Combatting Engineering Stereotypes

8. January 2014

Brian Monacelli

Quick! Think of a well-known engineer, real or fictional, from pop culture.

I bet that took longer than expected, right?

Perhaps Scotty from Star Trek came to mind. He is admired among his fictional peers because the fate of the crew often depended on his technical prowess, but this chief engineer seldom made the promotional posters for the series.

Maybe you thought of Dilbert, the fictional comic nerd-hero who is disgruntled and unpopular in his own world. Though humorous, his frustrations with his job are not always relevant to engineering. However, he does share with real engineers the reputation of being unsocial.

Even in our modern society that relies so heavily on technology, engineers and scientists have a fairly negative social reputation. Though there are a handful of notable, socially visible scientists held in high regard in popular culture—Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Carl Sagan, to name a few—I’m hard-pressed to think of any publically familiar engineers (not counting technically savvy entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk or Bill Gates).

The Wikipedia page for “engineer” is telling—there is an entire section specifically about public perception of the profession:

“…engineering has in the popular culture of some English-speaking countries been seen as a dry, uninteresting field and the domain of nerds. One challenge to public awareness of the profession is that average people lack personal dealings with engineers, even though they benefit from their work every day.”

Engineering is challenging, but not uninteresting. Most of us rely on our engineered devices, so much so that they are often the first things we reach for in the morning or watch before we sleep. If engineering is dull, why are over 2.5 million people in the United States alone (per the 2010 U.S. Census) employed as engineers?

Wikipedia identifies the problem well: people don’t often have the opportunity to meet the person who designed their phone display or aligned their camera lenses. Layers of corporate customer service often prevent consumers from providing direct feedback to an engineering team, and technical topics are mired in nuanced jargon.

However, I find that it is both refreshing and efficient to have a technical discussion in which specialized topics are broken down into basic concepts that can be understood by an interested, but less experienced person. It’s key to find the right balance of precise technical terminology and universal language for your particular audience.

I suggest that public opinion of engineers can be improved if those of us making the technology spent a few hours during the day in a classroom or discussing technical projects with non-technical peers. Optical engineers in particular should be able to relate to most people, since almost everyone interacts with light every day, whether it’s something as simple as their rearview mirror or as complex as their head-mounted display of a 3-D video that was downloaded via an optical fiber link. If you can convey complex technical topics simply and directly to anyone you meet, then you stand a better chance of being crystal clear when you interact with your professional colleagues.

This new year, consider how you can alter the negative stereotype by reaching out to a young person, a family member or a peer to educate them about your passion for engineering. Understanding technology is awesome, so make it a story that’s told over and over again. Become a better storyteller, and maybe someone in your audience will consider engineering as a career.

Brian Monacelli is an optical engineer. He also teaches photonics at Irvine Valley College, Calif., U.S.A.


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And So It Begins: Scientific Stereotypes

12. December 2012

David McGloin

This post is reproduced from the blog Dundee Physics with the kind permission of the author.

Recently, my daughter was asked to do a writing and comprehension exercise related to her science class. On the surface, it was a simple assignment: Look at an image and write descriptive words and phrases about it, and then put these into context in a few sentences. The exercise was linked to her current project work on magnets and their properties. (It was rather straightforward, as she is only in Primary 3.) But the picture that the teacher had chosen was what caught my eye. It was of a “scientist” in the old man, Einstein mold with a set of test tubes.

Although I don’t have a problem with the assignment itself, I do take issue with the way that this particular image reinforces the tired old cliché of the stereotypical scientist. This is the type of thing that seeps into kids’ minds and influences the way that they conceptualize the sciences. While it may not put them off entirely, it could lead them to perceive science as being uncool or only for a limited group of people. At a young age, I think many kids love science. They like doing experiments and discovering things. But after years of being bombarded with images like these, that can begin to change. I think my daughters are capable of anything, including becoming much better scientists than I am. However, in spite of their potential, years of reinforcement of the idea of scientists as disheveled old men could ultimately take its toll.

This is a deeply entrenched image in society, and it is not a simple problem to fix. The misconception should be addressed on multiple levels, and so science communication needs to extend much further than just the pupils. The solution begins with teachers. The instructors at a primary school may not know better. They too have grown up with these stereotypes, and they may be, through no fault of their own, unaware that this is an issue.  That is why we in the science community need to raise awareness among educators so that our teachers can help take on the lack of female students in the sciences. 

I have watched with interest the development of projects like Sciencegrrl and Geek Girl Scotland. For quite a while, I have sympathized with their cause and seen the need for such initiatives. However, before I had my own daughters, it didn’t hit quite so close to home. Now the issue seems much more personal. I have ordered a Sciencegrrl calendar to pass on to my local school. In addition, as the Head of Physics at Dundee University, I will try to look at ways to improve our attractiveness to female applicants. As a community, we need to explore ways in which we might help out more in the community to try and counter such stereotypes. As a start, I have ordered a Science Grrl calendar to donate to my kids’ school. You should get one too.

David McGloin ( is head of the division of physics and a senior lecturer at the University of Dundee, Scotland. 

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Understanding and Overcoming Scientist Stereotypes in the Workplace

8. March 2012

By Marcius Extavour

Culture shock can be at once the thrill and the bane of international travel. We must adapt to local culture, learn the language, and deal with stereotypes and others’ perceptions—or misperceptions—of who we are. These same lessons apply to professional “travel” and “relocation,” by which I mean working outside of one’s “home” profession—perhaps as an advisor to policymakers, for example, or in a managerial capacity at a company.

Scientists face a series of stubborn and pervasive personal stereotypes in outside work and study environments. This post outlines some of the most common caricatures and some suggestions for educating people about who scientists really are.

The solo operator

An individual working alone at a desk or lab bench, late into the night. Do you recognize this image of the scientist from media and pop culture? I don’t mean to suggest that science is not done in this way, as much of it is. However, this is clearly not the only work style. Single author papers are rare. Research collaborations abound, and they are encouraged by funders. Research groups rely on teamwork and many moving parts.

Yet those working outside of mainstream science often believe that we have no experience with teamwork and management hierarchies. We may therefore be either passed over for work or confined to individual tasks.

To push back, we must emphasize the collaborative side of science and our ability to thrive in managed teams. Though research hierarchies may not be as developed as they are in government or large corporations, most science groups rely on seniority (summer students, research associates, postdocs, staff scientists, PIs), a range of experience (undergraduates, technicians, senior faculty), and institutional hierarchies (grant writers, administrators) to manage talent and work flow.

Narrow expertise

There is no question that science requires deep focus and attention to detail. Subject matter expertise is the foundation on  broader knowledge and skill in science are built. Yet our deep and narrow focus as scientists can work against us in the eyes of generalists. When working in a new area, for instance, the scientist is often asked how their work is relevant to the new field. This is a fair question, since clearly not all scientific knowledge is universally applicable. From my own work, for example, the Kramers-Kronig relations generally have nothing to do with solar PV markets.

But if we take a step back from the cutting edge of our individual fields, we may find that connections between our specialized research and outside topics may emerge. To continue the example, light absorption in solids is certainly connected to solar electricity economics through PV device performance.

The connections may be indirect, but the overlap need only be large enough to build upon. It is important that scientists look for these connections, emphasize them to colleagues, and use them to maximize contributions to new areas.

Rigid, deaf to nuance, uncreative

Pop culture and media reinforce the broad misconception that scientists lack creativity, and that they are too rigid to adapt to surroundings and circumstances. This would be a terrible personal reputation in any field of work! Scientists must remember, and gently remind our non-scientist colleagues, that science demands fluidity and adaptability. Old ideas are pushed aside by new ones in the face of evidence and experiment. Scientific knowledge and truth evolve, and we must all evolve with it.

Often the leaders of change are the most creative among us. They make the unimaginable seem obvious once the evidence is presented and the experiments completed. Of course there is dogmatism and rigidity in science (as in any field), but these are far from the prevailing themes. This applies equally well to individual scientists.

How to combat these stereotypes in the workplace?

Battling stereotypes is not quick or easy. Often, we are not even given the chance to fight back directly, since few people even recognize or feel comfortable talking about their personal biases. Still, being aware of the misconceptions puts us in a better position to recognize the stereotypes that may undermine our goals and address them in honest conversation.

Marcius Extavour ( holds a Ph.D. in atomic physics and quantum optics from the University of Toronto. He served as the 2010-2011 OSA/SPIE Guenther Congressional Science Policy Fellow, and he is an active consultant and organizer in clean energy and science policy in Toronto, Canada.

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