The tech industry is known for having what some have criticized as a frat house-like atmosphere that can be demeaning to women. The stereotype played itself out in Boston last Wednesday, at a party held by participants of the BIO International Convention, a gathering of biotech workers held each year. The “Party At BIO Not Associated With BIO,” or PABNAB for short, was held in downtown Boston. It featured topless dancers, their bodies painted with the logos of the party’s sponsors. One attendee is blowing the whistle, and the sponsors are doing damage control. Kate Strayer-Benton is director of strategy at Momenta Pharmaceuticals in Boston. She was at the party, and she spoke with WGBH's All Things Considered host Barbara Howard. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Barbara Howard: Let me say right off the bat, you're speaking for yourself, not for any particular company, right?
Kate Strayer-Benton: That's correct. I'm speaking as a woman in this industry and as an individual.
Howard: Well so this so-called PABNAB party — it’s not officially a part of the BIO International Convention, but it is organized by participants apart from the convention itself. You were at this party. Tell me what happened.
Strayer-Benton: It was held at a nightclub. The main floor had a large dance floor, and the woman who I was with, who happened to be one of our vendors — she had invited me as her guest — we walked towards the bar and immediately saw that there were topless dancers dancing on small stages at the front of the dance floor.
Howard: They were painted?
Strayer-Benton: Yes. So from the back you could tell that they were painted in the theme of the event, which was “resurrection ball,” it had a Day of the Dead theme. So they had airbrush paint on their bodies from the back, and you could tell that they were wearing bottoms but no tops. It wasn't until we were standing at the bar and had gotten our drinks and turned around that we realized that these dancers were not just painted with skulls and flowers and bones, but that they also had the logos of a couple of companies branded across their … in this case, the dancer that I saw, had it on her abdomen and her inner thigh. I think what upset me most, beyond the fact that there were topless dancers at an event that hopefully men and women feel equally comfortable at, was the fact that there were branded logos, and that someone made a decision to paint those.
Howard: So now you’ve penned a letter. It's basically an update to an earlier letter that was sent out by two other women in biotech after a similar incident at a separate convention two years ago, in which scantily clad women were hired to socialize with the attendees. And that letter read, “a good place to start is by not hiring models.” And now you've taken that letter and done some edits, and you've added the words “For those of you who could not extrapolate this advice themselves: this includes topless dancers.” So really, you had to spell it out like that for them?
Strayer-Benton: What was the most frustrating part of this entire experience is that I could so simply substitute the date, the location, described topless dancers instead of scantily clad models in this revised letter. And then I felt the need at the end to further extrapolate on what had been said there, to emphasize that this is not a new phenomenon, but it's something that I thought we were collectively working on and working towards something different. And it just was disappointing on so many levels.
Howard: What kind of response have you had to that letter?
Strayer-Benton: The response to my letter has been incredible. Personal and professional contacts and people from across the industry who I don't know have been reaching out to me all day long — women and men.
Howard: Well it should be pointed out, the organizers of the BIO International Convention had slammed that move to hire these dancers. And the companies whose logos were featured on the dancers' bodies, Selexis and Alpha Blue Ocean, at least, have disavowed it as well. Are you satisfied with that?
Strayer-Benton: It's hard to say. I think I'm satisfied with the response and the fact that people are acknowledging that we shouldn't be having this discussion in this time. But I don't think that's enough. I want to believe that this doesn't have to happen. I want to believe that it's not going to be two years from now where someone is going to say, ‘Isn't this ironic that I can take that letter from 2016, that was updated in 2018, and update it 2020.’
Howard: OK. Thanks for joining us.
Strayer-Benton: Thank you.
Howard: That's Kate Strayer-Benton, director of strategy at Momenta Pharmaceuticals in Boston. She attended and is speaking out about a party held by attendees of the BIO International Convention in Boston last week that featured topless dancers. This is All Things Considered.
Read the letter below: