When a software engineering firm revealed on billboard adverts that at least one of its employees was a young woman who liked her job, the predictable outpouring of sexist trolling was promptly drowned out by a torrent of positive responses. But in truth it should never even have raised an eyebrow.
The advert, shown above, features Isis Anchalee Wenger, a software engineer at OneLogin in San Francisco. In an article posted to Medium she describes herself as a “passionate self-taught engineer, extreme introvert, science-nerd, anime-lover, college dropout, hip hop dancer, yoga teacher/hoop-dance teacher” and states the image is a pretty authentic representation of her, in a black company t-shirt and glasses.
Yet when this advert appeared around San Francisco it prompted immediate disdain from commenters on social media. One wrote that it was an “implausible” representation of “what a female software engineer looks like”, while another called for a “friendly smile rather than a sexy smirk”. The implication is: its not possible to be both an “attractive” woman and an engineer. Isis however, is both those things and so much more.
Wenger’s response in the article has gone viral, prompting engineers of all stripes to post to the Twitter hashtag #ILookLikeanEngineer. At a stroke, this breaks down professional stereotypes, posting photos of themselves and explaining what they do. Out of trolling comments has come a celebration not only of women, but of engineering itself.
Break unhelpful stereotypes
It’s estimated that around 5.5% of engineers in Britain are women, a figure that has remained depressingly stagnant over the past 20 years. For me, this campaign highlights three important aspects of our continuing efforts to support women in engineering and scientific careers.
The first is that of restrictive stereotypes. These are the stereotypes that say women should be pretty, gentle, kind, emotional and quiet. They are the stereotypes that suggest that engineering is about power, strength, logic, getting dirty and making explosions. Fed on a diet of these stereotypes an Ofsted study has shown that, by the age of seven, children have a gendered understanding of what constitutes a suitable career.
Both the Wellcome Trust and the Aspires Project at King’s College London have found that girls and young women are less likely to see themselves in a career in science. Parents also discourage girls’ participation in engineering – only 3% describe engineering as a “desireable” career for their daughters, compared with 12% for their sons.
It’s evident that stereotypes restrict real choice among young women who struggle to bring together the competing identities they’re asked to manage. We must not underestimate the impact of such categorisation that not only blocks women from entering an amazing profession, but also may lead them into less skilled and lower-paid work.
We all hold stereotypes, it’s a sort of cognitive shortcut that allows us to make sense of the world quickly and make judgements. Most of us been brought up in a white-dominant, hetero-normative, patriarchal society. We’ve been steeped in it since birth and it’s hardly surprising that we may all revert, however subconsciously, to ingrained societal norms. But we’re also all capable of understanding where these stereotypes come from, challenging them and recognising the impact they have on people’s real experiences and choices. This campaign is a great way to show the real diversity of the engineering profession and demonstrate that it really can be for everyone.
Overturn cultural sexism
The second key issue this campaign successfully highlights is the ingrained cultural misogyny running within those in the engineering industry, where a failure to recognise one’s “playful” or “harmless” behaviour is making another uncomfortable. As Wenger explains:
This industry’s culture fosters an unconscious lack of sensitivity towards those who do not fit a certain mold. I’m sure that every other women and non-male identifying person in this field has a long list of mild to extreme personal offences that they’ve just had to tolerate.
It’s hard to find a woman in engineering that won’t echo her words. I’ve been groped at work, been told my boss only likes me because I’m pretty, or that I should get on with my career before I start wanting babies. It’s not just that much of this behaviour illegal, it contributes to the narrative that says to women: “this is not for you”. We must, all of us, challenge that narrative wherever we see it.
Future is promising
I am delighted, however, to see such boundless enthusiasm for engineering – tens of thousands taking to social media to declare that they love what they do. I hope this ignites passion in the next generation and reminds those women who are struggling why they chose this career. Because when we restrict people to single stereotypes we limit their opportunities when we should be striving for workplaces that allow everyone to thrive, regardless of their gender or background.