What it means to look like an engineer

Perhaps you’ve seen a hashtag going around called #ILookLikeAnEngineer. Perhaps you know the story behind it. Isis Anchalee Wenger, a full-stack software engineer, was one of the employees featured in a recruitment ad for her company. What followed were many comments saying that the girl in the ad had to be a model, and she couldn’t possibly be an actual engineer in the company. Because as we all know, being pretty precludes females from that particular field of work.

But the brilliant part is what Isis did with the attention. She started the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag, encouraging other engineers to take part and show the world their diversity. These days, most engineers in all fields don’t fall into the nerd-image stereotypes we’re so used to imagining, and a decent number definitely don’t fall under the category of male!

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We talk a lot about getting more girls and women into STEM subjects, but it’s going to remain talk for as long as these stereotypes are perpetuated. There seems to be an impression that if you like fashion, or are artistically inclined, or are ‘cool’ in some way, then you’re not the type to do STEM subjects. We need to examine our unconscious biases, culturally conditioned thoughts such as:

  • How women working in tech-heavy roles are ‘rare’, or ‘incredible’, or considered unique above men in some way. Don’t get me wrong – yes, it’s wonderful having women in such roles. But how can we convince our daughters or granddaughters that they are as capable as men in those fields when it’s ‘special’ women who do those jobs?
  • How art and STEM are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and you can only be good at one or the other. This is one I hear commonly, and it’s completely untrue. Just because you may be artistically inclined doesn’t mean you can’t process the logic required for mathematical proof or a piece of code, or conduct scientific experiments around a central hypothesis. One of my civil engineer friends I know is currently working on her own fashion line!
  • How careers in STEM mean stepping into a ‘men’s world’. Yes, there are still a disproportionate amount of men in those fields compared to females, and there are many workplaces where being female is a disadvantage. The problem is, the term sets the expectation that as females, we need to accept certain behaviours or comments as ‘the cost of being in a men’s world’, and that is already starting on the wrong foot. STEM careers are usually harder for females, but the world is just as much theirs! I wonder how many young girls have been discouraged from STEM subjects for this reason?

Looking like an engineer doesn’t mean that you need to be a special kind of female, or a creature of logic, or ‘one of the boys’. It doesn’t mean that you should be geeky, or pretty, or cool, or any of those other labels we place on people.

Looking like an engineer simply means you have a curiosity about how things work, whether it be the chemistry behind a reaction, the 1’s and 0’s that make things appear on your screen, the structures that make buildings stay upright, or even the numbers that make the world move, among other things.

If we want to encourage more of our daughters and sisters and nieces and granddaughters and goddaughters to get interested STEM subjects, then we need to tell them in both the words we say and the words we don’t say that engineering, or STEM in general, is just like any other career they may pursue – and that it doesn’t matter what they look like. Being a Leader in Heels is just as possible in the lab or in the field as it is in an office!

To finish, let me give you some of my story. I graduated as a Mechatronic engineer – think robotics. I work with code in my day job, and have done so for a large chunk of my career. Oh, and I also write novels (one will be published next year!), and have a large wardrobe bursting at the seams with clothes. Yes, #ILookLikeAnEngineer.

Do you look like an engineer, or know someone who does? Tell us about them in the comments!

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Here are some of the other people proudly declaring that they too look like engineers – beginning with Isis, who started it all!


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