Monday, September 14, 2015

What does an engineer look like?

There has been a lot of buzz on the internet regarding the female engineer at OneLogin that has started the revolutionary #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign. Firstly, I want to applaud this movement because I think it is very important to acknowledge that there is not a direct relationship between what you look like and your engineering prowess. And like many people representing minorities in their field, I know what it is like to be discounted by my appearance, to be assumed to be an administrative assistant etc. And while I strongly hope that movements like this will help chip away at deep set stereotypes about what we expect from engineers, I think that the discussion is missing how people on the front lines are dealing with these expectations on a daily basis.

For example, I grew up loving the color pink. In high school, almost every outfit I owned had pink in it. I wore cute heels and ribbons in my hair. But if I was to rock out that much pink at work, let alone with ribbons and 3 inch heels- this would be considered unprofessional. The heels would be considered unsafe by many of my coworkers (and by myself), and the other style choices would make me look "less serious". Technically, it would all be within the confines of the dress code (close toed shoes, etc.). But often times, the dress code is vague because it is written for men's clothing and doesn't specifically include all of the options women have (who would have thought that flats are not considered close toed because they are "open footed").

So over the years that I've worked as an engineer in an industrial setting, I've learned to dress at work "like an engineer". Practical, not particularly fashion forward, minimal pink, and fairly conservative. And I realize that this sounds totally un-feminist, and it could be argued that by dressing as a Plain Jane at work I'm feeding into the stereotype. But I don't have the time to wait for the people around me to awaken to the social Renaissance when I just want to be seen first as an engineer today in this meeting with these new people.

I remember a moment at a safety fair for my company when I stopped by the booth for safety glasses right after I had made some sort of presentation (and therefore was wearing kitten heels and a somewhat cute but still practical outfit). I was wearing glasses at the time, so it was clear that I could probably use some prescription safety glasses.

When I asked for information, the man at the booth looked me up and down and said, "We don't provide glasses unless you actually go into the plant."

I responded, "I do go into the plant."

"Only for people whose job takes them into the plant, if you are going on your own accord you should be responsible for finding your own equipment."

"My job requires that I go into the plant..."

"Wait, what do you do?"

"I'm an engineer."

"Oh... Then we have several options..." he continued his rehearsed talk while I stood wondering why I had just been grilled about my profession at an internal fair from the same guy who was trying to stop other people as they passed by his booth.

But moments like that are fleeting, and not nearly as damaging as when a women in a stylish new dress walks out of a meeting.  When I see how both men and women react to her (the jokes made when they leave the room, the fact that people see them as a date and not an engineer), it just makes me want to blend in and be one of the guys. When you have to prove yourself to new people on a regular basis, why would you put more hurdles in your way?

That said, I do not believe that women should be discounted based on what they choose to wear. But, I think it is impractical to view the world as a place where we are not discounted based on superficial things. So I believe that whatever you decide to wear should have some thought in the reactions you want to have. In an industrial setting like mine, that means something completely different than an office setting, or a lab setting. As a result, my presentation of myself at work has completely changed as I change industries.

What do you think? Is there a unspoken limit on what you should wear to work in order to present yourself as woman in engineering?