Don’t Forget That Looks Still Matter In Tech

In an industry full of niches and opaque subject matter, looks are an especially poor (but tempting) heuristic for technical skill.

Don’t Forget That Looks Still Matter In Tech
[Courtesy of Universal Pictures]

The businesses of software and science like to see themselves as meritocracies, and in many ways they are–but the package in which talents arrive can still matter. But perhaps because computer science is a broad field that takes requires deep expertise to understand, people still fall back largely on looks.


Before he went to MIT and became a computer science professor at the University of Rochester, Philip Guo had no programming experience–unless you count an 11th grade AP course. Still, when he arrived on campus, no one ever questioned his ability to code. Why?

Even though I couldn’t code my way out of a paper bag”, he says, “I had one big thing going for me: I looked like I was good at programming. As an Asian male student at MIT, I fit society’s image of a young programmer. Whenever I attended technical meetings, people would assume that I knew what I was doing (regardless of whether I did or not).

Contrast this with Meg McGrath Vaccaro’s sad story of being a “stupid girl” in STEM. Back in 7th grade science, Vacarro (who is now 30) remembers being issued a brain-teaser by her science teacher. “What has matter,” he asked, “but has no mass?”

“’An idea,’ I said, proud of myself that I had the gall to break the silence, while still thinking over my justification in my head: it’s definitely something that is real, but it can’t be quantified in standard units of measure.” Vaccaro’s science teacher did not take this well.

He sneered at me as he continued, “only a girl would say something as stupid as,” in his most obnoxious little girl impression, “an idea.” Yet still he continued, spending the remainder of the class period, without exaggeration, railing against the inherent stupidity of girls and how he wishes he needn’t have to teach them since girls would simply never understand science or math and would be a constant distraction with their dumb answers. Prior to his class, I had loved science, and math for that matter. I had a microscope, collected rocks, kept a notebook where I would do algebra equations for fun, and my friend and I were teaching ourselves HTML. But what I learned from this science teacher is that it didn’t matter what I was interested in nor what I was good at. What mattered was that he didn’t think I could be good at science.

In 1978, Eileen Pollack graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in physics from Yale, having excelled in quantum mechanics and gravitational physics, but she didn’t pursue a career in the field. In her article in the New York Times on why there aren’t more women in science, she explains why.

I didn’t go on in physics because not a single professor–not even the adviser who supervised my senior thesis–encouraged me to go to graduate school. Certain this meant I wasn’t talented enough to succeed in physics, I left the rough draft of my senior thesis outside my adviser’s door and slunk away in shame. Pained by the dream I had failed to achieve, I locked my textbooks, lab reports and problem sets in my father’s army footlocker and turned my back on physics and math forever.

Things may be improving when it comes to encouraging girls with an interest STEM, but we still live in a world where even female scientists are biased against female scientists.

“This kind of privilege that I–and other people who looked like me–possessed was silent,” says Guo, “manifested not in what people said, but rather in what they didn’t say. We had the privilege to spend enormous amounts of time developing technical expertise without anyone’s interference or implicit discouragement. Because we looked the part.”