After catching blowback on Twitter and elsewhere, IBM apologized Monday for trying to appeal to women in tech by asking them to hack hair dryers.
The company said it would discontinue #HackAHairDryer, an ad campaign that unintentionally delivered the unfortunate message that if you want women to be interested in tech you need to make it all about "girl stuff." The whole thing came off like corporate "pinkwashing," the adult equivalent of pink Legos. Twitter outrage came quickly, particularly from women in tech -- the intended audience for the campaign.
"The videos were part of a larger campaign to promote STEM careers," the company told HuffPost in an emailed statement. ("STEM" refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.) "It missed the mark for some and we apologize. It is being discontinued."
The ad appears to have been well-intentioned and reflects a broader push by the company -- one of only 22 on the S&P 500 led by a female CEO -- to attract women.
IBM, like most of its tech peers, doesn't employ very many women: Just one-quarter of the company's management team is female, according to internal data. That's sadly huge progress. The number of female executives at the company increased 562 percent over the past 20 years, according to IBM.
You have to wonder if any of the women at IBM looked at this ad before it went out.
The ad uses the hair dryer to make all kinds of empowering puns. The woman narrating talks about "blowing away the misconceptions" and "blasting through the bias."
"It's not what covers your cranium that counts," she says.
We see a blow dryer, blowing on a fan, for some reason. And also on a skateboard, blowing confetti. Who knows why. It's an ad!
In a different part of the campaign, on IBM's website, the company showcases 26 innovations by 26 women at IBM, including some in medicine, online privacy, emailing, plastics and more. Serious stuff.
"The hairdryer is obviously something that many women can relate to -- but so is the number-one thing on their list of tech innovations by IBM women-- an email extractor to withdraw emails you send before the recipient reads it. They probably wish they could do the same thing on Twitter!" Georgene Huang, cofounder of an employer review site for women called Fairygodboss, told HuffPost. "While they could have obviously been a bit more thoughtful about their choice of object to hack, the backlash is unfortunate. After all, IBM's intentions were in the right place"
Women give IBM mixed reviews as an employer, according to self-reported data on Fairygodboss. A slight majority (52 percent) say that women and men are treated fairly or equally.
IBM's ad, however misguided, does point to a larger issue in tech. Since there are so few women engineers, there are critical, real-world tech problems that don't get solved quickly. A few years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took aim at this issue and held a "Make the Breast Pump Not Suck!" hackathon, looking for ways to improve a very important device that male engineers may not think about but that desperately needs innovation.