I’m currently in Baltimore at the 2012 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a conference celebrating female engineers. If you know me at all, you can guess I’m totally thrilled to be here! It’s pretty awesome, and I’ll be giving small updates throughout the week with a larger post at the end. Right now I want to talk about schwag.

def. schwag: promotional items given out to employees or conference attendees, often of low quality and useless in nature.

When I got my ID badge for Grace Hopper, I also got a large bag full of goodies and informational materials. Some of it’s pretty awesome, some of it’s standard and just what I expected, and some of it is actually downright insulting. I think that what schwag a company chooses to give out sends a pretty strong message about how that company views the intended audience (even if all it really says is how the PR person who chose the item feels).

Here’s the breakdown of who gave what and how I how I interpreted it. (warning: snark will now commence)

The Bad:


Nailfile: Salesforce.com

Ah, the nailfile. It evokes images of lazy housewives and bored secretaries with nothing better to do than futz with their fingernails. Unfortunately for Salesforce, it is no longer 1960, and this is an engineering conference – we all type for a living. I’ve known a couple female engineers who manage to keep up nice nails while still hammering away at their keyboards, but it takes considerable effort and is far, far from the norm. Why anyone would think that the majority of Grace Hopper attendees have a use for a foldable, portable nailfile is a mystery to me.

Compact Mirror: Medallia

The only reason to carry a compact mirror (unless you’re a spy and use it to surreptitiously look behind you, or you’re Hermione Granger and use it to check around corners for Basilisks) is to inspect your face and make sure it looks acceptable. Unlike the nailfile this is something that a fair few women will probably find useful, and that saddens me. Men aren’t expected to carry around mirrors and ensure their wrinkles, spots, and other “flaws” are hidden at all times – you’d never see a compact mirror given out at a normal tech conference. This is just a symptom of a much larger societal problem that develops horrible body-hate issues in women, and it reduces an entire convention of smart, tech-savvy females into appearance-obsessed girls. Although, it’s better than the 2011 conference – there were 3 compact mirrors in last year’s bag.

Nailfile AND mirror (double sided card): Juniper Networks

See everything about the previous 2 items, and combine them. Sigh.

Rape Whistle: Lab126

To be fair, technically this is just a whistle. But what’s the immediate assumption when you give a whistle-on-a-keychain to a large group of women? That it’s for protection, because we are fragile, delicate little creatures who are constantly in danger of being attacked by savage rapists. (also, wtf else do you use a whistle for?) I, for one, really really don’t appreciate that particular description being applied to myself.

Sewing Kit: Raytheon

This was a complicated one to place because I actually like getting sewing kits – they’re super useful. To me, sewing kits belong in the same category as a basic set of tools – hammer, screwdrivers, pliers, needle-and-thread – that everyone should have in their home for DIY projects. Unfortunately, I doubt they’d ever hand out sewing kits to a mostly male audience (or screwdrivers to a female audience), and for that reason I have to say that I don’t like the connection being made here. Sewing has stereotypically been women’s home work: you tear your clothes, you give ’em to your mom/wife to fix. Bullshit.

Girly Android Card: Google

I’m a little sad to include Google in this list since they usually do a really good job of including women in a positive way, but that pink bow was just too much to ignore. Really, that’s the way you chose to indicate woman-hood? I actually can’t think of a non-insulting way to indicate a ‘female’ Android other than sticking on a pair of boobs or a vulva. (and even then, physical characteristics are no guarantee of female-ness) Why not just go with the Google logo with venus signs for the O’s? I’ve seen that on plenty of schwag before, and it works quite well. This pink bow is just… icky.

Chapstick: StateFarm, DOW, and Dropbox

The first one of these actually landed in the ‘expected, boring’ pile, but when I realized there were 3 I changed my mind. Chapstick has definitely become a multi-gender accepted item, but when you get 3 tubes of it,  we go back to the “women care more about their appearance, let’s give them something to help them look pretty.”

Nail Polish: Aruba Networks

This. This. This was the kicker that enraged me, and inspired me to actually write this post. Nail polish? For attendees of a technical conference? Just… Fuck you. This is so very, very inappropriate  The thought that someone out there assumed that I, as an attendee of the Grace Hopper conference, would appreciate nail polish as a free gift, is incredibly insulting. It completely ignores the intellectual, technical side of me, and reduces me to someone who cares primarily about upkeeping my physical appearance.

(I think it’s important to note right now that I know some people out there were probably pleased at getting free nail polish rather than another shitty mouse, and I do respect that. I have no problem with a woman painting her nails or enjoying getting nail polish as a present – my problem is with the assumption that we all do, that when women gather for a conference what we want in our gift bags is nail polish instead of something that appeals to our minds or nerdiness. That’s what I have a problem with.)

Other than making extremely incorrect assumptions about what women care about, there’s one other big problem with including these things in the Grace Hopper gift bag:

Not all Grace Hopper attendees are women.

There’s a non-trivial amount of men who come to this conference, and putting rape whistles, nail files, and fucking nail polish in the schwag bags is an excellent way to make them feel unwelcome and alienated.

The Good:

These are the pieces of schwag that made me go “oh, sweet!” when I saw them.

Collapsible Grocery Bag: LinkedIn

This is one of those ones that collapses into it’s own little pouch so it can be easily stored/carried until you get to checkout. Fuck yeah.

Luggage Tag: Expedia.com

Some other regular conference attendees would say this is a yawn-I-see-it-all-the-time item, but I have new tag-less luggage and this is a pretty heavy-duty specimen. Kudos, Expedia.

Rainbow Post-It Markers: Palantir

Purty! And ever-useful.

Gummy Bears: Ebay/PayPal

These, uh, mysteriously disappeared earlier in the day. ::shifty eyes::

M&M’s: Atlas

Custom-printed with the company’s name, too. Tasty!

Wooden Cube Puzzle: ThoughtWorks

Here’s an item that definitely says “we see you as intelligent, nerdy people.” Presented in lovely canvas and leather packaging, too.

Free Copy of VMWare Fusion 5: VMWare

Brilliant. More companies should give away free copies of their software as schwag. (I’m looking at you, Adobe)

“Flat” water bottles: NSA

I think it was chance I ended up with two of these, but I’m not complaining. Free water bottles are usually annoying because they take up so much space, but these don’t have that problem.

Car USB port: Thomson Reuters

I rolled my eyes when I saw it was pink, but this is a brilliant piece of schwag – incredibly useful, and extremely relevant.

Other than the pink-ness of the USB port, all of these are completely gender agnostic. Most of them appeal to my nerdiness, and the rest appeal to generic human nature (gummy bears!).

The Mediocre:

This is the usual mess of pens, notebooks, cleaning cloths, mints, and hand sanitizer that appear at every conference, whether technical or not. I won’t bother going through the companies.

Ok, I’m still trying to fix my jetlag, so that’s all my commentary for now. The ‘my-own-worst-critic’ inside me wants me to write a response to the “quit whining, it’s just a bottle of nail polish” attitude I know talk like this tends to incite in people who don’t see gender issues everywhere like I do, but I think that’s a bigger topic for another time.