It’s the universal truth — we are all judged for the way we look. The way we dress, and carry ourselves makes an impression on people – be they friends, distant family, or people at work.
Sometimes things go too far, however. Consider this, for instance: if you are male, and armed with an engineering degree, have you been told, “You don’t look like an engineer? If you are a woman, however, you know the answer. Chances are even if it wasn’t spelled out to you, there were vibes you caught on. Vibes that said you don’t look like an engineer.
No wonder then, that US-based Isis Wenger’s outrage has caught so much attention. It started as a recruitment campaign for San Francisco-based OneLogin, a tech enterprise, featured its employee – and engineer — Wenger on billboards. To Wenger’s surprise and disappointment, there were a lot of comments about Wenger’s photo on the billboards “just appealing to dudes”, and that “If their intention is to attach more women then it would have been better to choose a picture with a warm, friendly smile rather than a sexy smirk.”
Wengershot back, saying, “At the end of the day, this is just an ad campaign and it is targeted at engineers. This is not intended to be marketed towards any specific gender.” She also started the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer on Twitter with a picture of hers. Thousands followed suit. With this, Wenger has called out the sexist thought patterns in the industry, no matter what country.
The women speak up
As Meera Kaul, serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist says, “While growing up in India, the common comment you would hear was – IIT engineering women are not women but non-men. The attempt has been to establish that if as a woman you are smart enough to be in a male-dominated vocation, you may not be good looking enough.” She further adds, “I also remember a mentoring session where a woman told me how her own professor asked her why she chose to study civil engineering – it wasn’t a girl’s job!”
It isn’t just about engineers, though. Women in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are victims of gender prejudices. As Priyanka Joshi, a PR professional based out of Singapore, who has covered tech and gadgets for a decade for a financial daily in India, recounts how her editor in Pune liked that she could talk “BPOs and outsourcing” intelligently. “It amused him, I think,” she says, adding how people she was interviewing would often ask her how long she had been reporting on the sector. “Even the PR professionals who facilitated corporate meetings felt the need to assess me and my ‘tech credentials before they connected me with their IT clients for interviews,” she remembers. Joshi says many senior women reporters who were from the IT and telecom sector beat echoed the sentiments of being judged while conducting interviews.”
Then there is Sphoorti Sachan, digital marketer, who is happy Wenger has voiced the issue. “The gender equality is still far away and both women and men have to do their bit. While men need to exercise gender equality, women need to get into the game, and ask for equality when they put in equal efforts at work,” she says. Sachan says she has witnessed gender bias where women have grown with the perception that STEM is for men.
Asking for a change
So what can be done? Kaul says the change needs to start with our minds: “We need to rethink what we consider as skill sets for a job. And honestly, none of the skill sets have a prerequisite that says you have to be a man with a moustache.”
Joshi feels it’s probably not the companies that discriminate, since they are hiring women professionals in the field – it is the individual attitude of people at work, which women struggle with. Her advice: “Stop being affected about taking up so called non-conventional role or feeling any less a woman in a non-traditional role.”
Sachan says industry leaders must be more verbose about gender equality so that the thought percolates and reaches the levels below to cultivate this. Kaul signs off by saying, “Diversity is an important paradigm for ensuring productivity. We need to de-gender the entire skill matrix. Men can be chefs, women can be engineers.”
In a way then, we need to thank Wenger to show us the cobwebs and bring this debate to the fore. Last heard, #ILookLikeAnEngineer may get its own ad campaign!
Let’s keep the discussion going. Do write in to share your thoughts in the comments section below.