IBM'S #HackAHairdryer campaign is an insult to women

In an attempt to drive more women into pursuing science, the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) became the subject of sharp-tongued criticism for launching their marketing campaign, titled #HackAHairdryer.

“That's ok @IBM, I'd rather build satellites instead, but good luck with that whole #HackAHairDryer thing,” said Twitter user Stephanie Evans, @StephEvz43, on Dec. 6.

IBM shut down the campaign on Dec. 7 after receiving thousands of tweets lambasting the campaign for feeding into gender stereotypes of women.

Ironically, IBM started the campaign with exactly the opposite thought in mind.

“It’s time to blast away the barriers that women confront on a daily basis,” the company said in its launch pitch in October.

About two-and-a-half months after that pitch, IBM retracted the campaign and apologized for its blunder.

“This was part of a larger campaign to promote STEM careers. It missed the mark and we apologize,” IBM said in a tweet on Dec. 7. “It is being discontinued.”

IBM apologized, but its retraction of #HackAHairdryer does not erase the other tired gender tropes against women in STEM fields.

There was EDF Energy’s #PrettyCurious campaign in September, which was well-intentioned with its goals of encouraging female interest in STEM, but backfired with its choice of hashtag.

“Oh no @edfenergy, #prettycurious? Really?” said Twitter user Kathryn Harkup, @RotwangsRobot, on Sept. 29. “How about encouraging ANYONE interested in STEM subjects to #staycurious?”

EDF Energy was quick to defend its hashtag, saying it is not about being “pretty,” but rather, about being “pretty curious.”

“Using 'pretty' is a play on words,” EDF said on its website. “We are using the word in the sense of 'pretty unexpected', 'pretty determined', 'pretty inventive', 'pretty focused' and 'pretty curious.’”

#PrettyCurious could have been positive wordplay gone wrong, or the product of underhanded marketing. Yet, more malicious jabs at women in tech persist.

Now scorned Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, a British biochemist who won the prestigious prize in 2001 for co-discovering protein molecules that control the division of cells, said in a toast at the World Conference of Science Journalists in June that women were overly sensitive and distracting to men in a lab.

“Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry,” Hunt said during his speech in Seoul. “Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls?”

A few months later, the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer emerged in droves on Twitter after OneLogin, Inc.'s platform engineer Isis Anachalee was called “too pretty” to be an engineer after she was featured on an advertisement for OneLogin.

Thousands of female engineers rallied against the prevailing idea that women engineers are imagined to look a certain way by posting pictures of themselves accompanied with the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer.

High-profile women in tech, such as Helen Hou-Sandi, a lead developer at WordPress and the director of platform experience at 10up, a web publishing company, and Tracy Chou, an engineer at Pinterest, came out in support of the hashtag.

Flash forward a handful of months, and the Internet's arrived at the latest instance of social media furor over yet another marketing campaign.

#HackAHairdryer is a patronizing challenge packaged in an alliterative hashtag. It not only reduces the accomplishments and ambitions of women who work with — or hope to work with — genes, satellites and lasers and change the world, but it assumes that “girlifying” STEM is necessary to get women and girls into a male-dominated field. And that just simply isn't true. 

If a woman wants to pursue science, technology, engineering or math, she will. Leave the hairdryer at home.

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