Grace Hopper 2012: Schwag Analysis

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:



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:

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.

10 Replies to “Grace Hopper 2012: Schwag Analysis”

  1. Sorry you dind’t get one of the Amazon Grace Hopper Celebration shirts – we ran out super fast (by midday Thurs IIRC) – I would hope they fell into the “Good” category ;-)

  2. Are you on the Anita Borg/Systers mailing list? There was a very interesting discussion there about approximately these issues (along with many others that I think are right up your alley).

  3. I actually appreciate getting the rape whistle. I was walking alone on Wednesday from my hotel to meet my friends at the Kona grill (opposite side of conference center). I don’t know how much help the whistle would actually provide, but it made me feel safer. It turned out that one of the conference attendees was actually raped walking back from the inner harbor on Thursday night. Even though you don’t want to feel as if you could be a victim, it is still very possible, even at a place like grace hopper.

  4. Thanks for the post! It’s a good thing to make companies aware of how their promotional items are viewed. I’m also not sure if GHC itself approves/denies exactly what companies include in the bags, but to my knowledge they do provide a list to the sponsors so that there is some variation, so for example they don’t all give out post-it notes.

    I do have to admit I’m surprised with all the opposition to the nail file haha. I agree that this is something that probably wouldn’t be handed out at your average tech conference and maybe is inappropriate, but I wouldn’t at all agree that using one “takes considerable effort and is far, far from the norm.” Considering that I *do* type all day, it can be really annoying and actually painful if my nails are too long or an edge is sharp. It only takes about 5 seconds to fix, and for me that’s a necessary practical thing and not an appearance obsession thing. Even men’s grooming kits will contain files, I would say it’s a lot more unisex than the nail polish.

  5. I actually do like the nail files, mostly because I try to not bite my nails and nothing gets me chewing on them faster than a scratchy edge. Nail polish — well, on the one hand, I *do* polish my nails (see above re: attempts to not bite them), but I frankly like better quality polish than a tiny swag bottle, and I don’t want to waste space in my TSA-approved liquids bag.

    I did find the Dow chemical lip balm amusing, and a little unnerving.

  6. I absolutely agree with you on the pink bow stuff. It’s tough to be the marketing person working out the best things to put in a swag collection – what things do you look forward to getting, or what do you think is missing, remembering many companies are working with a very low budget, and 3600 attendees is… a lot! :) Glad you enjoyed the M&Ms, and I hope you managed to stop by the ATLAS Institute booth during the conference (disclosure: I’m an ATLAS PhD student. I didn’t choose the M&Ms, but I did eat a pack too ;))

  7. You know, I take more issue with the nail files than I do the nail polish. I do on occasion paint my nails… but am I really supposed to be touching up my manicure so often I need a file in my purse? I have so many better things to do.

  8. I have one of those 12V USB chargers in my car ($5 at Walgreen’s), and while the color is green, you hardly see it when it’s fully in the 12V port.

    Thanks for posting this! I winced, laughed, and generally appreciated your analysis.

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