The Stories of the #ILookLikeAnEngineer Community Gathering

Just ten days after Isis Wenger started the viral #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag, we had an #ILookLikeAnEngineer event (sponsored by Rackspace, OneLogin, Segment, Hackbright Academy, and Kenny H0ff’s photography) to gather people in the San Francisco Bay Area who had connected with the campaign in some way and to raise money for the #ILookLikeAnEngineer billboard we hoped to put up to raise awareness and inspiration, and normalize non-stereotypical engineers.

Not only did all 250 tickets sell out two days before the event, up until an hour before the event I was receiving emails asking for tickets. For an hour after the event started, people showed up at the door hoping to get in. It didn’t take long for attendees to get their name tags and spread out to enjoy food and drinks, buy #ILookLikeAnEngineer stickers, take fun pictures at the photo booth, get professional pictures taken for the billboard, and network.

More than anything else, though, I think this event was about powerful stories — sharing stories, relating to stories, showing support after stories, and encouraging things to happen as a result of stories.

Speakers’ Talks

Unfortunately the videos from the event have rather poor quality, but I’m going to include them anyway in case you’d like to hear the speaker’s voices.

Isis Wenger, who started the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag and who works at OneLogin spoke first, sharing the stories that led to her starting the hashtag, and stressing that she genuinely doesn’t “think that most people have bad intentions” and that “people lack the insight and the perspective into understanding and recognizing when their own behavior could be considered offensive or harmful.” She encouraged us to:

  1. Become more mindful of subconscious bias to help be part of the solution.
  2. Communicate more and be more receptive to what others have to share.
  3. Explore how companies can cultivate more inclusive environments that encourage empathy and open communication.

Alicia Morga, the Founder and CEO of No. 8 Media, Inc., then spoke about how she’s filled a variety of career roles: investment banker, lawyer, venture capitalist, app developer, and CEO, to name a few, and that discrimination is subtle. She encouraged us not to assume that we’re unwanted, that it’s about us, or that we’re off the hook — “For every man that thought I was a secretary, there was a woman that called me a b****.” She explained what micro-aggressions are and gave the example of asking the only female in the room to take notes. Finally, she told us to speak up, question our companies about equality and diversity measures, and be true to ourselves.

Serial entrepreneur and general partner at BUILDUP.vc Wayne Sutton was great at steering our energy toward the future. He had everyone ask, “Now what?” every time he said, “I look like an engineer.” He shared a friend’s theory that Silicon Valley is behind because it was built while America was fighting for civil rights and that we’re still trying to catch up, so the conversation about diversity in tech is just now surfacing. “We need more leadership around this conversation; accountability is needed,” he said, and warned us that hashtags come and go quickly. After encouraging us to have zero tolerance for discrimination, he told us that it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also “the future of our economy.” His call to action? He encouraged people to be aware, lead, build a community, and tell stories, because “this is impact” and “the battle isn’t just Isis’s, but everyone[’s].”

Next, Twilio software engineer Dom DeGuzman touched on impostor syndrome — she said she didn’t feel like an engineer for a long time because she didn’t have a CS degree. Micro-aggressions she’s heard rolled off her tongue as she built up to a horrific story of meeting a male engineer at a bar who wouldn’t believe that she was a software engineer. When the man asked that she prove she was an engineer, she replied, “I don’t have anything to prove to you.” The man finally apologized and said he just didn’t know many women engineers. She looked him in the eye and said, “I appreciate that you’re giving me an apology, but I work with your company and I work with all of your female engineers, so I know you have some.” After that experience, she recommended unconscious bias and diversity training to his company’s HR. When asked why she didn’t get mad in the midst of this situation, she said she realized that the simple answer was that it’s because discriminatory experiences like this are normal. “I don’t want that to be normal to anybody . . . at all.”

Leslie Miley of Twitter started out by talking about growing up in East San Jose and how he came across programming as he was avoiding getting beat up. After dropping out of high school, no one gave him a chance for several years, but he was able to start with a QA job and move up from there. After the dot-com bubble burst, he noticed that the people of the software industry were becoming more and more homogeneous and that discrimination was increasing. He’s proud to work on a platform where people can take a stand on issues that are “bigger than all of us,” and professed his love for tech, but there’s a lot of work to do to hold people accountable and press issues until they get public attention. His final words were ones of encouragement: “you [all] are the future of tech and you keep the pressure on, keep people remembering that you’re engineers, even if you’re not trained, even if they’re telling you you’re not an engineer. You’re all engineers, and you’re all d*** good engineers.”

Finally, Slack Senior Engineer Erica Baker decided to use the poop emoji to remind us that we all poop, we all have things in common, we’re all human. She shared that people in tech often like to call black women in tech “unicorns” and explained how othering and lonely that can be. When she wrote a very successful post on Digg several years ago, all her elation was deflated the moment a comment marked her as different because of her skin and genitalia. “Instead of trying to categorize,” she advised, “just think of [people] as a human first.”

As the speakers shared their stories, there was synchronized nodding, as well as occasional cheers, groans, applause, and even snapping.

By the time all six speakers had finished, the event was going late, but people were enthralled enough by the stories and sense of community to stay for Isis to be presented a certificate of honor from the city of San Francisco as well as some Q&A with all of the speakers.

Attendee Stories

The non-speaker attendees had stories to share as well. To provide a space for everyone’s stories, we made opportunities for people to share three things: negative experiences, positive experiences, and ideas on how to deal with discrimination. I want to share the post-it notes that were written with you:

Negative Experiences

  • A few days ago we were joking about old GoDaddy ads (i.e. Danica Patrick) and a co-worker said, “Oh, ______ can be the lady race car driver, she’s finally good for something.”
  • My last job didn’t want me to leave because I was the only woman. I was the “culture.” That’s why I left.
  • Working over the phone with customers: “Why don’t you have a picture on LinkedIn? How will I know what you look like?”
  • Throughout college I was told getting a job would be easy for me because I was the “diversity component.”
  • My boss told me I was “slow.”
  • When interviewing a co-worker about his workflow, his first words to me were “the answer is no, I’m not married.”
  • A recruiter told me: “That job is very technical; we also have phone support positions.”
  • In meetings, other men look at my male colleagues, NOT at me. They ask questions of male colleagues with less experience and who are more junior.
  • Co-worker was me for Halloween. He stuffed his shirt. Entire company laughed. I did too until I got home. :(
  • I was looking for tools at Home Depot, and a guy asked me if I was ok. He said, “Are you looking for your husband?”
  • Hearing “We don’t want women because we don’t want our culture to change.”
  • At a conference, someone asked if I was my coworker’s sister. He’s Asian-American. I’m white.
  • I received some emails from a company that said they really needed someone with my expertise. When I arrived to the interview, the manager was surprised and told me: “Wow, looking at your resume I imagined you were a man.” They never called me back.
  • I was discouraged from learning how to code because it was “too technical” for me.
  • Constant stream of dick jokes (from bosses too) and “would you f*** her?”
  • Coworker suggested I was flirting with other teams because they treated me well. I was only professional and cooperative with them.
  • Former boss after I was hired: “I don’t like working with women. Don’t expect special treatment.”
  • My coworker laughed when another coworker suggested we promote our meetup to women in tech.
  • “Make sure you take your birth control, you can’t take nine months off.”
  • I left my last job because my boss ignored my requests to learn how to code.
  • Often, I get to play the “Who’s a real engineer” game with men where they ask me continuously more obscure CS questions until they find something I don’t know, then determine that I’m not a “real” engineer.

Positive Experiences

  • THIS! [The sharing of positive experiences, the event, the #ILookLikeAnEngineer movement?]
  • Discussion with coworker — at the end, he said he learned a lot and thanked me for helping him understand.
  • Knowing that I’m NOT ALONE!
  • I get to lead the Women in Tech org for a 1-billion-dollar company with some rad women engineers!
  • I think I’m a better pair programmer than my male coworker because I listen and care. ❤
  • Women helping other women
  • I’ve found an all-women work environment and I am valued. www.anitaborg.org
  • Women-in-tech groups (Girls Who Code & NCWIT) are super supportive!
  • THIS
  • Women are more sensitive and that helps understanding others’ difficulties.

See what I mean about these stories being powerful?

Ideas for Dealing with Discrimination

  • Build male “allies” — men who hate women will typically only listen to other men. Train men to tell other men that their behavior is NOT COOL.
  • Ask how many women already work there when interviewing (it’s hard being the only woman, or 1 of 2!).
  • If you are in a position of POWER (management/hiring), remember that that comes with the RESPONSIBILITY of educating yourself on diversity!
  • Many good people don’t realize how they are contributing to the problem. Educate, don’t hate.
  • Empower your girlfriends because together we’re strong! :)
  • Point out unconscious biases . . . WITH KINDNESS!
  • Educate with compassion!
  • Educate with sarcasm.
  • Women: STAY TECHNICAL. Don’t get pushed out.
  • Wine nights with friends
  • Gay is okay.
  • Give tough feedback 1–1.
  • Cultivate a culture of empathy.
  • Always take the high road.
  • Leave to a better place and preserve your mental health if you have to.
  • Be the CEO!
  • Ask those around you if they have questions — educate them gracefully.
  • Bridge a culture of diversity with the recruiting team.
  • Learn from good ol’ Bay networks and be sure to pull your other females up with you!
  • Speak truth to power.
  • Start a book group to learn together.
  • Have your company attend diversity training.
  • Be open to talk about it!
  • Remind myself I have EVERY RIGHT to be here.
  • Talk about and address unconscious bias!
  • Laugh it off, then educate.
  • Help other women into the space so we don’t feel so alone. :)
  • Let’s forget about gender or looks . . . focus on brain, passion, and values.
  • Don’t just fight for female inclusion but for all those underrepresented.
  • Never be afraid to speak up!

The conversations we had about awareness and inclusion united and motivated us, and if we’re able to reach our billboard campaign goal, I hope the billboard will continue to inspire us to share stories and work to make a difference in the way we treat each other.

Now What?

Megan Rose Dickey of TechCrunch covered the event and titled her article, “The #ILookLikeAnEngineer Community Hosted One Of The Most Powerful, Inspiring Tech Events I’ve Ever Attended.” Selena Larson of The Daily Dot also wrote positively about the event in her article, “#ILookLikeAnEngineer is not about looking — it’s about listening,” but both of them touched on something that had bothered me while planning the event — where were the people who needed to sit down and listen to these stories, the leaders who can effect change from the top?

I was at least glad that the event helped build up a community feeling so hopefully we could all feel more empowered to speak up and include and support each other, but I felt much better when friend and fellow organizer Nicole Zuckerman responded to my concern with, “I think it’s important, when something has recently shaken us up, to share first with people who you can trust to receive your message, to experience TOGETHERNESS, before steeling yourself for broadcasting to those who are less likely to understand.”

YES. Now that we’ve experienced that togetherness and felt buoyed up in our efforts to make engineering more friendly to all members of underrepresented groups from where we are, I’d like to encourage us to share these stories with the people (future allies?) and leaders who need to hear them.

And maybe once they’re done listening to the stories, they can check out these great resources:

Unconscious Bias

Diversity in Tech and Hiring for Diversity

Privilege, Race, and Being An Ally

Every one of us can make a difference. Let’s work on being aware so we can support one another. No matter what people look like, if they’re engineers, they should be treated and supported as engineers.