By Kathleen Hunter, P.E.
"Who do you think would win in a fight, Lady Sif or Black Widow?"
My nieces, aged nine and six, were having this very important conversation in the back seat of my car. We were returning from a day at the local convention of all things sci-fi and comic-book inspired. We saw a huge variety of superhero cosplay including many female versions of Captain America and Thor, but my nieces' single-minded focus was on one superhero: the deadly assassin with the morally ambiguous history—Black Widow. When offered to choose from the entire range of bobblehead figures, their toys of choice were Black Widow and Lady Sif. If Marvel's marketing team was paying attention to this tiny sample group, the message of "girls want more female superheroes!" could not be any clearer.
This whole experience got me thinking about role models—how we see ourselves and who and what we want to be when we grow up. Our experience of the world, both as children and adults, is influenced by the types of people we see, and how they are portrayed. Our cultural mythology has moved away from Perseus and Aphrodite and into movies and television. Joseph Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces" now wears the face of Harry Potter and Iron Man. If, in a movie about superheroes and supervillians, there is only one woman and whole universe of men, what do we do with that exactly? And how do these myths translate from popular culture into our beliefs about the people we see around us and ourselves? How does this shape our view of who is fit for leadership roles?
I really can't help thinking about these questions. I'm a woman, electrical engineer, and a student of how I form my own opinions. I've seen first-hand how being a woman in STEM can be more of a challenge than it really ought to be. For as advanced and interconnected as we have become, there are unfortunately people who still automatically judge the technical aptitude and potential of a person by gender alone.
Last week, #ILookAnEngineer was trending on social media and it caught my attention when a friend of mine, who also happens to be an engineer, shared her photo. In case you missed it, a recruitment ad featuring a female engineer was criticized for trying to appeal to male audiences by using an attractive model. As it turns out, the woman in the ad is most definitely an engineer, prompting the Internet to respond passionately, and the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer was born. Engineers from all over the world embraced the hashtag and shared images of what engineers actually look like to debunk stereotypes of what engineers should look like.
As I scrolled through posts of people from around the world and from space (tweets in from the International Space Station!), I felt ridiculously happy, and joined in the conversation by sharing my own tweet. This hashtag has become an opportunity to brag and show the next generation that girls do in fact like robots, engines, substations, and solving problems, just like boys do! And women are in fact amazing engineers.
Engineering is a team sport. It’s very rare that one of us, man or woman, ends up in the news for anything individually heroic. Often, it's the project architect to whom the media and public ascribes the archetype of "Master Builder.” But when engineers look at the world around us, it is easy to see how our profession has shaped the world. We have so many reasons to be proud of what we do, but we often stay behind the scenes. We don't always know how to be storytellers about the dragons we slay every day. We leave the epic tales of the infrastructure erected, the conduits routed, and the brownfields reclaimed to be told by the marketing departments. We are out of practice at celebration.
As the faces that make up our profession continue to become more diverse, the points of view that are brought to the project team also become more holistic, and new opportunities exist for collaboration and creation. I'm proud of my work and I admire the many men and women I've been fortunate to work with. I am grateful to work for a fantastic company like Burns & McDonnell, which has been recognized nationally as one of the Best Places to Work, and also recognizes that engineering isn’t bound by gender. Our employee-ownership culture encourages collaboration, and as a result, I know without question that I am an equal member of the team. Our company is deeply committed to volunteerism, which has given me countless opportunities to give back and show students what an engineer looks like in real life.
Check out NSPE’s Twitter feed to see more great #IAmAnEngineer pictures from members and followers, and submit your own using the hashtag and tagging @NSPE.
With the advent of social media, we are all participants in the collective message, and as such, the mythology surrounding the image of the Heroine/Hero is changing. We each have an impact on the stories we share with one another in a much more immediate way.
#ILookLikeAnEngineer caught on because it tells the overdue truth of what already is: We each look like engineers because we are engineers, we are proud of it, and we are simply telling the truth to the rest of the world.
Kathleen Hunter, P.E. is an NSPE member licensed in electrical power. She has twenty years of professional experience in a variety of electrical engineering applications including transmission and distribution, consumer goods manufacturing, transportation infrastructure, and facilities design. When she was a kid, she wanted to design special effects for George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, or become a Jedi. She is also fairly certain that Lady Sif would win in a fight versus Black Widow.
Published August 10, 2015 by Kathleen Hunter, P.E.
Filed under: #ILookLikeAnEngineer,