Is It Offensive to Ask Female Scientists to Design a Better Hair Dryer?

One female scientist’s take on IBM’s recent social media faux pas.
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
31
One female scientist’s take on IBM’s recent social media faux pas.

Anyone who has seen Sandra Bullock defend herself against a fluffy white dog in The Proposal knows the power of a good hair dryer. But this week IBM sought to create a better hair dryer as an ill-contrived stimulus to increase women’s interest in science. Its online campaign was met with ridicule on social media; lady scientists fired back that they felt they were being sent back to the 1950s to focus on a cosmetic tool and would much rather work on quantum dots, satellites, and things that are generally so much cooler than hair dryers.

Flashbacks to the 1950s aside, I have a hard time wanting to join the crowd of IBM lampooners. As a woman in science, I understand how hard it is to host a good hackathon; finding a fun problem that garners interest and is still manageable on a short time frame is a real challenge. And yet, the hair dryer gimmick suggests a serious disconnect from the realities and interests of women in science.

In spite of this, hair dryer physics is actually kind of cool. Sue me. Frankly, I’d be curious to know what sort of hair dryer an IBM hackathon would produce. As a swimmer with thick hair that takes the better part of an hour to dry, I’d have a vested interest. I don’t think I lose any street cred as a woman scientist because I happen to like having dry, shiny hair. (A tangential but useful aside: This hot-air brush seriously upped my hair game, and the designers and scientists, male or female, who designed it have my unending gratitude.)

To take an overly charitable view of the incident, perhaps this isn’t about a limited view of women but rather a limited vision for the hair dryer. One of my good friends, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering, works with a group that uses the physics of the humble toaster to create cost-efficient methods of disease testing in the developing world. Who knows what the hair dryer could be used for?

The cringeworthy bit of the whole blunder is that the hackathon organizers came up with a hair dryer as “what matters to women in science.” Surely IBM knows that hair is so far removed from what women in science are truly passionate about. IBM is a remarkably innovative company, and one of the most genuinely interesting and thoughtful conversations I had at a work fair in graduate school in mathematical physics happened to occur with an IBM recruiter. His group was working on a predictive crime software for a smart cities initiative. We talked about the ethics of software design and eventually wound up in a conversation about his extracurricular interests in global tech initiatives. Our brief meeting proved a rare encouragement that helped me chart a course to use mathematical modeling to better understand and alleviate poverty—what I truly cared about. I do not feel that this ill-conceived media stunt is representative of what IBM believes that “women in science” care about.

IBM apologized for its irrelevant marketing campaign, and I hope it continues finding meaningful ways to encourage women to use physics to pursue what truly matters to them. (Surely none of us are immune from a social media disaster, after all.) If I have a real critique of the situation, it’s that the hair dryer initiative stems from an impatient hackathon culture—the pervasive idea that there’s a quick fix for things. Contrary to the mindset of “there’s an app for that,” the complex problems of sexism in science and technology run deep and cannot be fixed in a weekend hackathon. It will take time and careful attention to systemic biases to continue to foster workplaces in STEM where women are able to pursue what matters to them—with or without shiny hair powered by an IBM hair dryer.

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock