Engineering Appearance

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Nov 2003

Can you recognize an engineer by his or her appearance?

Well, of course not. Yet over the course of my career I’ve often contemplated this question. Some years ago, for example, my assistant had arranged for a limo to pick me up after a flight to Columbus, Ohio. When the plane arrived I joined the throng of passengers emerging from the gate. I looked around a little anxiously for the driver I had been promised, but I didn’t see anyone with a sign that had my name on it. As I hesitated uncertainly a man in a dark suit came up to me. “You’re Mr. Lucky,” he said confidently.

I nodded. “That’s me,” I agreed. But my curiosity had been aroused. “How did you pick me out?” I asked.

The driver started walking down the concourse. He glanced back at me. “I can always tell an engineer,” he said dismissively.

I followed along a few steps behind feeling like a small dog on a leash. There were about 150 passengers on the plane, I was thinking, and he picked me out unerringly because I looked like an engineer. I felt offended. What did engineers look like? I hurried to keep up, while I self-consciously checked out my clothes. As far as I could tell, I looked like any other passenger. Hey, I might be a businessman, I told myself. Maybe I was a surgeon returning from a medical conference. If there was some give-away here, I wanted to change it. I didn’t want to be so obvious.

This sort of thing has happened to me many times during my career, and it makes we wonder: what do engineers look like? I’d like to say they look just like anybody else, but I think there are statistical differences. As I write this essay I’m attending a meeting of engineers at a hotel. In the room next door is a meeting of the local probation and parole association. Each meeting has about 50 attendees, and each group is dressed in business casual attire. Yet I venture to say that if a reader of IEEE Spectrum Magazine looked briefly into the two rooms, there is virtually no chance – none -- that the two groups would not be instantly identified based solely on the appearance of the attendees.

During breaks the two groups mingle outside in the corridor. Out of the hundred people, you might miss classifying a couple, but that’s about all. There aren’t obvious differences in the way they are dressed, but there are some clear demographic differences. For example, the room next door has much greater diversity. There is a greater percentage of women and minorities in the probation and parole group, while on the other hand the engineers have a much greater representation of non-US participants and in particular, Asians. Some of the more handsome and beautiful people are next door, but so are some of least handsome people. Some of the men next door look really tough, while none of the engineers do. The engineers as a group seem to my eye to be more homogeneous and representative of the middle segment of society with few of the extreme segments.

During the breaks the parole people joke, while the engineers engage in serious shoptalk. My guess is that for the room next door probation and parole is what they do, while for this room, engineers are what they are. Of course, I could be wrong about this. I’ve never been a probation and parole person. I don’t even know what they do. I do know that I would never mistake these two groups.

I recall being told by an engineering executive in a large trucking firm that I could never be a manager in their company. “You don’t look the part,” he said. I remember also an IEEE conference many years ago where the opening cocktail party facility was shared with a convention of undertakers. There was no mistaking who was who. I recall that the undertakers were generally better dressed, more sociable, and better looking.

I’ve seen this kind of thing enough to believe there must be some birds-of-a-feather phenomenon. I wonder if people choose occupations based on their appearance, or having chosen an occupation, they morph into the common visage?

As a thought experiment, imagine looking into two rooms, one of engineers and one of lawyers. Do you think you could tell which was which? Suppose the other room had doctors, shop owners, stockbrokers, or whatever else you might come up with. Could you tell them apart?

Is there something statistically significant in engineering appearance, or am I just suffering delusions? Excuse me, but I see a little green man over in the corner that I’d like to talk to.

Robert Lucky