“I’ve had men throw dollar bills at me in a professional office (by an employee who works at that company, during work hours). I’ve had an engineer on salary at a bootcamp message me to explicitly ‘be friends with benefits’ while I was in the interview process at the school he worked for.”
—Isis Wenger, “You May Have Seen My Face on BART”
Anyone who believes that sexism in the workplace is a thing of the past should read Isis Wenger’s essay on Medium.com describing the harassment she has experienced simply for being a woman engineer. Wenger participated in a recruitment ad campaign for her employer, OneLogin, which included a photo of her. After the ads were posted in the San Francisco Bay Area transit stops, Wenger received emails from friends informing her of the attention the ad was getting on social media, including men objectifying her expression as a “sexy smirk” or dismissing the ad as “probably just appealing to dudes” and doubting that Wenger could really be an engineer.
Instead of allowing the negativity directed at the ad to bother her, Wenger diagnoses the reactions to the ad as “solid examples of the sexism that plagues tech.” Instead of blaming the individuals, she sees their behavior as a symptom of “this industry’s culture,” which “fosters an unconscious lack of sensitivity towards those who do not fit a certain mold.” Her article is remarkably humanistic in its tone, calling for her readers to find empathy in their shared humanity in order to make the workplace and the tech industry more welcoming to women. “We are all humans,” she writes, “and there are certain patterns of behavior that no one should have to tolerate while in a professional environment.”
Wenger could have merely written a response to her detractors, but she also started a movement. She posted a picture of herself with the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer and encouraged her readers to do the same to “redefine ‘what an engineer looks like.’” The hashtag has since gone viral, with women around the world asserting their professional competence and right to be defined as more than just their gender. The campaign has even inspired spin-off hashtags, such as #ILookLikeASurgeon and #ILookLikeAPhysicist, highlighting the sexism that still persists in all of the STEM (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) fields. People of color and gender-nonconforming individuals have also joined in to shatter the notion that STEM careers are only for white, cisgender men. By emphasizing diversity, the movement can inspire younger individuals and students, especially women and people of color, to pursue their passions for science and mathematics, even if their teachers and families may have encouraged them to downplay these interests because they don’t fit the stereotype of a “typical” engineer.
Even some employers, including Tesla Motors, Shell, Ford, and MIT, have joined the campaign by posting on social media about their equal opportunity employment practices and including photos of women and people of color in their workplaces. While seeing major players in science and technology affirm their commitment to diversity is encouraging, one also has to wonder if their workplace policies are truly welcoming to women. Diversity in hiring is good, but enforcing policies against sexual harassment in the workplace and allowing working mothers generous maternity leave and flexible schedules is even better. Gender stereotypes in education certainly play a role in steering women away from jobs in STEM fields, but workplace policies that don’t accommodate women are also to blame for the gender disparities in STEM. So too is the lack of investment in schools in low-income districts, which are more likely to have higher populations of Black and Latino students. Opening up STEM careers to everyone involves efforts on the part of individuals, employers, and the government to combat stereotypes, invest in science education, and institute policies that address workers’ needs.
Embracing many different types of people in STEM opens up the sciences to new perspectives which can lead to innovative solutions to many of the problems our society faces. No one should feel degraded or devalued in the workplace because of her gender, and #ILookLikeAnEngineer forces us to confront the sexism that women sadly still face. To show your support for women in STEM, you can promote the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag on Twitter, sign up for updates from ilooklikeanengineer.com, or donate to the IndieGoGo project to launch an “I Look Like An Engineer” billboard campaign.