This week, the Internet uproared over IBM’s #HackAHairDryer campaign. IBM’s (IBM) project asked women to get involved in STEM careers by asking them to “give a hairdryer a fresh new use”. On the heels of yet another misguided effort to promote girls in technology — Preemadonna, a company that focuses on using technology to provide lifestyle products for women and girls recently launched NailBot, a nail-printing device — companies need to rethink their strategy when it comes to closing the gender gap in technology. Initiatives like IBM’s #HackAHairDryer and Nailbot are well-intentioned. That said, “feminizing” science and technology in order to attract female talent propagates the myth that math, science, and technology are somehow inherently “un-feminine,” directly conflicting with the good intentions of these initiatives.
I own (and use) a hairdryer. I regularly get manicures. I also like skirts, ruffles, and high heels. None of these things has much to do with current technology, at least for me. That sort of ‘forced feminism’ to make technology more relatable to women backfires because it’s heavily reliant on stereotypes. I work with other women in technology who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing pink; would prefer to let their hair air-dry; and skip the polish in favor of natural nails. They are no less feminine than me.
Not only that, but for girls and women who do pursue education and careers in STEM, the last thing they want is to be good at something “for a girl.” These types of initiatives feel like they’re setting a different bar for women as if they somehow can’t be expected to be held to the same standard as their male counterparts. Take the recent commentary by Sequoia Capital Chairman Sir Michael Moritz. When asked why his venture capital firm does not employ more female partners, he said, “We look very hard,” but they’re “not prepared to … lower [their] standards”. This underlying notion that women cannot meet or exceed the same high standards is so pervasive in our culture that these types of unintended comments just slip out naturally. I have no doubt that Moritz does not feel overtly misogynistic, but I also cannot ignore the undertones of his statements.
The intent behind the IBM campaign was to promote women currently in technology careers by inviting them to “re-engineer what matters in science.” Apparently what matters in science to women is equivalent to hairdryers. Unfortunately, most of us are too busy solving actual world problems to spend time rethinking the use of a common hairdryer in order to participate in a gimmicky campaign. The exact thing that IBM did wrong points out the precise thing that the technology world needs to do right in order to promote women in technology and retain women in technology fields, namely demonstrating that a career in STEM is an opportunity to make a positive impact. Those of us who do work in technology fields, myself included, do so because we want to make a difference, a trait and an aspiration that is neither masculine nor feminine. Overtly feminizing technology simply for the sake of it ignores the fact that most of us (women included) want to make a positive impact on the world.
The notion of appealing to girls through “femininity” starts at a very young age for many — well before the pursuit of higher education. For example, Target (TGT) recently vowed to provide gender-neutral displays for toys in their stores. Various studies provide insight into how gender labels can impact what toys children choose to play with, and this bias carries through into the rest of their lives when building and constructing things is perceived as a “boy” activity, and beauty and decorating is a “girl” activity.
When I grew up, I played with my brother’s Masters of the Universe, and he had his own Cabbage Patch Kids. We both built things with Legos. When my brother and I became teenagers, he was better than me at video games, but I was more skilled with computers. He tutored me in physics, and I tutored him in computer science. I’ve watched him carry through this style of parenting when his son requested (and received) a dollhouse one year for Christmas, along with the countless Lego sets, dolls, puppets, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
What’s most interesting about gender categorization and toys, however, is that overtly “masculine” toys are no better at teaching cognitive and artistic skills than overtly “feminine” toys. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) conducted interviews with two researchers in this area, who both indicated that toys that are perceived as gender-neutral are actually more beneficial for helping children develop cognitive abilities. Additionally, gender-specific toys can in fact reinforce qualities unrelated to cognitive abilities that we may not want our children to adopt, like aggression and violence in boys and a focus on attractiveness and appearance in girls.
So how do we get more girls interested in technology? The same way we get boys interested: We leverage their interests and help them solve problems using technology. Google’s (GOOG) Made With Code initiative strikes the right balance. Some of the projects are traditionally feminine, but some are gender-neutral, and those that would be considered “feminine” projects are based on creativity and artistry more than they are on appearance and beauty.
It’s no surprise that plenty of people (both women and men) spoke out against the #HackAHairDryer project, and IBM ultimately pulled the plug on it. What should IBM be doing instead to attract more women to technology jobs? IBM is already doing a lot of things right by focusing on the gender-neutral accomplishments that female technologists and engineers are achieving and promoting their positive impact in the world. But perhaps IBM and other companies looking to attract women could also ask the women they work with about what they define as a more “women-friendly” workplace, and hopefully by doing so, can avoid more missteps.
Jennifer Sand is the vice president of product management at CloudLock.