A couple of weeks ago, during an annual conference for biomedical engineers, I attended a luncheon for women in the field. The event was primarily attended by female graduate students, some undergraduate students, and maybe a few faculty or other professionals, all women who were either in biomedical engineering or in a related STEM field.
The luncheon started out like any other– delicious (and very healthy) food was served, students mingled, and a speaker was introduced. She was a personal brand strategist, and she was there to help us all learn to build our own irresistible personal brands. Each of our seats at the table included a worksheet as well, so that we could begin to evaluate ourselves and build our brands as the speaker presented its different aspects. It was interactive, and it was definitely very helpful. While gender biases and institutional cultures and policies are still the biggest obstacles to women advancing in STEM fields, improving our branding can go a long way towards finding success. Considering that most of us in the audience were young scientists, still students, still learning, it was especially important that we learn now how to create our own personal brand, to make a stronger impact, be more unique, and have a more powerful influence.
The speaker started off well enough. She defined a ‘brand’, showed us what can define us in a negative light, and what can define us in a positive light. She asked us to find our strengths, then sell them. She then moved on to defying stereotypes; in our case, this meant creating a brand that showed a more colorful engineer, highlighting our hobbies, etc. At least, that is the message that I believe she meant to convey.
To emphasize her point, she showed us an example of a woman who had created a very successful personal brand. Up on the screen we see a cheerleader, a beautiful, athletic young woman wearing the typical attractive uniform. The audience is confused; who is she, and why is she relevant?
She is an NFL cheerleader and a PhD candidate in bioengineering.
The speaker then lists a few biographic facts about the cheerleader: biomedical engineering is her passion, but dancing is her dream, and she has found an amazing way to do both. Why was she relevant here? The speaker excitedly shows that here is a woman who has created such a “unique” image for herself, by being this beautiful engineer who is also a cheerleader, a job that is rarely associated with science, research, or academia. Her outgoing, bright spirit makes her stand out, and her ability to pursue dancing/cheerleading while being an engineer is commendable. No one doubts this.
Somehow, however, the audience was not pleased by this. The room filled with uneasy murmurs, raised eyebrows and frowns. The speaker halted for a moment, and someone in the audience raised her hand. Up until now, no one had asked any questions, only answered the speaker’s questions. The audience member asked: “I’m curious, can you tell us why you picked her as an example of personal branding?” The speaker was confused. Someone else spoke up, a little less politely: “She’s wondering — well, I think we’re all wondering — why you decided to use this picture as an example of personal branding for engineers.” Everyone nodded, clearly glad that someone had thought to ask the uncomfortable question.
The speaker was taken aback. She answered that she thought that this was a good example of personal branding because it was “atypical”. With that, she quickly moved on, stifling any potential follow-up questions or discussions.
It was too late, though. She had lost her audience. The rest of the talk continued completely uninterrupted, but without the rapt attention and silence that was the first half of the luncheon. Conversations started up everywhere, and when the speaker ended, it took a rather awkward 10 seconds before everyone realized she was done and applauded.
Some of you may have been at this luncheon. Some of you may have already heard of or even know the cheerleader given as an example. I mention this event not because I think there is anything strange or wrong with what she does; on the contrary, I agree with the speaker that she is definitely very talented and interesting, and deserves praise for pursuing both her dreams. Most of the audience there will agree with that too.
I write about this event because something clearly disturbed the audience, and the speaker was utterly nonplussed. There was a clear disconnect between her and the audience of female engineers; some of the audience members were maybe even offended. Was the speaker telling us that we should shed whatever image we have and become a beautiful, athletic woman who can fit the stereotype of what is popular? Maybe it was the picture of her in her cheerleading outfit, not in her lab coat, and the brief bio highlighting her dreams, favorite song, and love of dancing, rather than her accomplishments or technical interests.
Part of it was possibly what she was implying about engineers: that we are uninteresting, or less attractive, or socially awkward, etc., everything used to describe the stereotypical engineer “nerd”. For us, particularly as women, to be successful, our personal brand apparently has to be the non-engineer, something that emphasizes our other hobbies, so that we might be more likeable and attractive to the rest of the world. Showing off our scientific knowledge or fascination with our engineering work isn’t attractive–instead, we need to be something else on the outside. Nowhere in her slides about personal branding did the speaker mention intelligence, research aptitude, or scientific curiosity as strengths to be emphasized and included in our brand.
Still, perhaps she isn’t entirely to blame. She called the cheerleading PhD candidate “atypical” and therefore a good example, and the audience took offense to that. Would we have been as put off if she used a different dancer as her example—say, a ballerina? Or a different type of athlete, such as a soccer player? Or maybe still the NFL cheerleader, but in her lab coat or in a research setting? While the speaker failed to give a good explanation for her example, it doesn’t necessarily mean her example was a bad one. By being shocked, were we just revealing our conditioning of what a woman engineer should be?
I’m curious to hear everyone’s thoughts. How would you have reacted, as a member of the audience? Or, what would you have done if you were the speaker?