Hack a Hair Dryer Was Sexist, But It Also Might Have Worked

December 8, 2015, 12:44 PM UTC
Screenshot taken from IBM's video.

Critics attacked IBM for its Hack a Hair Dryer campaign that called for girls to get involved in science and engineering by asking them to imagine what they could do with a hairdryer (besides dry their hair). The video featured women in lab coats and a blow dryer forcing ping pong balls through a series of tubes, slides and funnels as part of complicated looking Rube Goldberg machines.

It made for a compelling video—and terrible engineering.

But in this case it also made for a terrible cultural message. Women who saw the video saw not an innocent hair dryer, but a tool of sexist oppression. IBM had wrapped science and engineering in girly girl trappings. Women and men on Twitter quickly began tweeting their disdain for the campaign. IBM apologized and took the campaign down.

I’ll admit it, I who never owned a blow dryer until the age of 21, was offended by the premise that as a woman, I might be more interested in science or engineering if it came disguised in a blow dryer. And as a mom of a nine-year-old daughter who I never want to suffer for beauty, I gritted my teeth at the idea of a hair dryer being her inspiration into engineering.

But once I soothed my knee-jerk feminist reaction and talked to some women, I got over IBM’s faux pas (blow pas?). Maybe it wasn’t even that bad. After all, the first rule of getting girls and young women into science and engineering careers is to make these fields relatable to them, and for some women and girls, a hair dryer is very relatable.

Tricia Berry, the director of Women in Engineering Program at the University of Texas at Austin, explains that her organization used to do a group activity focused on building small robots using a tooth-brush head and a little motor. The robots were called bristle bots. Last year, during the engineering fair the organization held for girls, they switched gears to instead build a butterfly robot using the same components with the addition of wings the girls could color.

Participation soared.

“The response was so different,” Berry said. “Was it sexist because we made it into a butterfly? I don’t know, but anything to grab their attention and make [tech] relatable.”

And that may be where IBM’s one-note blow dryer campaign went wrong: The idea that making tech relatable to women means making it pink or frilly. This approach tries to make all women into one type just like marketing to men that portray them as beer-swilling dolts who can’t change a diaper or tech bros who are afraid of women in their boardrooms. It does a disservice to them.

So for people who really want to get women into technology, the Hack a hairdryer campaign actually had some good ideas. Berry pointed out that it 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.

Karin Enstam Jaffe, an anthropology professor at California’s Sonoma State University, says another crucial element in getting girls involved in science is to provide them with female role models. The video, before it was taken down, shows women futzing around with their complicated machines and blow dryers. I wished it actually showed women truly building machines as opposed to standing near them and acting more as set pieces, because Jaffe is right that role models help encourage girls to be interested in lab work. Watching my own mom in her career as a geophysicist, and building computers with my dad is what sparked my own deep love of science and technology.

So if you want to get girls into science or engineering, talk to them about both. Or better yet, expose them to it by exploring science and engineering in your own life. And after they take college classes or join a related profession, there are bigger to dos. Bosses and colleagues must avoid overt sexism and take steps like being aware of unconscious biases. Asking female grad students to get coffee or assuming they can’t stay late because of family obligations, would go a long way in ensuring women stay in the science and engineering fields. There are a host of other issues, that videos and hair dryers can’t help.

Women are far more likely to drop out of sciences if they feel like they aren’t perfect. They also tend to gravitate toward college majors that emphasize real-world results, something not all computer science or engineering programs focus on. But as technology becomes part of every facet of our lives, it becomes harder to divorce tech from everyday experience by assuming it’s only for a certain stereotypical person who has spent his life in front of a monitor typing code in the command line.

Now that technology can be used to make everything from thermostats to wearable devices, the diversity of experiences in technology becomes more important even as more people can see themselves building a career.

“Slowly but surely, we’re getting there,” Berry says. I hope that’s true.

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