Tech & Work

#ILookLikeAnEngineer: How women are using social media to bust stereotypes and redirect the STEM conversation about gender

When Internet commenters questioned an engineer's legitimacy based on her looks, Twitter amplified a broader conversation on women, STEM, and stereotypes.

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Image: Isis Wenger

"I've been to war, I've had babies, and I'm a junior freelance web developer #ILookLikeAnEngineer."

Krystyna Ewing hit the "tweet button" on this message at 7:12 p.m., August 3, and joined what's become a deluge of more that 32,000 tweets with that same hashtag. Scroll through #ILookLikeAnEngineer on Twitter, and you'll find selfies from engineers all over the world blurbing who they are, what they do, and testifying that applying narrow definitions of who is or should be an engineer is not only ridiculous, but impossible.

The reason for this outpouring is simple: The Internet had another dumb moment.

It all started with a recruiting ad. San Francisco-based company OneLogic put some of its employees in ads in BART train stations in the Bay Area. One of those employees was Isis Wenger, a 22-year-old, self-taught, full-stack developer. She was featured with the quote "My team is great. Everyone is smart, creative, and hilarious."

Wenger's friends starting sending her screenshots of the ad as people had posted it on social media — much of what she saw in the comments was blatantly sexist.

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Image: Isis Wenger

One commenter wrote on Facebook: "I'm curious [if] people with brains find this quote remotely plausible and if women in particular buy this image of what a female software engineer looks like."

Wenger found herself the subject of a debate as to the legitimacy of whether she could actually be an engineer.

So, she wrote a Medium post about it, saying, "The reality is that most people are well intentioned but genuinely blind to a lot of the crap that those who do not identify as male have to deal with."

She added: "This industry's culture fosters an unconscious lack of sensitivity towards those who do not fit a certain mold."

Wenger also described other instances of sexism she's encountered working in tech, like getting propositioned on Facebook to be "friends with benefits" by an engineer at a bootcamp she'd applied for.

The Medium post and its subhed "This is what an engineer looks like..." took off.

"What started off as a cathartic blog post ended up resonating with more people than I could possibly imagine," Wenger told TechRepublic.

Resonating is a good word. Ewing, the Army vet and junior full stack web developer, said that initially, she wasn't going to participate. She felt like she might not fit in because she's newer to the field. But then she realized the whole not "fitting in" thing was kind of the point.

"I wanted folks to see that not all devs are people who went to college, or folks who've been doing it forever. There are people like me, who have families, who've had a career before, who have decided to make the switch," she said.

Plus, social media is still a gathering place for young folks. They're paying attention and could benefit from watching all these people basically call BS on stereotypes in tech.

"It's important for that teenage girl who feels like she doesn't look like or portray what people advertise as engineers or computer geeks, to see that tech people come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and from different backgrounds," Ewing said.

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Image: Krystyna Ewing

That's a message Jolene Hayes might have benefited from — Hayes is a full-stack software engineer at WaterSmart Software in San Francisco. She has a bachelor's in finance and an MBA, but has only been an engineer for the past eight months.

"I probably would have become an engineer in college [10 plus years ago] but I had my own stereotypes that engineering was for "nerdy white dudes," she said.

Hayes found out about the hashtag through a Hackbright Alumnae Slack Channel called "lady nerds" and decided to post in solidarity, specifically a picture as far from the stereotype as she could think — very pregnant, in a pink dress.

Canadian rocket scientist Natalie Panek also joined in. She tweeted that she became an engineer so she could change the world — and that's part of her hope in participating on Twitter.

"The hashtag is powerful because we can instantaneously, through the click of a mouse, start a global conversation and redefine what being an engineer really means," she said. And hopefully, it has a galvanizing effect that produces positive change, she said.

The visible materialization of that community is important to Hayes.

"Most of us 'lady nerds' work on engineering teams where we are the only female engineer, having to deal with institutionalize sexism on our own, and it's nice to see that we are not alone, we are not fighting this fight solo," she said.

See: Natalie Panek: Rocket scientist. Women in STEM advocate. Pilot. Aspiring astronaut.

Jin Montclare, a bio-chem engineer professor at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, can remember similar gender and STEM flaps — in 2005, Harvard's former president made statements saying that men outperform in women in math because of biological differences. At the time, there wasn't much in the way of social media presence.

"A lot of us in academia were talking about it, but I don't know how much of the rest of the world was talking about it, so social media allows this broader reach and it allows a new type of discourse that is global and really making a larger impact," she said. Montclare participated in the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag too.

Women in tech has become an important topic for NYU. They just wrapped up a national career symposium for women in cybersecurity and have high school girls on campus learning about the field through summer camps.

Positivity is an important element of this story.

The Internet can be a haven for mob mentality, for anonymous groups of people ganging up on each other, but what #ILookLikeAnEngineer successfully does is steer away from that. No one gets attacked. It's a conversation about inclusiveness.

"I think the best part about this movement is its radical inclusivity. #ILookLikeAnEngineer is not limited to gender, race or even genre of engineering," Wenger said.

This isn't the first time, even this summer, that gender, stereotypes, and STEM careers have collided in social media.

Back in June, British biochemist Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize laureate, made an argument for same-sex laboratories during a talk at the World Conference of Science Journalists.

"Three things happen when [women] are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry," he told the audience.

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Image: Jolene Hayes

Women scientists on Twitter didn't take this lightly. They adopted the hashtag #distractinglysexy and tweeted out pictures of themselves in lab coats, hazmat suits and the like. Or, for example, Virginia Tech PhD student Anne Hilborn, whose work focuses on predator prey interactions, tweeted a picture of herself in the field: "When you are collecting cheetah poop and drop some on yourself. #fieldworkfail #distractinglysexy " All this is to dispute the underpinnings of Hunt's statement — that women and their professional identities take a backseat to society's proclivity to view them as sexual objects instead of people.

Wenger underlined that in her post: "I just want to make it clear that we are all humans, and there are certain patterns of behavior that no one should have to tolerate while in a professional environment."

The funny thing is that as central as Twitter is to this movement, it's not a platform Wenger had really used before, but now she's in pretty deep.

Smirkshop has created a line of t-shirts for both men and women with the hashtag on the chest. Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to the National Institute for Women & Information Technology and Telegraph Academy to empower diversity in tech.

"I am hoping that this message will leave a lasting impression for everyone in tech and related industries," she said.

Wenger is also putting together a team to develop a geography-based storytelling app that will let users publish stories of overcoming issues with diversity in tech.

And she can do that. She is an engineer, after all.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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