IBM urging women to #HackAHairDryer in order to get into tech has to be one of the worst PR efforts in recent memory. It's an awkwardly bland and cloying video that implies tech's gender gap exists because women don't know they can do science — and that they have to be lured into it with soothingly familiar feminine objects. It's part of a larger trend of "women in STEM" initiatives that use references to physical beauty or makeup, in an environment where women are often reduced to their physical appearance instead of their skills or achievements. And it reinforces the idea that men are a diverse set of subgroups while women are a big "female demographic."
Unsurprisingly, the well-meaning but misbegotten hashtag has gotten the criticism it deserves on Gizmodo, The Guardian, and other sites. It's gotten a storm of women on Twitter talking about the professional scientific work — building satellites, writing code — that they do instead of DIY hair dryer modification projects. It's even less surprising that IBM quickly apologized and ended the campaign once the criticism started hitting, admitting that it "missed the mark for some." In all seriousness, #HackAHairDryer fails on so many levels that it's baffling anyone considered it a remotely adequate attempt at human communication.
Whenever one of these cringingly gendered campaigns comes up, though, the equal and opposite reaction falls into its own kind of trap: it sets up a dichotomy between femininity and meaningful work. Take, for example, TechCrunch's criticism that IBM wants women to "not hack computer software, math problems, or something of social impact — [but] a hair dryer." The totally reasonable implication is supposed to be that women shouldn't be treated like neophytes at the 101 level of DIY hacking, instead of active participants in scientific and engineering work.
But the quip works best if someone seriously tinkering with a hair dryer seems self-evidently silly or frivolous, despite the fact that much Silicon Valley masculinity is built around hacking useless things for no particular reason. By the same token, a lot of the tweets are justified rebellion against a particular style of enforced femininity, but they end up signaling that femininity is not the mark of a serious scientist. There's a fine line between "This project's reliance on stereotypes is patronizing" and "Girly stuff sure is dumb, right?"
There's a fine line between "stereotypes are bad" and "girly stuff sure is dumb"
This line is a long-running topic of conversation in both feminism and female-minority communities. Feminist author and molecular biologist Julia Serano has written at length about "empowering femininity" — taking pressure off women to have certain traits and interests without mocking the traits themselves. The duly deserved backlash against campaigns like this shouldn't devolve into a contest to see who can reject things like fashion and beauty regimens the most vehemently.
The best response to IBM's campaign isn't "I'm a scientist, and I hate hair dryers." It's anecdotes like those of researcher and Gizmodo writer Mika McKinnon, who criticized the video while describing all the actual ways she's used hair dryers to warm up LEDs or dry electronics in the field. Whenever some company puts out a hideously misguided attempt at pinkifying STEM, the goal shouldn't just be to stop women from being targeted with "woman things." It should be to remind everyone that women's technology is technology, period.