The way we talk about engineers impacts whether people try engineering, how confident they feel, and our perception of their competence.
My TIM Talk
About a month ago I attended my 20-year college reunion, for which I was nominated to give a “TED Talk” style presentation. (It was called a “TIM Talk” because I went to MIT and our mascot is a beaver named Tim – get it?) I spoke about how we need to change the way we talk about engineering and science in order to bring more people in and keep them there. You can check it out here: [2018 Class of 1998 TIM talks – Engineering Diversity]
The entire video was 5 talks; mine is from 32:00 to 51:00 in the overall video. It actually turned out quite well, except for some messed-up slide formatting.
In Written Form
This is not a transcript of my talk, but it is an adaptation of the content for blog format.
My subject here is “Engineering Diversity,” and it is intentional that “engineering” can be used both as a noun and a verb. I’ll be discussing how to engineer a world with more diversity in engineering.
The last few minutes of my talk were a discussion of data about women in computer science, which I am omitting here. That is partly covered by my prior blog post here (https://EvilPlanToSaveThe.World/2018/02/22/fascinating-stuff-in-our-software-pipeline-numbers/), and I’ll write more on that subject soon.
Let’s get warmed up with an illustration. Consider the pygmy marmoset.
I love babies, but OK, these animals don’t happen to be that photogenic. In fact, they’re practically wookies. So, in this picture you see an ugly little baby and its ugly… now stop yourself, and think about how you finished that sentence in your mind.
If you were thinking “mother,” you just proved a point for me. Male pygmy marmosets are the super-dads of the animal world.
Now let’s unravel what it means, that most of us would automatically assume that this was the baby’s mother. Women are naturally the default nurturers. Men are not expected to be the primary nurturers, or in many (animal) cases won’t participate at all.
You can argue about how much of this is nature vs. nurture, but it doesn’t matter. In a world where we aspire to let women & men become equal partners, we cannot be blind to the biases we all carry inside us. It’s part of being human. It doesn’t make us bad people, but if we deny this part of our nature, we can’t be better than it, either.
You see, I care just as much about raising my son to be a great father and partner someday, as I care about raising my daughters to believe they can choose to be scientists or engineers. Our biases have negative impacts for both men and women, though the side effects are different. So when I look at pictures of animals with my kids, I try very hard to be fair: to call that parent a dad just as often as I call it a mom. The ugly truth is that it’s hard, though: even when I don’t slip up (and I do!), a lot of drawings are subtly gendered, or titled against me. But we aren’t slaves to nature. We have the power to control the stories we tell each other, if only we try. And those stories have power to influence how we behave.
How we talk about engineers
Let’s examine the story we tell about the kind of person that becomes a scientist or engineer. I would posit that the message we’ve been sold for a long time is that they are:
- Socially awkward geeks
- Who love science/engineering as an end.
In pop culture, almost every example you find will have 3 out of 4 of these traits.
I am not saying white males are bad, or even that nobody wants to change the message. On the contrary, I have faith that a lot of people are trying to change stereotypes away from the first two bullet points. To bring balance. But it is going to hurt a little more to talk about the second two.
Ask yourself, why do we cling to geek culture? Does it give us power, to feel a bit like an outcast? Is it a reaction to something? Are we banding together to exclude some perceived enemy? Scientists and engineers aren’t really any more socially awkward on average than anyone else. We’re actually a pretty well-adjusted bunch. Why do we accept an image to the contrary? Is it so important to us that we’d cling to that image, even after realizing that it pushes some people away? A co-worker told me a week ago that her son chose not to enter computer science because he felt it was only for nerds. Is that worth whatever we gain from calling ourselves nerds?
Secondly, who can love a career? Surely, there are always a set of people who feel a natural affinity for a subject. But there are also the people who come to love it while pursuing other interests. Science and engineering are not everyone’s first love – but a lot more people can come to love them.
This thought came to me when I was reading an article about a guy in sewage treatment. Nobody aspires to a career in sewage treatment. But he was talking about how he started out just thinking of it as a job, and realized one day that he loved it. And this thought really hit home for me when I started talking to high school students about how to apply computer programming to fields of their choice. I realized that every single career field can be enriched by building software to solve their problems – I challenge you to find one that can’t – and what’s more, we NEED those cross-discipline experts to build the world of tomorrow. As our world is changing, we need more scientists and engineers, and more people need those engineering jobs.
The subtle effect of messaging
Attitude is everything: is the glass half empty or half full?
When you see yourself as conforming to a stereotype, when you perceive yourself as being part of the in-group, you gain confidence from that self-image. As a result, when you hit a common everyday problem, you’ll tell yourself that it’s a little thing, that you can solve it, and you power through.
When you see yourself as counter to a stereotype, as being in the out-group, you may not realize it, but it is easy for you to similarly lose confidence from that perception. When you hit the same everyday problem, it becomes that final proof you were secretly expecting, that you weren’t cut out for this task – and you quit. Even if you don’t quit, your confidence is far more shaken.
This is independent of competence. Two people with the same competence, one deriving reinforcement from popular messaging and the other deriving a negative self-image, can end up with two completely different outcomes. Self-perception is crucial to the choices we make, and it makes a difference in our success too.
Without confidence, someone:
- Won’t apply to a job;
- Won’t ask for a raise / promotion;
- Won’t negotiate salaries as aggressively;
- Assumes the blame when things go wrong, but credits others when things go right;
- Is perceived as less competent by their customers / peers / superiors (including you!).
Notice how many of those bullet points commonly apply to women.
Let’s dwell on that last bullet point for another moment. Other people associate your projected confidence with competence, when it’s sincere. Genuine confidence is believed, while people can usually see through bluster. But on the flip side, a lack of confidence is also associated with a lack of competence. You’ve probably heard the saying: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.” Well, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, everyone else believes you.” Confidence can keep you in a field, and get you rewards; a lack of confidence can lead you to drop out, and make it harder to get those rewards. The stereotypes and media images we all internalize, convey (or don’t) a certain amount of privilege we don’t even realize is there. And it isn’t always about race, or gender.
What can you do about it?
I believe most people are fundamentally good, and want to do the right thing. I also believe that “fairness” is a hard problem, and most people don’t even know where to begin. What power do we have? We start by not being jerks – and that’s a good start, but it’s not enough. So let’s talk about what you can do, that will make a difference.
Step 1 is to have an impact on the people around you: those you see and work with on a daily basis.
Look around you. Do you know anyone who lacks some confidence? The answer is yes, I’m sure it is. Build their confidence. Help them to see how awesome they are. Tell them when they’ve done a good job, and thank them for it. Tell them you want them on your team. Tell them they’d be awesome at that open job you just heard about. Help them pick themselves up off the floor after a defeat, and show them why they need to keep trying. Whatever it takes, help build their self-image. Find role models they identify with, and make them visible. Set them up with a mentor. Have them mentor someone else, through which they’ll realize how much they’ve got to offer.
Also, be fair. Advocate for those who wouldn’t advocate for themselves. And whenever you make a decision that impacts anyone’s career, whether it’s to give them that job/pay/promotion OR NOT, write down your reasons. Write them down. I know this sounds like I’m asking a lot. But writing down your reasons on hiring/pay/promotion decisions will help you compensate for your biases, and your own tendency to believe others’ confidence (or lack thereof). I know this takes precious time, and is no fun. I know how hard it is, but it’s part of being fair. If you don’t have time to put in the work to be fair, you risk being part of the problem!
Step 2 is to have an impact on the wider group of young people you influence, both directly and indirectly.
Bring more people in.
Here’s the part where I suggest we all stop calling ourselves geeks and nerds. Ouch, sorry! But we don’t need that label. Let it go. I promise that you can keep doing all the things you like doing. But I want you to try to internalize how normal you are. If we can get rid of the geek/nerd label we assign to scientists and engineers, we remove some artificial barriers. It’s not true that only the kids with the best grades can succeed in science or engineering. Book-learning is not everything, and grades don’t tell you everything about a person. We need people with ideas, with imagination, who understand all kinds of people, who understand the problems that need solving. It’s also not true that the kids with the best grades are all interested in science and engineering. Let’s let them decide what they want to try, instead of assigning labels.
And we need to stop talking about science & engineering as something to love for their own sake. Of course there are lots of people who love science, or engineering, purely because it draws them in. They think it’s cool and they want to share that love. It’s OK! It’s great to have that love, and to want to share it. But someone who doesn’t initially share that love, may be pushed away while you’re trying to share. If they don’t feel that same attraction that you do, they’ll assume it’s not for them. Those are the people you have to find another approach with. Know your audience, and talk to them about what they love, not what you love. Tell them how science and engineering can be applied to what they want to do. I challenge you, actually, to find a field that can’t be enriched by the involvement of some passionate scientists and engineers. As technology disrupts all sorts of traditional careers, it will be more and more important for people to be working across fields, applying technology to the pursuits they love. They don’t have to love science or engineering, but they have to love what they’re accomplishing with it.
If you could change the way you talk about science and engineering, about who can do it, who can love it, how it can benefit them, you would impact the lives not only of the young people you directly interact with, but also those you impact indirectly. Young people will talk to their friends. Other adults will talk to other young people. You can touch a lot of lives. Give it a try.
Step 3 is to have an impact on the whole world.
I know, I’m not asking for much, am I? It sounds impossible, but it’s not. Each one of us is participating in the popular narratives of the world around us. We are surrounded by media: books, movies, ads, blogs, comics, theater, music, podcasts, radio. We choose with our eyes, ears, and wallets. We promote by discussing, liking, sharing, re-tweeting. We also participate in the creation of new works. We might produce new works ourselves, but even if we don’t, we know people who do. We participate in their creation by talking to them about what they’re doing, by reading or watching and giving them feedback, by commenting and encouraging them to continue. As we participate in bringing more creations into the world, we need to be conscious of the narratives we’re setting up or tearing down. Think about how inclusive these works are, and do what you can to involve everyone. Think about the impacts I outlined above, on how popular narratives can set someone up to succeed or fail. Let’s help everyone succeed.
This, my friends, is why I am working on my “Evil Plan to Save the World.” To create a new story of what some young people might do with computer science. To make my own attempt to change the norms. I don’t want to write white men out of the picture. But I do want to write a wider diversity of people in, not just of race and gender, but of motivation and personality. We need all races, all genders, all political persuasions, all economic backgrounds, all people participating in science and engineering. The engineers of the future should represent the people of the future. That is my goal.
I have only about 10-15 years until my own children start entering the work force. But I have less time than that to convince their peers to go with them. It’s not enough to empower my children to do whatever they want to do. That will only change the future of a few people, and it will not change the environment they work in. I need to convince a whole generation that they’re capable of becoming scientists and engineers.
So I need you to help me. You. You have more power to make a difference than you realize. The first step is to get involved; to make conscious choices about how you participate in the cultural narrative. To speak about the world as you want it to be, not as it is. That, my friends, can ultimately change the world.