“You Don’t Look Like a ________.”

The other day I witnessed someone’s surprise towards a girl who didn’t “look like a developer”.

It was accompanied by the same look I often see whenever someone says, “You don’t look like a ______,”which I can’t quite describe in words, so here’s an Emoji: 😕

It reminded me of a similar conversation I have when I meet new people sometimes, which goes something like this:

Stranger: “What do you do?”
Me: “I’m a writer.”
Stranger: Really. You don’t look like a writer😕.

There could be any number of reasons I don’t look like a writer:

  • I wasn’t wearing glasses (I usually wear contacts).
  • I wasn’t tapping away on a typewriter and smoking a tobacco pipe at the time (Completely my fault for not owning those things).
  • My gender, age, or ethnicity (Though, for the sake of this post, I left my race card at home).

Whatever the reason, I never thought much about these interactions. Until, that is, I started seeing more and more conversations about “diversity” and the ironic divide it seems to create.

She Doesn’t Look Like an Engineer

If you spend a lot of time on Twitter and work in tech, you might’ve seen #ILookLikeAnEngineer floating around not too long ago: a hashtag campaign addressing the visibility of women in tech.

It was a powerful campaign that encouraged women in S.T.E.M to share their thoughts, experiences and, above all, their identity as women in tech.

Some were frustrated…

Others still held on to their sense of humour…

And overall it was a positive hashtag with a positive impact, if I ever saw one.

But I had to ask though…

What does an “engineer” look like anyway?

For that answer, I turned to our good friend: Google.

I sifted through pictures of “engineers”, looking for a pattern — some common physical trait that I could rely on to spot these engineers from afar.

Me using my impressive powers of observation.

I arrived at a conclusion: Hard hats. All engineers wear hard hats.

So now when I picture an “Engineer”, I imagine this:

“Bob the builder” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bob_the_builder.jpg#/media/File:Bob_the_builder.jpg

The only problem is I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen any of the engineers I know wearing hard hats — nor have I seen them on any of the women tweeting #ILookLikeAnEngineer.

Then again, I know more software engineers who probably have no use for hard hats, and it’s not like surgeons wear their scrubs when they hit up the clubs or musicians bring their violins to the walk-in clinic.

But the notion that there’s a universal “look” (rather than years of education, training, and experience in a field) that makes your choice of profession plausible…is kind of silly.

I’m not saying you can’t make assumptions about people. Of course you can—in the sense that no one can stop you, not even yourself at times.

In fact, we make assumptions all the time — born from biases we don’t even realize— filling in the blanks to come to conclusions and safe bets about people we know nothing about. And sometimes we’re right. But enough times we’re wrong.

And it’s not just women in tech, or non-writer-looking-writers, who are the targets of shallow-but-swift judgment from others.

In their own way, everyone’s a victim — even in fictional galaxies far, far away.

He Doesn’t Look Like a Star Wars … Star?
This was not the face they were looking for😕

And guess what? Everyone’s a potential perpetrator too. It doesn’t have to be about gender or race; it can be what you might unknowingly infer about someone with a certain height or build or hairstyle or lifestyle or tattoo.

That’s because our minds have a natural tendency to categorize and group events, objects, and (sadly) people based on patterns we’ve experienced — either firsthand or secondhand — into what psychology has dubbed schemata.

This Doesn’t Look Like a Banana

A Schema (like “schematics”) is a collection of qualities and properties that define a concept or category in our minds.

They include the various mental blueprints that help us conjure the idea of something that isn’t physically present, apply past experiences to current or unfamiliar circumstances and maintain an understanding of the world around us—without having to consciously think about it.

For example, we have a schema that helps us understand that bananas are a long, yellow, mildly sweet fruit even when there’s no banana in front of us.

In fact, it’s thanks to our schemata that we know that these things are NOT bananas:

This is a fruit, but it is no banana.
Pretty sure this isn’t a banana either.
Like 99% sure this isn’t a banana.

The problem occurs when we treat people the same as bananas, applying unconscious bias—through our schemata — when it comes to how we experience one another.

Because the reality is that we’re all just a little lazy when it comes to understanding each other—time and attention are limited resources after all. So we often take shortcuts in lieu of the path to truth.

Diversity’s Biggest Challenge

Though some elements of our schemata are drawn from our own experiences, we have to accept that many parts are borrowed.

  • Comedy, to offer an unfortunate example, is good at reinforcing negative stereotypes and influencing our schemata because of its persuasive appeal.
  • Political rhetoric can also have a similar effect that can be scary at scale (especially where entire groups are made into scapegoats for political gain).
  • Media of all kinds, from news to video games, perpetuates narratives that are grounded in certain schemata.

This unconscious bias, unchecked, leads us to make snap judgements about people without all the facts and without even realizing it.

So when people look at you and say, “You don’t look like a _______”, what they’re really saying (unconsciously) is, “You don’t match up with my schema for _______”.

It’s especially sad when we let our own self-schema, tied to qualities that are out of our control, constrain our personal identity and the careers we see ourselves in. When I was growing up, my schema for “writers” didn’t include someone like me. And for some women still, their schema for S.T.E.M careers doesn’t include them.

It’s only by being more aware of unconscious bias that we can better avoid the beaten paths we tend to take when we approach each other, the world, and even ourselves.

The Ugly Truth About Diversity

Beyond labels of man, woman, brown, white, gay, straight, we need to accept that embracing diversity means acknowledging an innate variety in humanity that’s a whole lot more complex than a bag of Skittles.

When I meet someone new who I know nothing about, my mind always manages to pull together a vague idea of what they’re like—sometimes it’s flattering and sometimes it isn’t. But that impression was born from bias, so by it’s very nature it is flawed.

Sometimes unconscious bias manifests as favouritism, and other times as discrimination. Sometimes it makes us miss the truly special ways that individuals think because we’re distracted by the way they look or act.

We can’t stop assuming things about each other and the world, but we can be more cognizant of the ways these ideas can be misinformed by our own invisible biases.

We need to accept that the same mechanisms that give birth to the “–isms” we condemn in others also exist in us.

And if you still think you’re an exception, or that your assumptions are grounded in hard experience, well…

Remember those bananas?

They’re technically a kind of berry. That’s right. And raspberries aren’t.


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