Calm Down, Internet: This Female Engineer Isn't False Advertising

A tech company's subway campaign caused a commotion, but women are taking to social media to set the record straight.
(Photo: Twitter)
Aug 4, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

In cities around the world, ads in subway stations have become a flash point for social critique. In London, a banner asking commuters whether they were beach-body ready was removed after protests from body-positive activists. In New York, two comedians filed a lawsuit when the Metropolitan Transit Authority refused to install their posters poking fun at Muslim stereotypes. And in San Francisco last week, a tech company's advertisement on BART caused a commotion on social media—but not for the reasons you might expect.

The series of three ads—which were aimed at recruiting new talent for OneLogin, a firm that develops security software—showed images of real employees along with their quotes describing why they enjoy working for the company. "My team is great. Everyone is smart, creative, and hilarious," stated one ad featuring platform engineer Isis Wenger (who goes by Isis Anchalee). Sounds fairly innocuous, right?

But on social media, the ad was reposted again and again, each time with a different kind of critique aimed at Anchalee, a young brunet wearing square-framed glasses. Some weren't so sure she really existed; others accused the company of using a model to attract the male gaze. Conversely, some viewed it as a misguided attempt to recruit women, while others took to petty complaints about her facial expression or her statement about the company.

RELATED: A 'MacGyver' Competition Asks: What If Our TV Stars Were Scientists and Engineers?

"It wasn't something we thought of as a controversial thing," Chloë Bregman, OneLogin's director of design and brand experience, told TakePart. "People perceived Isis to be pretty in the campaign, which, you know, she's the first to admit she didn't have her hair brushed and was just at her desk and was taking a photo for us, and now it's up."

The other two ads in the series both feature images of male employees. A lead security architect and fairly well-known hacker is pictured wearing a black top hat, which in the tech scene is typically associated with malicious hacking. But neither ads drew commentary the way Anchalee's did. "No one's wondering if they work for us or not," said Bregman.

The response to the ads took Bregman and her colleagues by surprise, especially since they perceived another aspect of the recruiting campaign as far more eye-catching: A 16-foot-long poster installed on the floor of several BART trains showed people wearing hoodies and unicorn masks. The ad copy, "Built by people, used by unicorns," was an industry joke about the rare tech companies that have been valued at $1 billion or more.

"We found it really funny that in San Francisco, apparently that is not a shocker, but having Isis in an ad was much more of a controversy," Bregman said. Meanwhile, a national ad campaign unveiled recently by the tech recruitment site showed men posing in their underwear alongside the slogan, "Find the hottest tech talent." It drew little criticism. One website even described it as "adorkable."

But as OneLogin's advertisement made the rounds on social media, the conversation evolved. What began as a narrow critique of the poster spiraled into a broader debate about gender stereotypes in the tech industry, particularly when it comes to biases and assumptions about coders and engineers. Then Anchalee weighed in, using the unwelcome attention as a platform to talk about sexism in the tech industry.
In an essay posted to Medium, the self-described "science-nerd, anime-lover, college dropout" urged others who "don't fit the 'cookie-cutter mold' of what people believe engineers 'should look like' " to post selfies using the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer. It has since taken off on Twitter, similarly to the hashtags #DistractinglySexy and #GirlsWithToys, both of which came as a response to public comments made by male scientists.

The social media efforts to combat gender stereotypes come amid ongoing discussions about Silicon Valley's well-documented gender and racial gap. Women hold just 30 percent of jobs at Google, and African Americans and Hispanics combined account for just 5 percent of employees, according to the company's latest diversity report. At Facebook, another "unicorn" company, the numbers are similarly low. Women account for 32 percent of global employees, and people who are either black, Hispanic, or mixed race make up 6 percent of the company's workforce, according to its 2015 diversity report. Nationally, women account for just a quarter of the STEM workforce, according to census bureau data.

Bregman declined to disclose OneLogin's workforce demographics, but she admitted that the company hasn't reached the level of diversity it's been striving for, despite efforts including sponsored Google hangouts for women and office recruiting and networking events. "Like every tech company, we're struggling. It's not an all-white, male office, but it's definitely a larger issue," she said, adding that just 10 percent of the company's engineering applicants are female. It's part of the reason the company chose Anchalee for its advertisements in the first place.

"Now that the campaign is out, I can't think of another campaign with a female engineer in the area," Bregman said. "It's really fascinating to see how such a simple thing has so many connotations for people."