Looking Like An Engineer (Part 1.5: comments on Part 1)

My first post on this topic generated a lively discussion on both Facebook and the Pumping Station One google groups list. After getting permission from the participants to use comments and names (or not), I'm posting a few highlights here.

I'll start with the women:

Hailey Willis:

I've had all the same frustrations as a woman who's body shape defies pants, and who works in a male dominated field.


I hate clothes because I hate my body shape... I hate wearing baggy tshirts and jeans, but nothing else really fits right. any interactions I have with people are negatively impacted -- frumpy clothes, fat body, large chest. At jobs I've had people stare at my chest rather than me and it was disconcerting (e.g. especially when it is the CTO of the company I work at -- how seriously will someone who stares at my chest take me as a technologist in that company?). ...[I love] working from home -- anyone I interact with isn't going to immediately filter what I say through my looks or gender.

Jenny Tong:

On a more sociological/psychological level, things like speaking the language and dressing properly are all aspects of trying to fit in to a male-dominated hacker/maker culture. Studies have found that women in male-dominated STEM fields tend to psychologically disassociate themselves from their feminine identities and look down upon more feminine women, both of which have ambivalent ramifications.

Yup, I've seen a number of female engineers do this. I've been meaning to do a post on the evolution of my own wardrobe. I'll just say here that looking less feminine has a noticeable effect.

"Kate" (a woman working in a STEM field) :

What I find is that when I attend a meeting [with clients] for the first time, people usually look to my male counterpart if one is present.  At some point my expertise is required, I do my thing and they quickly learn that I am not to be underestimated and I know my shit. I don't always have the liberty of waiting that out though and those circumstances can be frustrating. If I can establish a relationship where the person(s) will see me more than once, I wait it out.

There is not a whole lot I can do in my office though. I can continue to do a great job, have clients tell my bosses I do a great job and not get anywhere professionally. I used to think that age and experience would bring another type of respect and I find that to be opposite in a lot of ways. Many young professionals disregard older women, where an older man is presumed to know things. My office has a "mentor" program and there are no women "mentors" either.  There are simply no established women role models. I find it frustrating that if the bosses do not outwardly show their respect (by giving women the interesting or prestigious projects) why should anyone else have faith in our abilities or feel like we are the right person for the job? I do not believe that titles mean much in reality, but the fact is that they mean something to clients but they refuse to reward based on skills and knowledge...

I grew up feeling like hard work and dedication would get me where I wanted so I have this JFDI approach, but reality doesn’t always work exactly like that. Sometimes we can work on something forever and not realize that we had been putting out energy into the wrong things... I have been at my office for a very long time…I was first there in 20[xx] and left after 5 years. I went elsewhere and had far worse experiences... so I went back…the devil you know! I have been there for another 6 or so years now. The thing is that now, my priorities are shifted. Completely. I put less into my day job emotionally. It sort of sucks, because I have no real joy at work and I started off wanting that, but now I am passionate about my personal projects and finding a peaceful inner state.

A number of men also commented. Some shared episodes of tech-misogyny they'd witnessed or heard about. A few very bravely offered Mea Culpas; in Mike Warot's case, quite literally:

Mike Warot:

Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa.... I know I'm biased that way, and I still fall into that behavior.... I make way too many assumptions based on appearance.
This response is sooo much more useful than people simply denying that it ever happens or that. I posted the following in response:

...thank you so much for acknowledging biases. It's human nature-- we all have them-- it's how cavemen learned to run away from a dangerous animal. In this day and age, it's problematic. Everyone makes assumptions, but please, people -- if someone tries to correct your assumptions about them, please be open to that! It's so much harder to address when people won't acknowledge their own bias. I think everyone is afraid of being labelled a bigot but the truth is, we all make assumptions. We just need to get to a place where we can amiably call each other out on false assumptions, cheerfully try to do better, assume that we can change, and help each other to do so. That's real dialogue and it's important. I've gotten better at it, because I have no choice-- this is my field! But it's taken a few years, and it's always a little draining.

This next comment was posted by "Jake", a self-described "white male academic" member of PS1.

I thought I might add a little perspective from the male side of this issue. I don't want to justify the attitude, just give a possible explanation and see if anybody has some helpful comments for us occasionally awkward men.

I know that I relate better to people when I can visually identify with them. When people dress significantly different from how I would dress in a situation, I am uncertain how to interact with them. I'm worried that I'll say something that unintentionally makes me look like an ass. Ironically this nervousness sometimes makes me look like an ass, as I will shy away from having a normal conversation. From that perspective I can sympathize somewhat with the men Jesse encountered who would shift their attention to her male companion, because I can see myself unconsciously doing the same thing. At least for me this is true for all kinds of different clothing, not just for female specific fashions. For instance a man in a kilt would probably make me act just as weird.

....A person's appearance gives social cues about what their attitude/goals in a situation might be, and I expect people with similar attire to empathize more with my goals than people with dissimilar attire. When their behavior doesn't match the cues their appearance gives it can take me a while to change mental gears, even when I'm conscious that it's my hangup not the person I'm talking to.

So I guess what I'm saying is even people with no particular hangups about hackers wearing sundresses, might act like jerks.

My response:

As someone who is frequently awkward, I totally get "acting weird" cuz you're not sure what to make of a social situation. (btw, this meta conversation about social behavior is making me even more self-conscious.  I think I may have to wear sunglasses to the next meeting.)

I'd like to suggest that as makers in a movement that is increasingly inclusive, we try to be more aware that people often occupy multiple previously-mutually-exclusive roles, and that sometimes folks don't have time for a "costume change". I'd also like to point out that making these changes is super hard. But when has that ever stopped hackers from doing something?

Most members would say (I think) that we want and welcome diversity. Making it happen takes work. And changing how one interacts with people is a lot of work. Forcing yourself not to be awkward is kind of impossible (unless chemicals are involved, I suppose). But some things we can do despite sounding like dorks. i.e. Verbally inviting people to participate in an activity or join a conversation. "Would you like to try this?" or "So what do you think about ____?" or "Do you have any experience with _____?" might help. Even just noticing who else is in the room is a good start.

And finally, a few comments from Geoffrey Topham:

I think men are naturally more comfortable interacting with other men. I know I experience the lowest friction and quickest uptake when talking to men as opposed to women, and I don't think it has to do with intellect, but rather some body language and some verbal and non-verbal cues. We get used to looking at a woman and seeing a minefield, and I think that carries over into all interactions regardless of topic."

Geoffrey also volunteered to wear a sundress to Maker Faire.

I figure the first day we wear sundresses, second day dress like "engineers," whatever that looks like.

I love this idea. However, it brings us back to the crux of the problem. What does an engineer look like?