By Diane Ivey
I’m not a scientist, but I know a formula for disaster when I see one.
Last week, IBM asked female scientists to #HackAHairDryer on Twitter. The campaign, which was supposed to encourage women in STEM careers, asked participants to reimagine and repurpose a hairdryer. The first thing I thought of was Megan Amram’s hilarious book, aptly titled Science…For Her!. Moments after the campaign began, scientists began tweeting back in protest.
Many tweets pointed out the hypocrisy of a “hey, ladies!” approach, saying IBM was trying to make science relatable to women in a stereotypically feminine way by linking it to beauty products. Others commented that the challenge was overly simplistic, and having it aimed toward women was sexist (implying that women can’t handle a more complex science project). Either way, let’s just say it didn’t go well. You can see more of the amazing responses here.
Due to the backlash, #HackAHairDryer ended shortly after it began. IBM has since apologized, but the damage has already been done.
Before I get into this, I’m going to say again that I’m not a science person. I went to a well-funded public school in the Midwestern suburbs and they did their best. I was never discouraged from pursuing a career in STEM, but I’m an English literature kind of person at heart. The only way you can get me to care about chemistry is if you preface it with “So if I’m trying to slowly poison the governess over the course of a month and I have X amount of arsenic, how long will it take?”
A recent article in Fortune had a good point: that the campaign “tries to get people to think outside of the box, using a hairdryer as a different type of tool than its intended use, which is a fundamental point of engineering.”
But I am a woman and a feminist and I care deeply about how women are perceived, and this bothers me. The hairdryer itself is a problem. If the way you’re relating to women is through beauty products, you’re already missing the point of a campaign built around inclusion. There are plenty of women interested in science already. You don’t need to make it about a tool that supposedly makes you beautiful in order to make it relevant. If you want to be inclusive, you can start by making room for the women who are already there. Listen. Don’t mansplain. Give them the same time, attention, and resources you would give men. That’s just the start.
And by the way, I’m not too in love with some of the responding tweets from people acting like a hairdryer is beneath them, either. You can be interested in beauty and science (or any academic subject, for that matter) at the same time. Did we learn nothing from Legally Blonde? An interest in hairdryers or nail polish or fashion isn’t frivolous, nor is it the only way to reach an audience that is nearly half the world’s population.
I don’t want to end this with “at least we got people talking,” because that really isn’t enough anymore. I hope IBM learned from their mistake, and I’m glad not just women told them exactly where to go. I think it’s really important to be an ally when this kind of thing happens, which is why I’m sticking up for women in STEM. I don’t really “get” science and you may not really “get” hairstyling, but we all have the right to pursue the careers we want. It’s almost a new year, and we can do anything.