5 min read

#ILookLikeAnEngineer: One Woman’s Story From Abroad

women computers

When Isis Anchalee posed as part of a series of recruiting advertisements for her company, OneLogin, she had no idea the movement it would inspire.


When Isis Anchalee posed as part of a series of recruiting advertisements for her company, OneLogin, she had no idea the movement it would inspire.


The advertisement drew attention on social media - not all of it good. A slew of sexist comments accusing of her of looking “too sexy” to be an engineer provoked a massive resistance in the form of the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag campaign. People of color and women across the world took to posting their photos on social media with their tech industry title. As Anchalee told the SFGate, “The whole point is that your external appearance and your gender is not a limiting factor on your cognitive ability.”


isis anchalee

Source: lorensworld.com

The ad that launched the #ILookLikeAnEngineer movement


Sad that in 2015, such a statement should be received as a revelation. Of course there is no right or wrong gender, ethnicity, style or look that defines one’s ability as an engineer. The #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign aims to prove that through the countless images now posted in the name of the cause.


In an effort to do our part in the campaign for more female voices in the tech industry, we’re sharing one woman’s story. Our own website MYSA was developed by a woman, Layal Khatib. Based in Saïda, Lebanon, she says she’s had a fascination with computers from a young age. “It was an interesting thing to play with when I was little,” she explains. “So when I had to choose what I wanted to do in college, computer science seemed the ultimate thing that made sense to me.”


As a student at university, only a handful of other women also chose computer science for their major. “It was very normal for me to end up the only girl in a class,” Khatib says. But she says that as a student, it wasn’t much of an issue.


Then she became a TA. “When I started working as a teacher’s assistant in my last year, I taught a couple of labs. At first when students walked into class, they mistook me for a student, and it took me a while to convince them that I was there to teach them.”


The road to where she is today, a developer and new mother at age 29, hasn’t always been easy or clear. While interviewing for her first job after graduating, her interviewer and the man who would eventually become her boss for the next two years asked, “Why would you do this when you can be a teacher?” suggesting that would be a more appropriate position for a woman. Khatib says her perspective now is different. “Now if somebody asked me this in an interview, I wouldn’t take [the job],” she says. “But then I was young and I was struggling to get the job...I didn’t know better, so I just ignored the question and continued on.”


Sexism aside, Khatib’s experience with her first employer was at least partially a blessing in disguise. “I didn’t want to work with web, but then they put me in the web development department and I wasn’t happy about it,” she recalls. “I wanted to work with applications, banking softwares, stuff like that. But then they assigned me to this department and it was a good choice because I found myself happier there. I didn’t know that this was the thing for me. And here I am now.”


women in tech

Source: shethepeople.tv


Life is funny like that sometimes. But looking back from where she stands now, perhaps becoming a web developer was the best thing that could have happened. Khatib has just left a position at an advertising agency for a position that will allow her to work from home where she can spend more time with her brand new daughter. On the one hand, a career in tech can be an ideal choice for somebody who also hopes to become a parent one day. On the other, as a woman, Khatib’s choice to quit her busy job at the advertising agency carries connotations she’d rather do without. She explains, “When I quit a couple of days ago, they expected it, which was a bit sad. They said, ‘Okay, we totally understand.’” Would a man making the same decision have received the same reaction?


The problems women face in Khatib’s native Lebanon are different from what women in many Western countries face. Lebanese citizens are subject to invasive “personal statute codes” which legally dictate gender and family norms. For example, female children receive less inheritance than male children and fathers retain legal custody of all children. Khatib explains, “If my husband weren't Lebanese, my daughter wouldn't get [Lebanese] nationality. I can't travel with her without his permit. Until recently, I couldn't even open a bank account for her.”


So can a movement like #ILookLikeAnEngineer have an impact in a country like Lebanon? Khatib has her doubts, given the long road Lebanese women still have to walk to reach legal and social equality. At least, perhaps the images of female engineers being shared online “can help [Lebanese] women on a personal level,” Khatib hopes. “She knows there are other women like her somewhere.”


While the percentage of women in the Lebanese workforce may be smaller than in many Western countries, the challenges Khatib faces in the workplace are very similar to what working women face elsewhere. “I would sometimes have problems with my computer,” she gives an example, “and I’d go under the table and work with the wires, and [my co-workers] would say, ‘No, no, no; you’re a girl why would you do this?’”



Khatib with her daughter


We asked Khatib what she’s learned so far in her career that has helped make her professional life easier. “Patience, maybe?” she laughs. She continued, “I struggle every time to prove myself. I don’t think men [in my field] have this problem… Or maybe men do face this problem, but I don’t think so - I have to work harder every time I go somewhere new to prove myself.”


And what if her new daughter some day tries her hand at computer science but hits a stumbling block or two?


“She has to work a bit harder and have more patience so that she won’t give up or be frustrated with whatever she faces,” Khatib explains. “She will always be underrated. She has to prove herself above her peers - if they’re men.”


And what if some day her new daughter decides she doesn’t want to study computer science, math, business or law at all?


Khatib offers the example of her husband. “He’s very into the food industry, although he studied business. So yeah, we would definitely encourage her - especially her father - to follow whatever she loves. We’ll stand by her. Because we wish we had this chance. So we will definitely help her to follow her dreams, to be more connected with whatever her passion is. If it’s math, then it’s math, if it’s art, then it’s art. It’s done.”


In the meantime, Khatib is managing the rigors of early motherhood, but it turns out, babies are a lot less straight-forward than computers. “The only place computer science hasn’t helped me is with my child,” she observes with a chuckle. “[With computers] I would read a book, or articles online, and I would consider myself good to go with the subject...but with her?” Khatib laughs. “I did the same thing I would do with my work. I thought I was ready… Everybody was saying, ‘It’s different!’ And I would say, ‘It’s fine! I read the books!’”  


Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity.

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