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