I was reading about the women of the #iLookLikeAnEngineer movement going through the blogosphere.
The perceptions of “what an engineer looks like” might be changing. If a Hollywood writer is asked to “describe what an engineer looks like,” they would say he’s got short hair, wears a short sleeve shirt tucked into his trousers, and looks like engineers from the Apollo 13 movie. I disagree, and so do many others, apparently. I am an engineer and I look more like a housewife. (I get mistaken for everything but an engineer, actually.)
What is an engineer? To me, it’s an identity. In 20 years of working in an engineering role, I have to say I share what engineers seem to have in common (at least in my embedded hardware/software world.) The engineers I have known are honest, tend to take things literally, and are very curious. We like to solve puzzles, make things that fix specific problems, and enjoy the challenge of a new problem we think we can solve. We can be relentless in finding answers. Engineers know that the quality and performance of what we create speaks for itself. Does that sound like an engineer to you? Does this woman look like an engineer to you?
By Hollywood standards, the answer is no. But she is. That’s me. I am not packaged to look like an engineer. I am in stealth mode; you can talk about technical stuff around me, not knowing that I understand what you’re saying. When I jump in to add to your explanation of USB or a Linux sandbox, you could be surprised. But until I demonstrate the engineer inside me, the engineer that I am, you might think I wasn’t by my appearance. It’s time to consciously throw away the stereotype and embrace the fact that “engineer” is a personality with a passion for technology, not a package. It’s what’s inside the package that makes it function as it does. Size, color, or number of legs doesn’t matter. The datasheet says it’s an engineer, lists specific expertise about embedded hardware and software.
Engineers are generally helpful people and like sharing what they know. They have personally experienced the frustration of trying everything to get something to work, only to find out that the cable was bad, not their engineering know-how. Engineers and makers are quite chatty in some forums, and help others cut to the chase about some new technology with answers based on their own experiences. The maker movement has a real kinship in engineering. Many “makers” are engineers in their day job, and also artists, textile experts, educators, plain tinkerers, and more. “Maker” defies definition outside the personality that loves to create things.
The connectedness of people via the Internet has created new paradigms for how people discover the world we live in. We all look the same online, as our words are all spelled the same. (OK, some people are bad spellers; you get what I mean.) But that helpful and knowledgeable forum poster who knows a great deal about Arduino could have pink hair and a nose ring. Who knew? The question should be: Who cares?
We all have paradigms that we are comfortable with. But science, math and engineering are blind. The pretty female engineer carries the same passion for technology as the Apollo 13 engineer. Sadly, until she demonstrates her knowledge, he may very well ask her to be a sweetheart and get him some coffee. In the 1960s, this was a sure thing. The frustration of automatically being tagged as “not engineer” defies the underlying truth: an engineer cannot be determined by the package that carries it.
Sometimes we hurt others without really realizing that we’re doing it. And it is diminutive to assume that the odd one out in a bunch isn’t part of the group because they look different. No one ever picked me for the kickball team growing up until they found out I could kick it out of the park. Too bad, so sad for the other team. The package says nothing about the skill. And so diversity can win the game for us when we select based on other than how the book cover makes us feel. Everyone is prejudiced to some degree. The point is to be aware of it, and of the damage that unchallenged prejudices within one’s self can cause (such as a hiring manager wanting to hire only people who seem to be most like themselves, or when it’s an exact draw between two candidates and someone gravitates towards the person they identify with most, instead of investigating further as to who is the better fit.) When it happens, it’s deadly to success, because the market doesn’t care what the engineer looks like, even if you do.
Although things are changing slowly, to the women out there who are also engineers or working in tech: you cannot change the world on your own, all by yourself, but you should speak up, otherwise no one will know that making assumptions based on appearance is in poor taste. Be clear, kind, and assertive, but avoid sounding aggressive. Together we can make a good dent if we speak up, if we gently remind others that engineering is in the mind, not the body. Stephen Hawking is the epitome of how packages do not define a person, and it works both ways.
Character, integrity, and temerity trumps skin color, gender, and prejudice. You know who you are and what you stand for. Stick with it, believe in yourself, and take care to treat others as you would wish to be treated. Someday the world will allow a (stunningly beautiful) woman pilot in Afghanistan to serve her country without death threats. (What are they worried about? She’s not Medusa; that would be an advantage in a military setting.) Not all of this will change immediately. But when I see how hard it is for other girls just to go to school like Malala, I realize that I have got it much better than others who are struggling for basic education, and with this perspective in mind, I pick my battles. What I have learned today from #iLookLikeAnEngineer is that I myself have new resolve to not make assumptions based on the appearance of others, and that I should speak up to remind myself and others that some things are in poor taste (at best), so at least awareness registers to others that it’s not okay to label or objectify others based on their outside.
Lynnette Reese holds a B.S.E.E from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Lynnette has worked at Mouser Electronics, Texas Instruments, Freescale (now NXP), and Cypress Semiconductor. Lynnette has three kids and occasionally runs benign experiments on them. She is currently saving for the kids’ college and eventual therapy once they find out that cauliflower isn’t a rare albino broccoli (and other white lies.)
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