#ILookLikeAnEngineer: Promoting diversity by challenging preconceptions

#ILookLikeAnEngineer: Promoting diversity by challenging preconceptions

Think software engineer. If you pictured a hoodie-wearing, twentysomething white male who’s kind of nerdy and not very athletic, you conjured up the stereotype.

Try to counter that image, though, and you may run into trouble. That was the case in July, when OneLogin put up recruitment ads around San Francisco featuring Isis Anchalee, a young female engineer who works at the cloud-based security company. Anchalee found herself the topic of posts and messages, some positive and some negative, about her role in a male-dominated industry. She was so overwhelmed that she wrote a blog about the reaction. She also created the Twitter hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer and called for others to join her in a campaign to show the true face of the tech industry.

“Do you feel passionately about helping spread awareness and increase tech diversity? Do you not fit the ‘cookie-cutter mold’ of what people believe engineers ‘should look like?'” Anchalee wrote in her post. “If you answered yes to any of these questions I invite you to help spread the word and help us redefine ‘what an engineer should look like.'”

Her effort to dispel stereotypes in the tech industry is now moving to reach a wider audience. Last week, the #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign began putting up posters throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. The ads show an array of men and women from different ethnic backgrounds, accompanied by the hashtag.

The tech industry, by its own reporting, is overwhelmingly male and white. On average, women fill about 15 percent of tech jobs in the industry’s largest companies. Minorities fill 27 percent of the leadership positions at Facebook and Yahoo, and as much as 37 percent at LinkedIn. That industry’s lack of diversity has become a major point of discussion, prompted in part by the failed gender discrimination lawsuit Ellen Pao filed in 2012 against her former employer, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Many companies, including Apple, Google and Intel, have said they need to do better recruiting women and minorities.

“‘You don’t look like an engineer’ is something you too frequently hear,” said Laura Jane Watkins, who helped organize the ad campaign. Watkins is developer evangelist for cloud-services company Rackspace and director of GeekdomSF, Rackspace’s co-working facility. “Seeing a face you recognize, that resonates with you, is the first step to feeling welcome in this world.”

The campaign has three goals. One is to illustrate that engineers can be any gender or race and just about any age. Another is to encourage women and people of color to enter the tech field. And another is to show engineers who have experienced discrimination that they’re not alone.

“That idea of the techie in the hoodie is not quite so accurate,” Watkins said. “The demographic is what we make of it. For people looking into STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] careers, there are people who look like you in these jobs.”

Along with proceeds from a campaign on crowdfunding site Indiegogo, #ILookLikeAnEngineer received financial support from several investors and smaller tech companies. One sponsor was the Kapor Center for Social Impact, established by Mitch Kapor, founder of spreadsheet pioneer Lotus Development as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to civil liberties in the digital realm.

“As the [ad] campaign demonstrates, engineers ‘look like’ America,” said Cedric Brown, the Kapor Center’s chief of community engagement. The Kapor Center wanted to help “smash the narrative that the only credible engineers are brogrammer clones,” Brown added.

The #ILookLikeAnEngineer posters appear to counter a multicity ad campaign from Dice, a career site for tech jobs. Most of Dice’s billboards display white men posing in their boxer shorts with the heading “Find the Hottest Tech Talent.” The problem, critics say, is that these ads reinforce the stereotype of white, male tech workers.

Dice reached out to collaborate on the #ILookLikeAnEngineer effort, a Dice spokeswoman said. “Like #ILookLikeAnEngineer, we too have a campaign celebrating tech professionals and thought there may be a collaboration with them,” she said in an emailed statement. “But ultimately it didn’t go anywhere.” Dice has since added more billboards with women and people of color; in these ads, the female engineers are fully clothed.

Michelle Glauser, lead organizer of the #ILookLikeAnEngineer ad campaign who is also a Web developer at Zana.io, said partnering with Dice didn’t feel like a comfortable option, unless Dice permanently changed its ads with the half-naked engineers.

All the people displayed on #ILookLikeAnEngineer’s billboards volunteered to be photographed, Glauser said. Each also has a story of discrimination in the tech world.

“We’ve all experienced this,” Glauser said. “Now it’s time for us to say something about it and do something about it.'”


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