believing I’m seen as an equal, but how can that truly be the case when my gender is objectified right in front of me, all day long? Does equality mean that Pirelli should also hire a gaggle of male models to flex in front of their tires?
We all have the right to go to our jobs without feeling uncomfortable.
Free the auto show models. There’s not enough room at these conventions for all of us.