Markkula Center for Applied Ethics - Better Choices

Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley

What Does An Engineer Look Like?

What does an engineer look like? In the East European country where I grew up, an engineer looked like my mom, my dad, my stepmom, and many (if not most) of their male and female friends. But I’ve lived in Silicon Valley a long time now…

If the question about what an engineer looks like has conjured up the image of a young white guy (possibly not particularly well dressed), or even if it didn’t, you should take a look at some of the more than 75,000 photos posted on Twitter in the last two weeks or so under the hashtag “#ILookLikeAnEngineer.” If you’re not a Twitter user, you can still see some of the photos incorporated into the many articles that have already detailed the efforts of Isis Anchalee (articles that have appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, Time, The Guardian, CNN, NPR, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, TechCrunch, etc.). Anchalee is the engineer who came up with the hashtag after a billboard with her image, depicting her simply as one of the engineers working for a particular company, was met with disbelief and a lot of commentary.

The CEO of the company for which she works noted afterward that, for that recruitment campaign, they had chosen “a diverse sample of the engineers at OneLogin, but… had expected that Peter [another engineer featured in the campaign] with his top hat and hacker shirt would be the most controversial one, not Isis, simply because she is female.”

A guy in a tophat? Sure, we can accept he’s an engineer. Probably a good one, too: creative! But a good-looking young woman? Now people had to wonder, analyze the choices reflected in the ad, contest its implications.

In response to that response, on August 1st Anchalee published a post on Medium and posted an image of herself, holding up a sign with the hashtag, on Twitter. Soon, other women engineers joined her, posting their own photos and comments with the hashtag. Then engineers from other underrepresented groups joined in, too. And then larger groups of engineers—like the women engineers of Tesla, and Snapchat, and 200 women engineers who work at Google. In that last picture, it’s a bit hard to see the faces—but the image is still powerful, in a different way than the individual ones.

I asked several Santa Clara University engineering professors what they thought about the “#ILookLikeAnEngineer” effort (which is no longer just a hashtag campaign meant to raise awareness; yesterday evening, people who aim to increase diversity in engineering met in San Francisco to discuss further actions). All of them said they appreciated it, precisely because images do sway people; they had all scrolled through the images, enjoying the kaleidoscope of faces.

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about the need to “power the search” for women in tech. Since then, there have been some hopeful advances: Harvey Mudd college, for example, announced earlier this year that the percentage of women graduating from its computer science program had increased “from 12 percent to approximately 40 percent in five years.” Last year, various media reports highlighted the fact that, for the first time, more women than men had enrolled in at least one introductory computer science class at U.C. Berkeley. And I have recently sat in on a software engineering ethics graduate-level class at Santa Clara, noting with pleasure how many of the students in it were women.

But, even if the “pipeline” problem is being more aggressively addressed these days, the retention problem remains daunting. Vast numbers of women engineers leave the profession—and that is largely due to the way in which women engineers are treated, too often, at work. Many of the comments that accompany “#ILookLikeAnEngineer” posts detail small (and not-small-at-all) slights, repeated comments and actions that signal to women that they just don’t belong in engineering. With its smiling, hopeful images, that is exactly the message that the #ILookLikeAnEngineer effort counters: It’s a repeated assertion, by a variety of people, that they do belong.

In January of this year, Newsweek ran a cover story about sexism in the Silicon Valley tech world. It seems telling, in retrospect, that the main controversy that it generated was about the issue’s cover—in particular about its depiction of a woman.  Images do matter.

The images still adding up under the #ILookLikeAnEngineer add something new to the narrative about women in tech. (This is one of the things that social media, and in particular Twitter with its hashtag curation, does well: give users a sense of both the intimate impact and the social scope of a particular issue.) Whether they and similar efforts will eventually lead to workplaces in which people are no longer surprised by the faces of women engineers, and to a society that pictures a woman just as readily as it does a man when asked what an engineer looks like, remains to be seen.

Here’s looking to a time when an engineer like Anchalee will have to don a tophat and a “hacker” t-shirt to have any chance at stirring controversy.


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