#iLookLikeAnEngineer Gives Sexism in STEM Much Needed Attention

When Isis Wenger, a full-stack engineer at OneLogin, posed in a recruiting ad for the company, she did not expect the attention she received. There were plenty of positive responses, which were encouraging for Wenger. Unfortunately, there were also a good deal of negative comments — with some people questioning the validity of the ad. Men could not believe that Wenger was actually an engineer (because they thought she's too attractive), nor that the company was trying to advertise towards women (because they thought she's too attractive). In response to this, Wenger took a photo of herself and a sign saying "I build enterprise software. #iLookLikeAnEngineer" The movement took off, generating tens of thousands of supportive tweets from all over the world, and spinoffs like #ilooklikeaprofessor. It is perhaps one of the most successful campaigns against sexism in STEM in recent times.

Sexism in STEM fields has always been somewhat of a background issue. Sexism in business, finance, advertising, and service fields has drawn far more attention. The wealth of articles, movies and shows that have examined or depicted sexism in the workplace have rarely been about sexism in, say, a laboratory, or in a software development office. Do we expect higher moral standards from these fields of innovation because they're innovative, or have the stories never been given enough attention?

As I looked into it, I discovered many upsetting stories from women working in such fields, and multiple blogs dedicated to combating sexism in science. There's obviously a problem here, and it's not only hurting current women in STEM fields, it's hurting potential ones too. Girls are still not encouraged enough to study mathematics, chemistry, or computer programming anywhere on the same level as boys are -- whether it's because of the biases pushing women out of STEM, or just the fact women are still more likely to receive lower pay. With the lack of societal push and unfairness in such fields, it's no surprise women are poorly represented in nearly all STEM fields. We commonly expect political or business figures to be sexist, but rarely bring down criticisms on scientists or engineers. #iLookLikeAnEngineer is a proper movement in this direction. Another recent hashtag more comedic in nature, #DistractinglySexy, took off after Nobel laureate Tim Hunt's sexist remarks at an event that was supposed to celebrate female scientists.

One of the major attacks on women in STEM, aside from their appearance, is their role as a mother and child-bearer, as in: because they have or will have kids, they are not fit for the job. In a particularly upsetting article from the Guardian on sexism in science, one female scientist quoted her Pl (Principal Investigator): “There should be a rule against women having children in science.”

Another quoted her supervisor as saying that he needed a younger po-stdoc her, and that he, “bet that I spent my weekends looking after my family”. Despite the demanding nature of some positions, there's no good excuse for this kind of attitude.

Ultimately, the message of #iLookLikeAnEngineer and tags inspired by it is this: “I look like a ___ because being a ___ should not rely on my sex or gender”. The sexist men working in STEM and holding many of the high positions need to reflect on that message. They need to reflect and consider "What if I was a woman? How would I feel about being diminished because of my sex or gender?" It's quite obvious that none of them reflect on this, because if they did, I doubt this would be an issue.

Considering the stressed importance of STEM in today's world, the issue of women's rights to equality in such fields should not be left in the lab. It needs to be brought into the light and examined by the masses for what it is: an issue that exists because of archaic, hierarchical thinking. This thinking is a bond that needs to be broken if we really want to advance, because all the scientific and technological innovation in the world cannot make up for the  degradation of women, in science or otherwise. Wenger's movement, and more like it that will ensue, are much needed answers to this problem.

You can read about Wenger's story, in her own words, here.