Open Letter to Ms. Wenger #ilooklikeanengineer

October 14, 2015

Ms. Wenger, hello.

This August when you started the twitter campaign #Ilooklikeanengineer it kind of set my heart and mind on fire.

First, I wrote a blog post I hoped would help my clients (engineers) see what you’d done as an example of someone standing confident in their own self-expression for the benefit of their audience, their peers, and, of course, themselves. Since I’m on a mission to empower people to be fully self-expressed AND get where they want to go professionally this made sense. I started my business, The Clementina Collective, with the aim of helping engineers get promoted.

The original blog-post wasn’t quite right, though, because what came up in my writing turned out to be much more personal.

Much. More. Personal.

My reaction to your situation was visceral. I was angry at the subset of people who still can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that a woman can be beautiful, and smart, and an engineer. Detractors on your blog irritated me too.

Still, I was much angrier than reason warranted. Weeks went on. I wrestled with what and how I would write when I realized that, most of all, I was angry with myself.

Then I got sad.

You see, Ms. Wenger, I too have been unbelievable. I’ve been accused of having a “sly, seductive” smile. People misinterpret me. People, who don’t know me or don’t take the time to think, misinterpret what is actually a symptom of my feeling shy or my overcompensating as an introvert (which many of us know often comes out in the wash as “awkward”) as a signal intended for sexual provocation.

I’ll never forget the time I was teaching a grammar lesson. It may have been the un-sexiest lesson ever wrought. I turned around from the chalkboard, to find a student, sitting in the front row, acting out a hot-for-teacher fantasy totally inappropriate for the classroom. I was uncharacteristically disarmed; disoriented, I suffered a momentary loss of breath and the feeling that my self was taken from me… when I wasn’t looking…while I’d turned my back.

When I went to see the Faculty Chair about it, he said, “Well, Clementina, we can’t ask you to teach with a bag over your head. Talk to him.”

Because inviting said student to the office of a professor in her early twenties to discuss, privately, his recent sexual fantasies is a good idea. Does anyone else see the precariousness of this situation?

Two years later, I went to speak to the same Faculty Chair, I’ll call him Jon, about one of his peers blatantly sexually harassing me. He (who shall remain nameless) had been trying to lure me into his classes with “rare D.H. Lawrence texts.” On several occasions, I’d caught him giving me the once over whenever we happened to be at the faculty mailboxes at the same time. I recognized the setup. After all, an undergraduate degree is a precursor to participation in an MA program and I’d earned more than a B.A.

I was wise to this setup. I’d been burned once. It wasn’t going to happen again.

At first, my attempts to dodge him made me that much more attractive. Later, when I’d managed to avoid him at all costs and still earn accolades in his field…he was pissed. So pissed that he sought revenge: he tried to prevent me from graduating.

That’s what landed me in–the faculty chair and my assigned teaching mentor—Jon’s office again. He listened and said, “There is nothing I can do for you, Clementina. He and I go way back. He and I have been friends much longer than you and I have known one another. He was there for me when my son died. Besides, do you know how many women he’s done this to? It’s pointless to try to fight him. You won’t win. You can’t prove any of it.”

I’d run smack dab into the old boys network.

I stared at him incredulously. Stood there speechless. My head was swimming with feelings of anger and betrayal. I thought the academy valued justice. I thought I’d escaped the double standard I’d grown up with…some of those voices came back to me: Since when is a man looking at a pretty girl a crime? You’re being too sensitive. You’re overreacting.

It was more than looking and I knew it. I was not too sensitive. I was not overreacting.

What more could I do?

I’d already mastered the arts of dressing like a satirized librarian, subjugating my own voice, and downplaying my power.  It was a slippery slope, asserting myself just enough to get ahead but not so much that I would stand out. Frankly, I was tired of it.

At the time, I happened to also be working for the VP of development. Because Jon wouldn’t help me, I went to talk to her. She understood the seriousness of the situation and set up a meeting with the dean on my behalf. It wasn’t long after I got there that the dean started giving me the run around.

In my most professional voice I said, “ I have almost a 4.0 and my writing just won the one and only graduate award for research. Make this right or I will take it to the news.” I don’t think I’d ever made a threat like that in my life. It’s amazing what you’ll say and do when your back is against the wall. But I suspect you know that, Ms. Wenger.

At the time, the institution I was studying and teaching at was getting some negative press. The last thing they wanted was more. In an instant, had I leveraged who I was against the academic hierarchy, it would have become news. However, turning the public’s attention to my story would have been the hardest move I’d ever made. Surely, you can relate.

I wasn’t surprised when, a day or two later, the dean called me with a compromise. I was relieved. After all, I’d been smart about it. I’d defended myself. I consented because it promised to get said professor out of my way and return me quickly to my scholarship and my students without much ado.

Still, it was a compromise I often regret.

What about the other women? The ones Jon mentioned…the ones HE had done this to before? What about the students who came after me? What about his next target?

 To this day, the feeling that I’ve failed them haunts me.

What about my peers? Most of them are probably parents now. When they worry over their daughter’s futures do they ever remember what went on for me? Whether or not the professional climate has changed enough to ensure that their daughters can be smart and beautiful and safe? Whether or not their sons get the benefit of inhabiting a world with beautiful, smart, powerful women?

 What about Me? I took the easy road, or so I thought. I didn’t want the attention, the criticism or the hassle. I didn’t want to start a movement. I didn’t have time for that. Yet, here I am almost twenty years later spending time thinking about what might have been if only I’d acted more like you.

You see, I’d spent my whole young life believing the promise of The Ugly Duckling was true: become beautiful and your troubles disappear. Imagine my surprise, a late bloomer getting what she’d wished for, only to discover that it was a lie. I’d traded one set of problems for another.

I couldn’t win.

My friend, Jon, the Faculty Chair, was he right?

Maybe if I didn’t make much of it… if I didn’t talk or write about it…maybe if I made myself smaller, I would go unnoticed, I would be safe, and it would go away.

But it hasn’t gone away has it?

Watching your recent experience made me realize that.

I wasn’t ready to admit that I was a beautiful woman in a historically male profession and that the academy I had idolized could be a dangerous place fraught with conscious and unconscious bias.

You’ve put yourself out there and said I am an engineer and I’m smart and I am beautiful and I am a woman so gracefully. From my vantage point, I imagine amazing opportunities coming your way because you made this one move so deftly.

On your blog, you’re careful to say that stereotypes around what an engineer should look like may be largely a subconscious issue. All the more reason you deserve props for what you’ve done. You’ve taken a huge issue that’s often a private paradox for women into the public sphere where we can all learn from it. As a self-professed introvert, this must have been wildly uncomfortable for you. Yet, there are elements of these biases that are conscious…that are nothing if not power plays. We need to talk more about both. Thank you for starting such a necessary conversation.

“It’s authentic, “ you’ve said referring to the original picture of you that started all of this. I believe you. Authentic style communicates a self that we’ve worked to understand, to know, and to love. Only from there can we communicate our truth. If that truth happens to be smart, beautiful, professional and female…is it any less believable?

I hear you loud and clear, Ms. Wenger. The answer is no.