"Hack a Hairdryer" was a poor Women in STEM initiative, to be sure. But people are only focusing on the blatant problem—that it employed a tired stereotype—and are overlooking the subtler issues this campaign had, ones even a not-so-sexist campaign would have shared: It puts all the onus on women to solve a problem they did not create. It asks women to prove they’re actually good at science. It reinforces the narrative that women in STEM are still outliers that require justification. How many times do we have to do this? I’m bored.
Yes, we are still fighting an uphill battle when it comes to encouraging, hiring, and retaining women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. Initiatives like “Hack a Hairdryer” are clumsily attempting to turn the tables by featuring women in science roles to dispel "myths" about women in science—that women "can't," "won't," or "shouldn't" do STEM things. (But really, are these still myths?)
But this misses a huge piece of the puzzle. This is, at best, half the problem—that we don't see women in these roles often enough. The other half of the problem is that so many people are content thinking that they can discount women in these roles. Ignore them. Not hire them. Belittle them. And with no repercussions. As much as we should celebrate women in science, we must also shame the antiquated views that started this problem in the first place.
Instead of making women convince us they’re actually good at science (*eyeroll*), why don’t we stigmatize misogyny in STEM? Because guess what—that’s the actual problem.
I think Women in STEM initiatives should take a page from “HeforShe,” a campaign for gender equality initiated by UN Women. As their website explains, “Its goal is to engage men and boys as agents of change for the achievement of gender equality and women's rights, by encouraging them to take action against inequalities faced by women and girls.”
What would that look like in STEM land? How about more campaigns where people share a story of a woman in STEM who inspires them? Or one where men are encouraged to pledge to be part of the solution and not part of the problem: to speak up when their colleagues say sexist things, to support women in their lab who are being mistreated, to make it clear that women in STEM are welcome and misogyny in STEM is not.
Or we can keep asking women to do science jumping jacks for our amusement so we can all sit back at the end of yet another Women in STEM campaign and pat ourselves on the back, saying, “Look at all those women in STEM we just made justify their own existences. We're so awesome.”