I Look Like an Engineer

My hot topic of the week, I look like an engineer. It’s the media reaction to a recruitment ad  for OneLogin featuring a female engineer that resulted in comments that the photo of a woman engineer, who is an actual engineer did not “look like an engineer.” A social media response ensured with #ILookLikeAnEngineer. Yes, this resonated with me based on my own experiences.

As an engineering student, I had incredulous teaching assistant who admitted to marking my grade lower because as a woman, I could not have possibly been doing my own work. How did I know this? He saw me in the library with a stack of books, calculator and muttering to myself while in deep thought and approach me and told me. During my engineering co-op assignment,  I designed a paper stacker that worked perfectly. My manager was not convinced the design worked. Even after the patent was filed, he refused to acknowledge the successful paper staking design that enabled printer testing to run continuously overnight and through weekends without manual intervention. I mean, outright refused to acknowledge the design, in my review he said I did not complete my assignment. It was a perplexing experience. Especially since the two of us were featured in the company newsletter. Finally, one of the engineers sensing my utter confusion told me what no one else would. It’s prejudice. You’re a negro, a girl and still a college student, you’ve upset the balance of everything. You weren’t really suppose to be a success at this assignment. OK, the learning experience of what they don’t teach you at school continues.

Hence, it came as no surprise to me when I was designing a cash gate for an ATM design and one of the engineers indignantly told me, my design could not possibly work because he had already studied the problem and wrote a report that the space was to small for a workable mechanism, so what could I possibly do.  Wow, once again I was given a design I wasn’t really suppose to be a success at, but I had succeeded. Typically, at this point, I’d reach a crescendo, say cheers and bravo to Isis Anchalee Wenger for her grace and wit with #ILookLikeAnEngineer and move on with a pithy ending. Except, the more I write, the more I realize, the issue is broader than the perception of female engineers. We all do it. We all have a perception of something, how it should be and what it should look like. To say this is not so would be to succumb to some relative of stupidity of political correctness. For better or worse, we all have prejudices.

There, I said it. Furthermore, that’s probably not going to change. This is what makes the difference. Acknowledging the prejudgement about something and being open to that prejudgement being wrong. I have caught myself in meetings starting to tune out when certain people talk. Based on fact, past history and I’ll admit, my general annoyance with the tone of voice, I just assume there is nothing this individual can say that will positive improve my quality of life. That’s just wrong. I recall my first road race. I was in my late teens and saw a woman I knew to be in her 50s. I assumed I could do this race just by keeping up with her. Little did I know. She took off with the speed and grace of a gazelle in a manner I could not begin to duplicate. I see that happen now in yoga class where I get a kind of perverse pleasure watching the youngsters think they can hang with me unaware of the amount of time I’ve spent in practice along with a body type that allows me to often defy the limits of normal flexibility and gravity.

Prejudice is inevitable. It’s survival. We have to judge situations based on the knowledge we have. But there needs to be caution to distinguished anecdotal evidence and mass assumptive attribution regardless of social economic class based on media representation. The anecdote is acknowledging the possibly the other person could be right, could be talented, could have a good idea, may have positive characteristics not previously considered. This doesn’t mean be stupid it just means dial it back a notch and be aware of generally held beliefs.

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