Hair Dryers, Hacking, and Us

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past several days, IBM posted, then ultimately removed a video promoting STEM fields for women via “hacking hairdryers”, to a great deal of public outcry from STEM professionals. The unhappiness stemmed not only from perceived sexism, but also tremendously poor timing as the ad was released close to the anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre of 1989.

I will apologize from momentarily veering away from my usual structured technical guides. However, I’d likely to briefly state my own experience and thoughts on the matter, because I feel there are a couple things that still need to be said.

Before I continue, I’d like to make it clear that I see no purpose in badmouthing IBM further regarding their campaign. I genuinely believe they meant well, and I have many exceptional friends (both male and female) employed in STEM fields there. I’m not offended by their campaign; I merely feel disappointment. The ad (probably generated by an unrelated advertising team) was symptomatic of what I perceive as a systemic misconception about how to interest girls and women (and in a larger sense, minorities) in STEM fields.

I’m fairly straightforward about my interests and experience on social media and my blog. I hope I have properly expressed over the years that I truly have keen interest and skill in an array of tech, without compromise. Tech isn’t merely a career for me – it’s something I live. I also publicly enjoy a fair number of things that are often traditionally categorized as ‘feminine’. I own a gratuitous amount of makeup. I enjoy subversively playing with the ‘sparkly’ and ‘pink’ tropes. I will admit that it took time for me to reconcile these things as a young adult. These things are not mutually exclusive, nor are they particularly interrelated apart from my persona.

I’m not a girl hacker – I’m a hacker. I am not a hacker because somebody taught me to hack on a pink keyboard. I learned to hack, code, and solder the same way most everyone else did. I don’t personally know any female hackers or technical professionals who state that they owe particular success or interest to being approached with anything pink, sparkly, or remotely associated with Barbie. Your mileage may vary.

I owe my skill at tech not to campaigns targeted at me as a girl, but to the fact that by the time that people told me that I could not do things because I was female I was already confident in my ability to do them. By the time my sixth grade science teacher reminded me to, “Remember what happened to Joan of Arc”, I had coded my first text based RPG and soldered circuit boards, and I had found that it was something I enjoyed.

My parents never gave me any presumption of advantage or disadvantage in life to being female. It had no bearing. There was an expectation that I would learn to play a musical instrument and appreciate fine arts, but also help fix the car or TV when they broke and have a solid fundamental understanding of science. My parents both firmly held the assumption these were things an informed human being should do. If I showed an interest in something beneficial, they encouraged it.

Outside of my immediate family, who I firmly believe were instrumental in me freely pursuing an interest in a variety of fields, I also can point directly to youth organizations like the Girl Scouts. Although I can absolutely name cases where I’ve seen them stoop to the same fallacy, even in the 80’s and 90’s, their youth programs still offered a wide array of science and tech teaching that was presented in a great, unbiased, non-condescending way. Our telescopes never needed to be sparkly. We just had to know that we were looking at Saturn through the eyepiece in a cramped observatory on a chilly night, and that was enough.

In my experience it’s absolutely an unfortunate reality that women and girls often do face negative pressures, preconceptions, and lack of encouragement from many sources when they demonstrate any real interest in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. Trying to advertise these fields through gross gender stereotypes is probably not the way to fix this problem. The ability to excel comes from being told it’s OK to pursue almost any interest by the formative people in a child’s life. This includes family, teachers, mentors, and the community. It comes from being provided exposure to varied interests at a young age. We have to counter the societal negative pressures with positive encouragement for everybody.

Give the kids and young adults in your life the exposure and support to explore and pursue things they wish to.

Get involved with the many great organizations like Hak4Kids and DefCon Kids that provide so much education and motivation to youths.

If you’re able, mentor and sponsor people in your community who don’t have support to grow and learn in tech fields.