Remember Massacred Women Engineers with a Hairdryer Hackathon [UPDATED]

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On December 6th, 1989, Canadian women were targeted, shot, and killed for being engineering students. The Montreal Massacre is a national day of remembrance and action, which makes it the perfect time for IBM to push their pinkification of science campaign.

On December 6th, 1989, fourteen women were killed and another ten women and four men injured during the attack at École Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec by a gunman screaming about feminists. On December 6th, 2015, IBM decided to relaunch #HackAHairdryer, confirmation of their belief that the only way to interest women in science is by making it all about hair care, cosmetics, and pinkness. These things are in no way equivalent, but the timing leaves a lot to be desired.


Last year I gave remembrance to those killed and injured during the insane attack on women daring to train as engineers. Instead of giving the rampaging asshole a voice, I paid tribute to some of the Canadian women who have made remarkable accomplishments for science and engineering. It wasn’t much—it’s never enough to honour those who paved the way for me to be a woman in science living and working in Canada—but it’s what I could do to celebrate instead of mourn.

This year, I get IBM’s hamfisted attempts to welcome women into science with microaggressions instead. IBM needs to be to downright oblivious to launch this asinine campaign after EDF Energy’s #PrettyCurious fell flat for sexism. Normally I wouldn’t bother commenting on it—I’m too busy discovering countless new heroes like Chikako Hirose, the trajectory designer behind the audacious plan to save Akatsuki, or Helen Battles Sawyer Hogg, the globular clusters expert who has an asteroid named after her. But to relaunch this idiocy on the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre after it already flopped in October is to remind every Canadian woman in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that we’re still a long, long, long way from being treated as equals.


Hairdryers are remarkably effective at warming up the screen of a Supersting R8 when it’s too cold to display. Courtesy of Mika McKinnon

Women are allowed to use hairdryers, and to like them. Hell, they can even hack them if it tickles their fancy. When I’m doing fieldwork, I keep a hairdryer in my toolbag. I use it to warm up cranky LCD displays, gently dry out damp electronics, shrink heatwrap after repairing wires, and give my batteries a tiny boost if the generator is still running strong. I’ve even used it to dry my hair when it was at risk of mildewing after being outdoors in constant downpours for weeks. A hairdryer is a damn useful part of my geophysics field kit. But a hairdryer-based hackathon is not the way to entice women into science without othering the fuck out of them.


Look, I get it. This ridiculous campaign is an attempt to take a traditionally feminine object and mess with it in a manner typically reserved for the masculine domain. But this isn’t how to do it. This is stereotype threat, creating a situation where women can’t engage without fear of confirming a stereotype about their gender and being perceived as foolishly feminine. It’s dumbing shit down because dem womenz can only understand technology when it’s the tools of beauty. It’s the same bullshit behind why online tracking systems decide you’re a dude if you like science but don’t also like beauty, babies, or diets and start serving up ads on men’s razors. The intent is admirable and I applaud the efforts to declare that innovation is independent of gender, but this campaign is a disaster wrapped in candy-toned electrical cords.

The timing to retry the campaign just makes it so much worse. I get that Canadian history is invisible outside the country, but it’s the largest massacre in North America specifically targeting women for being engineers. Surely that’s history worth knowing about if you’re trying to recruit women into engineering! “They mean well,” doesn’t excuse ignorance for a multibillion dollar international corporation.


You want to help women in science, IBM? Sit down with L’Oréal. They’re a makeup company, but they know how to make actually-worthwhile promo videos, and they pony up the cash for science fellowships. Want a hackathon where women turn up? Take a page from Science Hack Day and actively recruit women at the start of the process instead of as afterthoughts. Treat women as diverse humans with individual interests, hobbies, and skills instead of some amorphous mass of beauty-junkies.

And stay the fuck away from my hairdryer.

Update: This morning we received the following email from IBM UK and Ireland:

In response to the story you wrote this morning on IBM:

“The videos were part of a larger campaign to promote STEM careers. It missed the mark for some and we apologise. It is being discontinued.”


Top image: Hack a hairdryer like the lady you are. Credit: IBM

The author would apologize for the excessive profanity, but isn’t going to. Instead, you can email her at or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.