Breaking Stereotypes

6 09 2013

One of the most perplexing things people say to me is “you don’t look like an engineer.”  I first heard it during my junior year of college, and I still hear it from time to time when meeting new people.

I’m not sure what an engineer is supposed to look like, but evidently, many people have a mental Venn diagram that looks something like this:


I don’t look like the other engineers on my team at work, but none of them really look like each other, either.  For most of my career, I have been the only woman on my team at work.  I have the good fortune to work with a great group of people, and my gender has never really been an issue.  We are each individuals, and each of us has our own unique strengths and weaknesses.  As a unit, we are fully capable of defeating all of the challenges that we encounter.

As an intern (at a different technology company), my experience was not as positive.  A colleague actually told me that he “knew” I had been hired based on my appearance.  I responded by saying that I had not, in fact, submitted a headshot with my resume, nor had I been interviewed in person by my hiring manager.  My appearance was absolutely not a factor in my hiring.  Between that encounter, and several other uncomfortable experiences, I decided that that company was not worthy of my talents, so when it came time to decide where to take my first full-time job after college, I took my talents elsewhere.

Over the years, I have come to learn that when people tell me I don’t look like an engineer, it’s supposed to be a compliment.  There isn’t much I can do to change society’s mental image of what an engineer is supposed to look like.  There are still people who underestimate me.  It used to frustrate me, but now I take great enjoyment in the look of bewilderment that comes across their faces when they realize that they have grossly underestimated me.

I am grateful for all of these experiences, because they have all made me a better, stronger person.  After I realized that other peoples’ judgments of me based on my gender and appearances are an indicator of their shortcomings, and not mine, I learned that the visibility of their preconceptions is a valuable indicator that tells me that they probably don’t share my value of diversity.  I have no interest in being part of an environment where everyone is the same.  If we’re all the same, then we probably share the same weaknesses, and we’re much more likely to fail.  But when we embrace diversity, we find others whose strengths are our weaknesses, and we ultimately succeed.

-Vanessa Cullinane

A glimpse into the past

26 08 2013

We often focus on the path ahead of us. Traversing the path of life as a woman in technology requires intelligence, diligence, and a great sense of humor, so our forward-looking focus makes perfect sense. We focus on tomorrow and how much work there is yet to be done. It’s true that there is still much work left to be done to achieve gender equality in technical disciplines, but I think it’s worthwhile to stop for a moment to look backward and reflect on how far we’ve come.

“They had more patience, more dexterity, and were far more reliable than men because they didn’t get drunk and disorderly.”

– My Grandfather, commenting on women who worked in highly technical jobs previously held by men during WWII.

I was taking a sip of wine as he told me this. Although I didn’t get drunk or disorderly, I genuinely enjoyed the irony. My grandfather studied Electrical Engineering at the US Naval Academy from 1947 – 1951. Here is his 1949 yearbook picture. I’m biased, but I think he’s adorable.


I asked him whether there were any women studying engineering when he was in college. His response was that in the 1940’s, women didn’t go to college to get a degree — they went to college to get married. At this point in the conversation, I came precariously close to getting disorderly, and I had to remind myself that he was simply relaying an antiquated social perception. In the early 20th century, many of the women who graduated from college did, in fact, get married promptly after graduation. The truth is, they were faced with a very difficult decision: either have a family or pursue a career. The idea that a woman could work outside the home and raise a family was inconceivable at that time.

Growing up, I never would have considered myself a feminist. My head had been filled with many negative stereotypes associated with feminism. My understanding was that feminists were angry, ugly, miserable old spinsters who hated men (and everyone else, for that matter). What were they so mad about, anyway? They had achieved their goals. Women were on equal footing with men now. I felt empowered to be the master of my own life. It wasn’t until I graduated from college and entered the work force as a computer engineer that I realized that while I was the master of my own life, there were a surprising number of men throwing road blocks in my way. Now, I’m proud to call myself a feminist. I’m happy to report that I’m not angry, ugly, or miserable. I’m also very fond of men (and everyone else, for that matter).

To me, feminism is all about the freedom to make choices and live them out in a peaceful, supportive environment. Maybe you choose to work. Maybe you choose to raise a family. Maybe you choose to wander the earth searching for the meaning of life. (Please tell me if you find it.) Likely, you choose to do a combination of those things. While I do believe that many women in the US feel empowered to own important decisions regarding their lives, the level of support we get in living out these decisions still varies greatly. The Northwest Regional Women in Computing Conference is all about increasing that level of support for women in technical disciplines, and that is why it is so important to me.

As we celebrate women in computing and all who support them, let us remember that we have come a very long way in the last 66 years. While our individual efforts may seem small, they are important contributions to a much larger movement. Let us remember the women who fought hard and made personal sacrifices for our freedom to choose our own destinies. As we move forward, let us draw strength from their example. Let us keep our mission close to our hearts. Let us wake every morning with a smile and the knowledge that, like our predecessors, we will drive monumental social change for women over the next 66 years.

– Submitted by Jen Miller

Moving beyond First Impressions

17 08 2013

Ten years ago, when I started out as a newly minted Electrical Engineer, I had no clue about the concept of first impressions. If anything, I easily slid into the role of the reticent woman engineer who sat passively in the back of the room during meetings. The combination of not actively participating and being one of the few woman engineers in our group, it was not surprising if I got overlooked.

However, I was motivated and diligent and was great at meeting deadlines. Without knowing it, I had established a default brand of being dependable. It was definitely not a bad impression to start with, but I longed for a more impressionable image to project to others. This also coincided at the same time with my desire to not only partake in projects, but also to take a lead role in them. It took some time of introspection, but I realized that to stand out and succeed in today’s work environment, I needed to differentiate myself. And that non-verbal cues played a powerful impact in the impression making process. And I certainly was not creating a groundbreaking professional image by sitting mutely in a room full of other engineers engaged in a passionate technical discussion. If anything, they may have thought I was disengaged or lacked an understanding of the issues. People do say that perception is reality. I knew I had constructive input and ideas and even pertinent questions. But I was fearful that it would sound preposterous if I verbalized it outside the confines of my mind. I knew that to begin differentiating myself and projecting an impressionable image, I needed to be noticed. Therefore, I had to overcome my fear of being judged for what I would say.

I remember the first time I decided to make a change. We were in another meeting and I spoke up and asked a question. Heads turned around and noticed my presence. It was a small step, but it was one step in the right direction.

– Anita Heredia

Culture, Stereotypes, and Women in Computer Science

12 08 2013

I attended a WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) conference at the University of Washington 6 or 7 years ago.  One of the talks was given by Sapna Cheryan, assistant professor of psychology, and her research assistants.  They had recently begun research to determine if gender stereotypes discourage women from studying computer science.  I was a computer science instructor at the time, so I knew the numbers – women made up 37% of undergraduate degree recipients in computer science in 1985, and the numbers dropped from there to 18% in 2010.  (Statistics derived from the US Department of Labor.)

Ever since hearing them speak I have contemplated one of the things that they said might be a contributor to shrinking numbers of females in computer science – that it was in the mid-eighties when “nerd” movies became popular – Revenge of the Nerds with shallow girls who like the less than brainy football players on one side, and brainy, less than appealing nerd boys on the other.  Could a movie with such obvious stereotypes really reflect our culture?  Wasn’t it an exaggeration?

I looked online and found that Cheryan’s research was published just last month (July 2013) in Sex Roles (  Based on Cheryan’s two studies, it appears that simply being told that the stereotypes are true will discourage young women from studying computer science, but will not alter young men’s choices.

So I contemplate the women in my classes over the years.  I taught college freshman and sophomore computer science classes from 2002 to 2012.  I knew all along that I had many fewer women than men, sometimes 2 women in a class of 30.  But looking back, I am surprised to realize that most of the women were heading towards their second career.  Very few were there as first time college students.  These “older” women, with 10 years invested in family business, or raising kids, or other careers, were driven.  They knew what they wanted and they were seemingly not concerned about stereotypes.  But where were the young ones?  Why would the more mature women be so driven towards this goal, and the younger ones almost completely absent?  Do we raise our children to be so easily swayed by what they think other people think?

Well, in any case, thank heaven for the coolness of the iPhone – young girls, including my 13 year old daughter, are writing apps, and having fun doing it.

Submitted by Pamela Harrison


7 01 2013

Outside of planning this conference, I work a part-time job at Ann Taylor Loft. I am pleased to share that Ann Inc is also working towards empowering women and educating the newest generation of females, a reason why I am glad to be working for this company. Ann Inc has partnered with the non-profit Vital Voices to accomplish this goal.

When I arrived at work today there were cards next to the registers promoting AnnPower. This initiative, signed in 2011, allows young ladies that are standing Juniors and Seniors to attend a leadership conference and training program in Washington DC. Women with all interests, including science and technology, are encouraged to apply for this opportunity. Each lady has the opportunity to present their ideas on how to improve their community. Each winner is eligible for grants to help make these ideas happen.

For all the young women attending this conference, you should consider this opportunity as well. If I were eligible I would be applying in a heartbeat. I encourage all of you to consider applying. For those of us too old or too young to apply, Let us consider how we can improve our community or help empower females everywhere.

More information about this can be found at

Girl-It Facts

30 11 2012

During a meeting, I was pointed to a great report discussing why women are not in the STEM field. This was created by NCWIT and contains such amazing information. This is exactly why we are planning this conference and what we hope to convey. Please take a look and spread the message 🙂

I find it interesting how so many aspects are effecting the number of women entering computer science. This reports goes beyond the gender stereotype and looks further into what classes in high school are available, what courses are required (surprisingly not many states require math and science). As someone who loved biology and math in high school, I cannot imagine having the same experience without them.

Some questions to ponder is why these classes are not a priority and how can we convince society that they should be considered more thoroughly? I would love any ideas and thoughts 🙂