It starts with an innocent question: “What do you do?” Then you give an answer and reactions can vary from surprise to disbelief to awe. I personally love the wide eyed looks when I tell someone I’m a nuclear structural engineer. However, I have a feeling those stares have more to do with the word ‘nuclear’ than ‘engineer’. Regardless of the satisfaction in defying someone’s expectations, it can become grating to be constantly questioned about your career. “Really?You’re an engineer?”
The #ILookLikeAnEngineer hash-tag has taken social media by storm the past month. So many wonderful women (and men!) have contributed to the growing awareness that there is no one ‘look’ for an engineer. We are an extremely diverse group of dedicated professionals. While this is fantastic, let’s not forget where this all started. It started with a female engineer who got tired of her profession being questioned. “Are you really an engineer?” How many times have we all been asked that or something similar? This experience is not unique to female engineers. In fact, if you look closely (or really just a passing glance) you’ll see this happen to women and minorities in all areas of life.
Are you really into comics/gaming? That question spurred the ‘fake geek girl’ label some men used to diminish females interested in geek culture. Are youreally an athlete? gets asked of anyone who might not have a perfect ‘athletic’ body. Are you really a lawyer? Are you really a sports fan? Are you really an honors student? Are you really [insert whatever you like]? Questioning women in whatever role they declare themselves to be has become so pervasive, we even do it to each other: Are you really a mother if you leave your children to work? And no matter what the question, the ultimate purpose behind it is to make you prove you are what you say you are.
Questioning women’s and minority’s credentials has become such a common occurrence that it’s crept into our professional lives as well. Studies have consistently shown that there is an unconscious bias against women and minorities. A woman or minority has to have more qualifications to be perceived at the same level of competency as a less qualified male counterpart. This is just a further extension of the ‘prove it’ mentality. It’s as if half of the population decided that the other half is so untrustworthy, our motives should be questioned at all times because you never know when we might be ‘up to something’.
You know what? They might be on to something. I think we are up to something. I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly up to being an engineer. We’re up to our hobbies and passions. We’re up to being wives, partners, mothers, and caregivers. We’re up to being activists and champions of different causes. So let’s not disappoint them shall we? Let’s show them that we are up to something! Be up to whatever makes you unequivocally and uniquely you!