A few days ago, IBM launched a new campaign to challenge the idea that only men are interested in science and technology. Called Hack A Hairdryer, it invited female engineers or aspiring engineers to repurpose this everyday object that we apparently all own (nope) into something innovative, sharing the results on Twitter using the hashtag #HackAHairdryer. On IBM’s website, women from the company took time away from actual, potentially interesting work in order to make toy tractors and travel steamers – the kind of stuff that really makes engineering seem aspirational, providing you’ve got candy floss for brains.
The idea was to “blast away” stigma (ha ha) by showing that making stuff isn’t just for men, women can do it too. And what better way to demonstrate that than by encouraging us to make something simple from an object primarily associated with women’s grooming? That’s not incredibly patronising. Oh wait, yes it is. IBM today pulled the campaign following a social media backlash:
I code. But it's to mess around with salamander DNA sequences, not hair dryers. Minor details. #HackAHairDryer— Cathy Newman (@cenewman0) December 7, 2015
#HackAHairDryer seems neat except for the parts where I don't own a hairdryer and I have actual fun things to hack on like lasers— Eva Kloiber (@aeva_io) December 7, 2015
But IBM is not the only company guilty of this approach.
When the European Commission wanted to encourage girls to pursue a career in science, they made a video about the importance of science in making lipstick and used the vapid slogan “Science: it’s a girl thing!” liberally. (This was in 2012, not 1962.) Earlier this year, EDF decided to raise awareness about the gender disparity in STEM careers with an initiative they called Pretty Curious. They claimed that this was a “play on words” to challenge the fact that women and girls are too often judged by how they look. But surely it only gives credence to people’s prejudices to repeatedly raise them. The subtext is that you can like technology without it making you ugly, when it should be that you can like technology regardless of your gender, full stop. There’s nothing wrong with revolutionising beauty products (mascara badly needed hacking from a powder in a jar to a liquid on a brush) but there’s a lot wrong with assuming that’s the best or only way to reach girls and women.
The one thing these campaigns get right is acknowledging that we need more women in science, tech, and engineering. Depending on who you ask, women make up between 4 and 7 per cent of engineers in this country. And that’s not because women aren’t capable of excelling or because men’s brains are more “scientific”. It’s because of how we’re socialised. A study from Tel Aviv University and the University of Warwick found that secondary school teachers underestimated girls’ abilities in science and maths, probably due to their own unconscious prejudices. Even worse, when Network Rail commissioned researchers to chat to girls about their perceptions of engineering, girls as young as seven felt it wasn’t a career they could aim for. Girls in the 10-12 age group said they didn’t think they’d be strong enough and by 14, many were completely closed off to the idea. Not every girl is going to be suited to a STEM career, of course. But think how many women might have been engineers, scientists, or mathematicians if they’d only had a little encouragement. They could have done so many cool things with hairdryers.
Throughout history, women have contributed to science, tech, engineering, and mathematical advances. They’ve also systematically been undervalued and overlooked. We laud Isambard Kingdom Brunel but forget about Sarah Guppy. Our knowledge of influential female scientists starts and ends at Marie Cure. Nettie Stevens discovered X and Y chromosomes yet her male colleague got the credit (and the Nobel Prize) – and that’s far from an isolated case.
Women engineers have even been mass murdered, just for existing. As Mika McKinnon points out at Gizmodo, in 1989, 14 female Canadian engineering students were killed (and 14 more people injured) by a gunman with an anti-feminist agenda. Seeing as women in STEM are literally risking their lives to be there, surely it’s time to get serious about the contributions they could make. And it’s not just recruitment that’s the problem: 40% of women leave the industry, often because they find the male-dominated environment hostile.
Thankfully, some companies are trying to do better. Facebook, Pinterest, and Box set up a mentoring scheme called WEST (Women Entering and Staying in Tech) earlier this year, with the aim of improving their recruitment and retention stats. In the UK, Network Rail is holding open days for girls so they can learn more about engineering, offering work experience, and encouraging schools to focus on women who’ve achieved great things in STEM rather than discussing the lack of women in those fields. The company’s chief engineer is a woman, Jane Simpson, and she says seeing another woman do the job she wanted was instrumental in her career success. “Role models are crucial to show girls and women what’s possible and where their potential can take them. I was lucky to have a female role model who saw my potential and helped me realise it.”
If you can see it, you can be it. Or you can at least find out what it involves, without stereotypes, preconceptions, or bloody hairdryers.
Main image: iStock/trait2lumiere