Tech Workers Question What It Means To Look Like An Engineer

By Marissa Lang
San Francisco Chronicle.

They carried tablets and cell phones in pink cases, and held purses, backpacks and messenger bags in neatly manicured hands.

Some wore Nikes, others heels. Some wore jeans and T-shirts, others dresses and lace. Their hair was tied up, let down, pink and red and purple and brown and yellow and blue.

No one person in the room looked like another — and that was exactly the point.

“What does a female engineer even look like?” said Isis Anchalee, whose Medium post and subsequent Tweets on being singled out for not “looking like an engineer” went viral last week.

On Thursday, that momentum behind the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag culminated in a gathering of nearly 240 hardware and software engineers, recent graduates, CEOs, entrepreneurs and supporters. They packed into Rackspace’s San Francisco office to discuss issues of diversity in the tech industry.

“The whole point is that your external appearance and your gender is not a limiting factor on your cognitive ability,” Anchalee said.

The hastily assembled night of networking and speeches was the first attempt by a group of female engineers to pull the conversation out of hashtags and tweets and bring it into a space where minorities could gather, pose for pictures and talk.

They swapped tips and stories, and commiserated about times they were underestimated or passed over because of their race, gender or age.

But by the end of the night, a question was left hanging in the air: What now?

The immediate goal, organizers said, is to put up a billboard with the faces of those who “look like an engineer.” It’s a marketing campaign aimed at changing the public perception of engineers as white or Asian men — of whom there were few in attendance Thursday.

An Indiegogo campaign had raised more than $17,000 as of Friday — about half of the cost of a billboard. Ticket sales and donations at the Thursday event brought in $3,800 more.

Anchalee, a self-described introvert, has been the subject of a tidal wave of attention since late last month when her face appeared on a BART advertisement for her employer, OneLogin. Some social media users made sexist comments about Anchalee’s appearance. The full-stack developer responded with a Medium post that went viral.

“At work, I was really uncomfortable because I had no idea my ad was going to generate so much unwanted attention,” said in an interview after the event. “When people started talking about it and giving mine a bunch of extra attention, it was really uncomfortable for me, and by Friday at work, I was really upset. But then when my response started taking off, it was also really sad, once I realized how many people had similar experiences of feeling singled out.”

At the end of the night, a representative from the Board of Supervisors awarded Anchalee a certificate of honor for battling discrimination and inspiring others to do the same.

The #ILookLikeAnEngineer billboard will be filled with portraits of engineers taken at Thursday’s event by volunteers from Hackbright Academy, a women’s coding school.

Themes of the evening were repeated by each successive speaker — all of whom were people of color, and four out of six were women. Most had been self-taught engineers who had to find their own way. All had run into prejudice. Nearly all had turned down or left jobs where they felt uncomfortable.

Erica Baker, a former Google employee who now works as an engineer at Slack, said even those who mean well can make diverse candidates feel singled out.

“Black female engineers are known as unicorns — like, ‘Wow! How rare,'” Baker said. “But when you’re the only unicorn in a pack of horses, you start to feel isolated.”

Alex Kern of Hackathon Hackers was one of the few white men in the room. He said he is a a supporter of the #ILookLikeAnEngineer message and had come to listen and learn.

“I definitely noticed the difference the second I walked in,” he said. “I think as we move forward, rooms will start to look a lot more like this.”

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