Remember the story of Goldilocks? This originally was a fairy tale about an old woman, badly behaved, who broke into someone else’s house, sat on their furniture, ate their food, and ended up sleeping in their beds. When the owners of the house returned later, the old woman jumped through a window and disappeared forever.
It was only in later revisions that the main character morphed into a sweet young girl and the owners into a family with a mom, dad, and baby. Yet even with the upgrade in cuteness, the main character stayed true to her breaking and entering ways.
This story is very popular in many cultures. The Wikipedia article on the tale discusses possible analogous to Snow White and a Norwegian tale about a princess entering a cave of three Russian princes dressed in bearskins.
The popularity of the story is so much that the titular character has spawned astronomical lingo with the definition of a “Goldilocks Zone” around a star inferring that that range of space is “just right” for liquid water on a planet and therefore has the highest chance of carbon-based life.
Besides astronomy and science fiction, psychologists also weigh in in regards to children’s personal development. Alan Elms, in “The Three Bears”: Four Interpretations published in the Journal of American Folklore, “describes Southey’s tale not as one of Bettelheimian post-Oedipal ego development but as one of Freudian pre-Oedipal anality“. Whatever that means.
This story has roots in social consciousness in many forms and interpretations. Yet none of them stop to take a good look at the owners of the house that Goldilocks invaded.
You know the answer to this question — who and what were the homeowners? The statements above specifically do not provide an answer. Scroll up and re-read to confirm if you need to.
Bears. The homeowners are bears.
This statement most likely carries zero shock value. The name of the story in the most popular current form is ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’. It is also a children’s fairy tale, so the concept of three bears owning and inhabiting a house with furniture and porridge is mentally acceptable in this frame of reference.
Through the first number of paragraphs above, the taxonomy of the homeowners was nonexistent, yet assumptions were most undoubtedly made. Without contextual information either provided in this argument or from one of the various versions of the story itself, what oversimplified meaning do these personified creatures encourage?
In other words: how do we stereotype the carnivorous mammals from the Ursidae family?
Instead of pondering that question, what if we shift gears and ask the question:
What does an Engineer look like?
Are they friendly? Do they sit on chairs and own houses? Are they hairy? Do they eat porridge? What about starched white shirts, pocket protectors, and slim black ties? Are they all male? What unconscious and stereotypical assumptions are made when the defining term is used?
It is unfortunate that society often has a boilerplate image of an Engineer that typically embraces a white male with a crewcut and a short-sleeved, starchy button-down shirt with thick-rimmed black glasses, a pocket protector, and a dark, narrow tie.
Why are we so focused on labelling ourselves? The question is not why would we make a statement that “you don’t look like an Engineer” to someone who doesn’t look like this prototypical Engineer. The pertinent question is why would we make this statement at all?
While some may not find a comment like this a serious issue, it underlines the aggressions and micro-aggressions that diverse employees face in their communities. People have said this to me before, and while I know it was not meant to be harmful, it still made me feel like an outsider.
Why does a ‘classic’ understanding of an Engineer not acknowledge the fact that the person who coined the term Software Engineering was nothing like the prototypical description and was a woman by the name of Margaret Hamilton?
This bias, conscious or not, has led to countless years of humanity missing out on well over half of the population of amazing, intelligent minds that could help right now to engineer a change in our society. These extra smart brains could add more weight to the climate change battle. They could create the machines that are curing diseases or pushing us deeper into space.
These are not just women! Other than white men, countless other demographics have been left off of the STEM bus.
So what we can do to change society?
I am not naïve enough to think one article will change the direction that we are all sailing towards. What can one white guy from middle-class Midwestern America do to fight against this inexorable tide?
Very, very few people have ever had the monumental inertia required to change the tide of society. Yet, history is teeming with examples of people that added their voices to change, and through collective persistence and perseverance, they transformed society in some meaningful way.
So here is my voice adding to the cacophony of noisy efforts of the many to change the course of our world.
We need to redefine what an Engineer looks like.
An Engineer is not a specific race, color, gender, or haircut. No article of clothing or pocket protector defines this idea. An Engineer is a human being with a desire to create and to build. To make their world a better place. This has no bearing on their socio-economic or geographical background or location. Humans have never fully perfected any idea or product, therefore every place and every walk of life can have opportunities for improvement.
Bring on the Engineers!
The more varied their work experience the more points of view they bring to the table. Our diverse personalities, experiences, and skills complement each other and strengthen our potential. This environment has made me more productive and sparked new ideas. A better environment for everyone is also more competitive within the industry as diverse companies outperform the industry norm.
What someone looks like has little impact on their quality of work, and having many people that look different only increases it.
This will take all of us to achieve. We must speak out and change the narrative. Even NASA is on board:
If your image of a NASA engineer or scientist is that of a white male in a crisp white shirt with black clip-on tie and pocket protector, think again. NASA has evolved and so has it workforce. Drawing on the talents of individuals from all nationalities and cultural backgrounds, NASA is looking to acquire the best of what humanity has to offer.
A key piece of the puzzle starts with education. Too often STEM initiatives and interest either do not exist or fail to take root in the earlier years of childhood education. There are many reasons for this including a lack of readily identifiable role models, potential unconscious gender bias among teachers, social inequality for enrichment options, and a redefinition of ability in STEM fields from an inherent aptitude to a mentality of hard work and building critical thinking skills.
Efforts are being made in education and initiatives are being led from the top decision-makers in many areas, including the former President of the United States:
“One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to.”
Engineering Managers should consider their own potential bias and attempt to remove that from the hiring process. We need additional efforts concerning how businesses operate and in personnel evaluation processes to reduce turnover rates for women and people of color.
Outside of the workplace, others can add their voices to this message and help to keep the societal change moving in a positive direction. We can all celebrate a more diverse group of Engineer heroes like the aforementioned Margaret Hamilton. How about these additional worthy candidates:
- Aprille Ericsson — the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and a senior deputy instrument manager for NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite program creating mapping instruments for future lunar explorations.
- Elijah McCoy — received his first patent in 1872 and included a lubrication device that became so important to the machinery industry that lore has its inspectors would ask the people running the equipment if they were using “the real McCoy”.
- Grace Hopper — a computer scientist and US Navy read admiral, a pioneer in Computer Engineering. Her credits include the first documented “bug” and also invented one of the first compilers while also creating the COBOL computer language.
- Sally Ride — an American astronaut and physicist became the first American woman in space in 1983.
- Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan — while their accomplishments certainly stand on their own, these three were memorialized together in the award-winning book and film Hidden Figures.
- Jose Hernandez-Rebollar — the inventor of the Acceleglove that can translate sign language into speech through sensors attached to the glove and arm.
- France Córdova — an astrophysicist and administrator, who is the fourteenth director of the National Science Foundation. Previously, she was the eleventh President of Purdue University from 2007 to 2012. Boiler Up!
The fight is not over as long as the conversation carries any comparison of a person against a stereotype. Instead, the focus must be on the ideas and accomplishments that the Engineer has achieved and their ideas that contribute to a better society.
In her article, Sarah Calande said it best:
We all look like engineers.
Together, we can Engineer change in the world — no matter what we look like.
Thanks for reading!
Originally published at kevinwanke.com on January 25, 2020. Kevin’s blog focuses on advice for new Engineers and for Engineering Managers.