Help! I’m the only girl in my Engineering class!

#ILookLikeAnEngineer

Recently, the hashtag ‘ILookLikeAnEngineer’ was trending all over social media. The hashtag was borne out of the the uproar over Isis Wenger (engineer at OneLogin) being featured in their recruiting campaign. You can read about her side of the story here.

Isis featured in OneLogin’s recruitment campaign.
Isis featured in OneLogin’s recruitment campaign.

People couldn’t believe that she was an engineer. Worse, they thought OneLogin shouldn’t have used a supposed “model” with a “sexy smirk” if the campaign’s goal was to attract more women (which I sort of agree with – it’s kinda intimidating to compete with girls who are both beauty and brains – hats off to you, Isis!) The point is, we all have this mental picture of what an engineer should be, or what he/she should look like. “Yeah, sure, you can be a girl engineer, but you also have to be ugly, or Asian (or both).”

Promoting diversity means embracing it instead of merely accepting it. Perhaps that’s what OneLogin was trying to do with their recruiting campaign. Tell us that you can still be girly and a tech geek if you wanted to.

 But First, Some Numbers

At the end of 2014, companies such as Google, Microsoft, Twitter, LinkedIn, Apple, and more, released their diversity statistics. Though women do represent around 30% of the global workforce of each of these companies, the same cannot be said of tech or leadership roles in particular. For leadership roles, the percentage averages on about 21%, and for tech roles, only around 15 to 20% are women. Below are the slight improvements for Apple as of 2015:

I chose theirs because it was the most colourful, so sue me!
I chose theirs because it was the most colourful, so sue me!

In fact, the number of women in tech roles is actually on the decline since the 80s and 90s. There is a very real disparity between the number of women getting STEM degrees in general (science, tech, engineering & math) and those who actually continue with careers in STEM – especially Computing. And this doesn’t even begin to address the pay gap issues. It really makes me wonder: whose idea was this anyway? Where did these gender stereotypes originate from? Who decided that men are supposed to be smarter than women? Or more suitable engineers?

Are boys really better at Math?

In my first two years of university, it was vaguely uncomfortable being one of very few girls in the cohort. I, like most other people in the world, thought boys were naturally talented in this field and that I had no business even trying to compete. I didn’t really think too deeply about it then; it was just an accepted fact of life. I was hesitant to ask questions for fear of looking stupid in front of guys and the inevitably male professors. In the process, I couldn’t truly learn and grow beyond my high school CS education. This unintentionally cold environment had me reconsidering CS a few times. “Maybe,” I thought, “my real interests lie somewhere else.” Even worse – “What if, I’m just not “smart” enough for this? I mean, I’m just a girl so it’s not expected of me anyway.” Dangerous thoughts, those.

boy and girl

Every stereotype starts from a kernel of truth, right? Well, maybe not in this case. Historically, guys have been known to perform better on the math sections of SATs and other standardized tests. But according to Dr. Paul O’Keefe (Assistant Professor, Yale-NUS) this is just a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Day 3 of STEM Week @NUS focused on Opportunities & Barriers for Women in STEM. Here, Dr. O’Keefe shared with us studies that seemed to suggest that it was nurture (as opposed to nature) that made boys perform better. He explained that gender stereotyping creates the achievement gaps; girls are conscious of those stereotypes which makes them anxious. Hence they underperform, further propagating the stereotype. The good news is that there are psychological tools which can be used to combat this, such as self-affirmation.

The Really Good News

But the really good news for girls like us is that companies are heavily investing in diversity inclusion. So even if you’re feeling like the awkward, odd-woman-out, don’t leave just yet! For example, Pinterest is opting for diversity solutions offered by start-ups like Paradigm. Others like Microsoft, Google, Expedia & Palantir are encouraging women-centric employee networks, and/or supporting the inclusion of CS in the primary school curriculum, by partnering with initiatives like Girls Who Code. Things can only get better from here.

At first it was so hard to believe, but there are a mind-boggling number of resources devoted towards teaching coding to little kids, particularly girls. The focus is on getting them to like it by gametizing it, rather than to think of it as a ‘boring boys thing’ or more homework. Sample JewelBots; despite the inherent gender stereotyping, it’s a better effort than what I can come up with, for sure.

Note that the ‘learn to code’ part is as small as possible so as to not scare away potential 12-year-old clients.
Note that the ‘learn to code’ part is as small as possible so as to not scare away potential 12-year-old clients.

In Singapore too, recruitment for women in tech roles is on the rise, if Robert Half’s survey is to be believed. I was privileged to attend two events recently, relating to the status of women in Singapore’s STEM fields: Microsoft’s Tech Femme 2015, and a WELL event (Women at Expedia Learning and Leading) at Expedia’s quirky and colourful SG office.

The last one was thanks to the super resourceful and helpful career advisor at NUS’ School of Computing, Desmond. What was surprising, was hearing from him that some female students didn’t want to attend such ‘females-only’ events for fear of looking weak. To me, this seems counter-intuitive – the aim of these events is quite the opposite. They’re probably thinking, “People will say we’re so weak that we need the help of these special girls-only events. So better not to attend.” But it’s being a girl is not a disadvantage. As they say, if you can’t beat ‘em, then join ‘em. We’ve been sidelined and stereotyped for so long, we might as well make use of the uniqueness, host & participate in girls-only tech events to garner interest. Any publicity is good publicity after all.

TechFemme 2015 was a one-of-a-kind career event – I barely felt the time passing for close to 6 hours! However, it would be nice to see more women in tech roles as panelists next year. It’s those kind of roles that have real gender gap, and where women have the most opportunity as well as barriers. Most of the panel discussion seemed geared toward attracting girls from a non-tech background into tech firms. But that’s not where the real disparity is. Nonetheless, another good start towards getting the conversation on women in tech going!

Tech Femme

 

The lack of relevant panelists, is probably because there are very few of these female engineers to begin with. Guys have an abundance of role-models to emulate – Mark Zuckerburg, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates & the founder of pretty much every unicorn. But their female counterparts are precious few. So how about you become a role-model?

 What should I do ?

You don’t need to be the CEO or founder of an edgy startup. But you can start by encouraging younger girls into STEM fields. CS and engineering concepts and skills can be applied in every field. In fact, not even just can be, but should be applied – a basic requirement in our current digital society. The best time to plant the seed of interest is during childhood, when their brains are nice and malleable. Tell them what you like about your career/classes; teach them the basics. It’s a good learning experience for you too, trust me on this! Start with yourself first, of course – keep telling yourself that there’s ACTUAL RESEARCH to support the idea that boys aren’t necessarily smarter than girls.

As for the guys, you could be putting off/excluding the girls in your class or team unintentionally and unconsciously! Having a more welcoming attitude is a win-win. Everyone stands to benefit by this – girls, guys, society as a whole, your future kids & the ever-growing tech industries. Who knows, you might even end up finding your future soulmate! ;)

 

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Spatika is a final year Computer Engineering student at National University of Singapore. Before that, she lived in Chennai, California & Canada. She enjoys Journalism & Psychology in addition to CS & all things Tech, and is on the look-out for a mythical field involving all three. She likes getting to really know people & playing Agony Aunt, so feel free to get in touch if you're going through a rough spot; you can find her on WordPress or Twitter(click below). She also finds it weird to talk about herself in the third person, so she will end this here.

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