Just an hour into the opening session of IBM Connect in Florida and Kathy Brown let out a sigh.
Company executives and Hollywood actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt were singing the praises of social media in the workplace but, for Brown, something just wasn't right.
Then, in plain sight, it hit her. The images on the stage's backdrop. She was blunt on Twitter: "2 Female 'characters' on background. Both wore skirts and one had a pink phone. Really!?"
Later, she tweeted: "Make that 3."
And then: "Finally a woman shown in pants. Tight ones. With her ass facing the crowd."
"That's not how women have to be depicted," said Brown, an IT consultant and Lotus and BlackBerry developer, the following day.
"I'm not saying don't have a woman up there [on screen]," she added. "I'm saying just think about it. Is this making the women look like they don't know what they are talking about?"
A member of Nerd Girls, a networking group for women who work with IBM's Lotus software, Brown is encouraging change in the way women are perceived across the industry.
According to the group, women in IT face challenges that are in your face, alternatively subtle, or barely noticed by anyone except those on the receiving end. Yet they are real.
Francie Tanner, a technical director for software company Panagenda, said she'd been mistakenly identified as a "booth babe" when attending conferences.
"The individual stories are all the same," Tanner said of her female colleagues. "Being the odd man - or woman - out. We have to try a little harder. We have to show up and sit down in the middle of the boys and say 'Here I am.'"
Gabriella Davis runs a London-based IT consultancy with her husband. At client meetings she's been mistaken for a note-taker rather than a potential project's lead contact. The "assistant", it turns out, is often her husband.
"Men [often] find it very uncomfortable to see another man working as my assistant," Davis said. "[Being female] does require having a level of confidence that a lot of men don't need to have. You cannot doubt yourself. You cannot for one second think you are not the authority in the room."
It's important to note that IBM announced Brown, Tanner and Davis as "champions" at this year's Connect conference in Orlando, Florida. Their industry authority is as real as some of the misperceptions about them. The Nerd Girl network formed in 2008 at an IBM Lotusphere event when conference organisers - women - noticed the gender split and encouraged the group's development by inviting the women to host sessions and panels.
The group now exists through LinkedIn and Twitter and hosts Skype chats. It has seen the end of booth babes at conferences (exhibitors at the event signed a contract banning the use of models) and witnessed Nerd Girl merchandise prove popular among male and female attendees.
"It doesn't take much encouragement," said Davis. "Nerd Girls is not about gender, it is about celebrating differences. Just be fair and not diminishing and demeaning."
Last November, the chief of Australia's agency for Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace, Helen Conway, said technology firms needed to do more for women. She said the industry also needed to combat the popular perception that it offered a working environment that, while not actively hostile, could be tacitly unwelcoming to women.
The New York-based writer attended the event in Florida as a guest of the company.
- FFX Aus