I can guarantee most female engineers, and often POC who are engineers have heard this phrase at least once. Generally people mean it as a compliment (at least with women). But it stinks in the same way that “don’t get so emotional” stinks when its been said by a male colleague after you’ve proven your point. I’ve never once heard these phrases directed at a man.
What is wrong with “You don’t look like an engineer”? :
- Yes. I do. I am an engineer, therefore, I look exactly like an engineer.
- Would you ever say ” You don’t look smart”? If the answer is no, then don’t say “you don’t look like an engineer”. It means exactly the same thing. If you would tell a girl “you don’t look smart” then please, exit the internet.
- If you have an idea in your head that people in STEM all like Amy or Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, that is your problem. Nerdiness knows no color or gender boundaries.
- If you want to tell me I’m pretty ( which I think is often the intention?) then please, just say that.
I went into engineering because I love knowing how things work. I love looking at a complex system , like a power plant , or a chemical reactor and knowing that with equations and some time I can build it from the ground up.
I get to build , really, really cool things. This is why I do my job. Its as simple as that. But somehow this is hard for people to believe.
As I’m writing the above I’m starting to get a bit emotional, which is a little surprising. I’m not a very emotional person. I’m analytical and introverted like a lot of other engineers. I have a pretty thick skin, and in general, am treated as an equal by colleagues. But every time I hear ” you don’t look like an engineer”, “don’t get so emotional”, “we need someone more experienced“, “can we talk to the lead engineer?” I see the capital T Truth.
The Truth is, that no matter how good I am at my job I will always need to work a little bit harder to be seen as good. I will always need to be extra careful to prove a point in a way that doesn’t offend my male , senior colleague. I must be careful to not get too excited or enthusiastic because then my argument will mean less , because I am “emotional”. And even when I do all of these things, I will still probably never rise very high in my current company. Because that is just the way the world works, and sometimes it makes me sad.
If you don’t believe this. Your eyes are not open.
I still love my job. If I cant have the impact I hope to at my current company than I will find somewhere I can. Because things are getting better. For every guy who says “you don’t look like an engineer” There are three guys who were in my study group, who know that I look exactly like an engineer. The kind of engineer who still remembers the day she learned how to use the Schrodinger equation to explain hydrogen’s existence as a diatomic as one of the coolest moments of her life.
And no matter how many things about my job suck. At the end of the day. I built something and no one can take that away from me.
Below is a link to an amazing ted talk about women in engineering, bias and how we can all help to increase diversity in STEM: