Last semester, I had the pleasure of being at an academic conference. I was presenting a poster. I love conferences. The talks are usually pretty fun, but the poster sessions are what I live for. I'm like a kid in a candy shop. So many things to see! I can hear about stuff I know nothing about. And there's tons of opportunity to network. It's like a dream come true for my somewhere-between-an-introvert-and-extrovert nature: tons of people to meet and talk to and zero small talk.
Having woken up congested one day, I was living on juice from the hotel gift shop. As I was getting ready to leave, I went in for one more bottle of juice for the road.
As I paid, the guy behind the counter asked the standard hotel question: are you visiting for vacation or business?
I told him that I was there for the conference that was going on.
He looked immediately surprised, and asked, "For the science conference? Are you a scientist?"
I laughed a bit, probably with a big, dopey smile on my face, and told him, yes, I am a scientist.
It's the first time someone I didn't know identified me as a "scientist," and there was something thrilling about that. He looked back at me with some mix of confusion, intrigue, and admiration. I imagine he never met someone who identified as a scientist... It also seemed very clear that his surprise might have had something to do with the fact that I am a female, was wearing makeup, and, having presented my poster that morning, was also wearing a nice dress.
The story started when engineer Isis Wenger was featured in a recruiting campaign for her company, along with a few other employees. Posters were placed around San Francisco and contained an image of an employee with a quote, aimed at getting new recruits. Seems simple enough. But then Wenger received some feedback “from people who didn’t believe she fit the mold of what an engineer should look like." She responded with a blog post using the hashtag #iLookLikeAnEngineer, to break down stereotypes, gendered and otherwise.
Cue thousands of women posting pictures of themselves with the hashtag, or one of the STEM spinoffs. The pictures have become a firestorm. Pictures of women sciencing: working in their labs, posing with their equipment, doing fieldwork, presenting at conferences. Pictures of women dressed up, in heels and makeup. Pictures of women dressed up, next to pictures of them sciencing. Because women can do both. Pictures of women, who happen to be engineers or scientists, in their everyday lives. Because engineers and scientists have everyday lives and also exist outside the laboratory.
And not just pictures- discussion of women in STEM fields, and women sharing their stories about stereotypes. One woman retells having men tell her she is “too pretty to be a software engineer.” It’s a long-overdue discussion of the stereotypes in STEM fields. And it’s one that’s important if we want to continue to encourage interest (and diversity) within those fields.
In an article out even more recently, Wenger explains that she created the hashtag as purposely inclusive. This is not just a gender issue. It’s about “fighting exclusion” in a more general way.
The STEM stereotype is often portrayed as that of a socially-awkward male (usually white, maybe Asian or Indian). That leaves a lot to be desired when you consider the array of gender, race, ethnicity, (dis)ability, not to mention personality traits that people come in. There are lots of people who don’t "look like” (or act like) someone who should be in a STEM field. But it’s a bit disturbing to think that we might accidentally be discouraging people who “don’t fit the mold” from pursuing these disciplines. It’s also worth considering if this stereotype contributes to blocking communication between the science community and the public-- if, in fact, scientists are portrayed as ‘other,’ in this case, a narrow breed of nerdy introverts.
I wonder how people might respond differently if they realized that scientists and engineers are, first and foremost, people.
...And anyone can #LookLikeAnEngineer.