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Here’s what it’s like to be a ‘booth babe’ at cybersecurity’s biggest conference

A promotional model gives out t-shirts at a booth at the RSA conference (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)

"Booth babes," the attractive, often scantily clad women hired to promote brands at conferences are an oft-maligned and sometimes banned mainstay of gaming and nerd culture.  But these type of promotional models show up in trade shows across various industries. And some of them were hired by presenters at the RSA Conference in San Francisco this week -- although not all of them were comfortable being with the "booth babe" moniker.

"I'm not a fan of the term booth babe or booth bunny, I find it slightly offensive," says Jordan Duff, who was representing cybersecurity company ForeScout along with two other young women in blue dresses on the sidelines of the boxing ring set up at the booth. (Yes, there was a boxing ring.)

"When I hear someone say that, I immediately think of some dumb girl going 'hi, take this -- hi, take this,' " she says.

Although her job does involve handing out a lot of swag, she says it's also much more substantial than that -- requiring her to learn about an ever-changing parade of products. Duff says she has been doing this type of work since April 2013 and works with three different companies who schedule her at health and fitness or technology conferences.  She appreciates the flexibility of being able to choose from assignments that aren't a traditional nine to five. "I also have time to travel."

So far, she says, it's been a very positive experience, and conference patrons are very respectful, usually. But she does say things occasionally get uncomfortable.

"Especially at these sort of events where the males outweigh the females, sometimes you get the creepies," she says. "But I think if you approach it with a sense of humor and respect for yourself, you don't let it go far."

The RSA conference, like many tech conferences, skews heavily male. From this reporter's estimation, around a quarter of attendees this year were women. Attendees who have been to multiple years of the conference say that's actually a slightly better ratio than previous years -- and there are fewer "booth babes." They were at a minority of booths, and while attractive young women did appear to be the standard for temporary booth hires, they were often more modestly dressed than you might see at some other conferences.

"My line is, 'and that's your exit cue -- thank you so much,'" says Duff, explaining how she responds to patrons who are a little too friendly. "Then I give them a light touch on the elbow and send them on their way. If you laugh and you don't act like it's weird for you, then it's not weird for them."

"The most important thing is that you want to make sure everyone walks away feeling good about the company," she says.

Some other promotional models on the RSA conference floor found patron advances less funny.

"It definitely gets frustrating," says one who has worked as at conference booths for several years and requested that her name not be used out of fears that it might compromise her employment. "Even though most people are respectful, the few bad apples can make me wish I could go home."