A still from the IBM video

IBM's 'hack a hairdryer' campaign gets burned

It was meant to show that innovation is independent of gender, but IBM's women in tech campaign seriously backfired.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 08 Dec 2015

Everyone loves an uplifting campaign. When done well, it can spark worthwhile discussion, not just a good batch of press coverage. Sport England's success with This Girl Can showed just that. Of course when it goes wrong, the results can be disastrous.

So spare a thought for tech firm IBM, which has suffered the 'hairdryer treatment' from all sides after an ill-advised campaign, #HackAHairdryer, picked up traction for all the wrong reasons. The video, which has since been pulled, shows women reverse engineering a hairdryer. The idea was – apparently – to try and encourage women to get into technology, but quickly drew widespread criticism from women who actually work in tech for being patronising.

The campaign dates back to October but got a new plug on Twitter which caused an unfortunate storm. The company apologised, acknowledging that the campaign ‘missed the mark for some’. It was meant to form part of a wider initiative to promote STEM careers – notoriously weak on representation.

IBM’s heart was in the right place with this effort, but that really doesn’t cut it for a firm of its stature, especially when you consider the number of people overseeing a campaign. On a tentative plus side, the campaign did get more people talking about the ongoing problem of how to get more women interested in STEM careers. After all, women fill around three in 20 roles within the sectors and only two in 20 STEM managers are female. 

To be fair to IBM, it’s actually trying to encourage change on a wider level and it’s a much-trumpeted concern in the tech industry – not many are getting it right. Even the companies lauded for forward thinking and talent attraction have admitted to struggling when it comes to diversity. Google has started to post updates online about its hiring practices, conceding it still has ‘a long way to go’. Women make up 30% of its overall workforce – while Facebook and Apple’s female workforce stands at 31%.

But when you put out a campaign that only serves to entrench stereotypes surrounding women being reduced to their physical appearance, it's not really a surprise that you get this sort of reaction. IBM’s ad talks about innovation ‘not caring what you look like’, which is an interesting choice of phrase when paired with a woman alongside an array of cosmetics and a hairdryer.

Another of IBM’s recruitment videos targeting new hires for digital technology actually does a much better job at conveying the now muddled message. It’s an effective way of showing both men and women as being competent and having great potential in the field. It’s a shame then, to undo that good work by releasing a highly misjudged campaign that did the opposite.

A related issue popped up among the criticism to the campaign. Much of the backlash was legitimate and raised important points, but some of it veered into the realm of dismissing femininity too – suggesting it couldn’t be reconciled with the image of a ‘serious’ scientist. 

Using campaigns to try and turnaround long-standing perceptions is admirable in its own way, but working to overhaul STEM’s representation problem needs to start a whole lot earlier - combatting stereotypes about what can and can’t be done by certain people simply because of their gender. Until then, we might have to brace ourselves for a few more embarrassing videos which do little other than remind everyone there is a problem, but don't do much in the way of addressing the issue.

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