The New Guy

23 01 2015

My team at work recently got a new addition. Each of us has a different background, and The New Guy is no exception. But the new insights and talents he has brought to the team are a great reminder of just how much we all benefit from diversity.

In my group there is no shortage of problems to solve, things to learn, or systems to improve. And as individuals, our strengths typically guide the way we choose to approach each issue, and I suppose I had gotten used to the thought processes of the teammates I have worked with for several years. But now that we have someone bringing a fresh, different perspective and a new skillset to the table, we have new ideas to incorporate into our solutions, and new talents to leverage. It’s an exciting time at work, and I am looking forward to all the things I can learn from The New Guy, and the ideas that we might come up with when we put our heads together.

This is the benefit of diversity. Diversity isn’t just something that’s important because it’s The Right Thing to Do, or because it’s a fancy buzzword, or because it’s politically correct. Diversity makes a team stronger, and it challenges us as individuals to expand our thinking. Diversity ultimately makes us all better.

When I think about the well-established lack of diversity in STEM fields, I feel like we’re all missing out on the benefits of that diversity can deliver. What kind of gadgets would we have today if all groups had been well-represented in the STEM fields for the past one hundred years? Maybe we would all have self-driving flying cars.

There’s not much we can do about the homogeneity of the STEM fields in the past (at least not with our current technology), but there are things we can do to promote diversity in the future. So I encourage everyone to attend the 2015 NWrWIC conference to support women in technology, to learn new perspectives, and meet great new people.

– Vanessa Cullinane

More than Appearances – Review of Goldman Sachs

18 02 2014

As many people have heard, Goldman Sachs recently got attention for providing cosmetic mirrors and nail files as swag at a WECode event at Harvard.

While I applaud Goldman Sachs for being “strong supporters of efforts to recruit and retain women in technology,” I can’t help but feel that their choice of items is a reflection of gender stereotypes and a reminder of society’s expectations of women.

In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter what anybody looked like.  But until then, the unfortunate truth is that appearances do matter.  And even though we’ve come a long way since the Mad Men days, in our society, the importance placed on one’s appearance is higher for women than it is for men.

Goldman Sachs’ furnishing of mirrors and nail files for an event for women is a reminder of that truth.  That, even if I’d rather ponder the best way to visualize a data set, I should probably put that off until I look good, but not too good, because then everybody will assume I’m stupid.  Is this the reason for the gender pay gap?  Are women in the workforce supposed to be setting aside a portion of each workday for grooming, and we all just missed the memo?

Luckily, machines do not care about our appearances.  There is no correlation between the functionality of my code and the style of my hair.  The results I get at work are independent of how my nails look.  Maybe I spend more time than the national average thinking about querying databases (actually, I’m pretty confident that I do), and less time than average brushing my hair.  But thinking about data makes me happy, so that’s what I do.

– Vanessa Cullinane

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