Blasting Away The Barriers To Women In STEM

Photo: IBM/Youtube

Anna Spargo-Ryan is a writer and digital strategist from Melbourne. She likes chocolate, cats and pointing at stuff.


Approx 4 minute reading time

As a child, I had watched my mother in the bathroom, blow drying her cropped hair. “Anna,” she said to me, pre-keratin, “you can only imagine the many ways in which this activity contributes to my success in my STEM field.” She was right. It would be years before I truly understood the impact of this common bathroom item.

IBM’s newly launched #HackAHairDryer (which has since been pulled and the company has apologised) is just the latest in a string of poorly advised “campaigns for women”, up there with women’s pens and women’s earplugs. Women are invited to find creative news ways to turn their lowly hair dryer into an object of great engineering import. Because hoo boy, do women love hairdryers!

On its website, IBM addresses some pervasive myths:

     Girls don’t like science? Women can’t code? Only men wear lab coats?

It’s true that lots of girls like science. It’s true that women can write code, sometimes even without Googling. And there is evidence to suggest that, against all odds, men and women both wear lab coats and also other coats.

Unfortunately, women don’t have time for all that science crap. We are at the behest of something confounding. Something with advanced ionic technology to reduce flyaways and frizziness. Something with negative ions to radiate heat without drying hair out.

     “It’s time to blast away the barriers that women confront on a daily basis.”

I bought my first hairdryer from a chain pharmacy in Melbourne in 2010. It was a black number, mid-range. No one told me I’d also need a soft round brush, or a serum to protect my ends. I had to figure this out for myself, like some kind of maths problem. “Gosh darn it!” I exclaimed, startling the shop assistant. “This is truly the last great barrier in our quest to become equals of men!” 

This campaign is a shame not least because IBM have traditionally done great things for women in STEM roles (which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics ICYMI). They have a whole program — The Technologistas Series — dedicated to promoting and showcasing great work by women. For new hires, there’s the Network of Emerging Women Leaders, with leadership training, mentoring and career workshops. This year, DiversityInc actually named IBM #1 for Global Diversity.

IBM’s Chair, President and CEO is Ginni Rometty — a woman.

And actually, this attitude towards women is hiding on the #HackAHairDryer website. Beneath the layers of unfortunate gendered hyperbole, women have identified their “stigmas worth blasting”. Women belong in tech. Women have strong analytical skills. Women are valuable.

The hairdryer element is an afterthought, a roundtable of men trying to find something that would both “blast” and “appeal to women.” 

As part of its “ideas boom”, our Federal Government recently announced an investment of $13m (over five years) to support women in STEM fields. One of the identified objectives is “establishing a new initiative under the ‘Male Champions of Change’ project to focus on STEM-based and entrepreneurial industries”.

That’s right. The Australian Human Rights Commission has a project called ‘Male Champions of Change’ — a group of influential men engaged to fight sex discrimination. The Government will invest part of its $13m in supporting these men to break the cycles of sexism for women.

Women have been deigned too small, too feeble. Without men to help them, women will never succeed.

The issue is a deeply rooted opposition to women in these spaces. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve offered a solution to a technical issue, only to be asked “is there a man I can speak to?” Women are seen as less able to separate their vast emotional needs from their ability to write clean code. Women lack the focus to do good research. Women will have to leave the project early to pick up their sick children.

Women will get their period in space.

The issue has never been any of these things. The tech industry has offered me better balance as a working mother than I could ever have imagined. I have enjoyed diverse, challenging, interesting work. The law requires businesses to have sanitary disposal units.

Women are actively discouraged to work in STEM. We make up 55% of university graduates in these fields, but only 25% of the workforce. I have been a developer for 15 years. In that time, I have been told explicitly that my presence is not valuable, unwelcome. I have watched men sit at their sweaty help desk and rate women in the organisation out of ten. I have been sexually assaulted in my workplace.

The way to encourage women into tech jobs is not to pander to their lesser, gentler sex, but to empower them. To acknowledge the equal value of their input. To recognise the importance of gender balance and a proactive approach to diversity. To show upcoming women that the industry is safe, that it will nurture and grow and encourage them. We value you. We respect you. We need you.

The problem is not hairdryers. It’s those who think the problem is hair dryers.

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