Sierra Bentz: Last month I had the opportunity to visit San Francisco, a city that is known for challenging paradigms and re-shaping the definition of possible, just like the drone industry. The purpose of my visit was to attend the Girls Who Drone: Drone Talks event, which was hosted by Samsung NEXT in partnership with some of the brightest and most influential women in the drone industry. As the event approached, I became apprehensive that this would be yet another event that focused on women as a marginalized group in the tech industry. While it is no secret that women in technology are a minority, it is my personal opinion that by focusing our energy on promoting this fact rather than on realizing new achievements, we only ensure that it does not change.
Upon arriving, I was ecstatic to find that the room was packed with women and men of all backgrounds and ages. Given this fact, I could immediately see that this gathering would promote a discussion that would be decidedly different from much of the other rhetoric about women in technology. It did not disappoint. The event went on to highlight women who were once misperceived due to paradigms in the industry and who proceeded to blow these stereotypes away by contributing real innovation to the community, rather than by focusing on the fact that they were once marginalized. Sally French, more commonly known as “The Drone Girl,” kicked off the event with a welcoming speech, introducing Jessie Mooberry, Gretchen West and Abbe Lyle, who each shared their unique stories and the impactful work they do to shape the drone industry. As a preamble to these talks, Sally shared an important story with us all, which she’s agreed to share with you here today:
Sally French: I’ve always felt welcome by most people in the drone industry. But every once in a while someone says or does something that reminds me that I’m not like everybody else. It’s a reminder that drones are still a man’s world — that I don’t inherently belong. This happened once when I was attending a drone-flying event at an RC field. There was a sign-in sheet, so, with a drone in each hand, I walked up to the check-in table and put my name on the list. “I’m here to fly drones,” I said to the man at the table, reaching for the pen. “You don’t look like you’re here to fly drones,” he responded. I mustered up a pleasant smile, signed my name and moved on. But inside, I felt like my heart was torn. Why didn’t I look like I was here to fly drones? Was it because I was literally holding two drones? Or was it because I was wearing a pink skirt and had a flower in my hair?
I’m guessing the man at the table was just trying to make conversation rather than trying to tell me to go away. I can only hope that he had the best of intentions. And that little comment was nowhere near the horror stories of Silicon-Valley-level sexism that I’ve heard so often. But often it’s the little comments that build up and make a difference. They’re a reminder that in order to be seen as someone who flies drones, you need to look like one. And that person looks like a man.
To be honest, when I started Drone Girl, it was a blog for me just to host my videos. But I quickly realized that my blog had nothing to do with my admittedly terrible-quality videos at all. It had everything to do with breaking down barriers — showing people that there are women who fly drones. I’ve gotten so many emails from everyone from the 6-year-old girl learning to fly drones to the 60-year-old woman looking to make a career switch who have said that my work has impacted them — shown them it’s possible to work in drones while being a woman.
I often wish I had studied engineering in school, but at the time, I had very few role models. The computer science class in my school was all nerdy 16-year-olds who spent their time playing video games and eating Flaming Hot Cheetos. I just didn’t fit in with them. Sure, they would be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but I could just never envision myself being those people.
When I looked at people who I thought were successful and whom I wanted to be like, I envisioned journalists like Ann Curry and Katie Couric, which inspired me to instead spend time with the newspaper staff — hence my career now in writing.
What I hope my blog can show is that STEM and femininity aren’t mutually exclusive. You can love science, wearing FPV goggles and drones, while also loving dance, wearing dresses and art. I hope that people see me and realize that they, too, can have a successful career in drones, even if they don’t look like what the mold says they should look like.
If just one person says that by seeing me as a woman in drones, that gave them the confidence to apply for a job at a drone company, to take a computer science class, or to simply fly a drone, then I will know my work was worth it.
Sierra Bentz: It’s because of people like Sally, who dedicate their time to crushing paradigms in the STEM community, that computer science classes and engineering labs will one day be filled with men and women of all backgrounds and personality types. At Insitu, it’s refreshing to see a number of talented women who, like Sally, are breaking down barriers by proving the stereotypes wrong. I’m proud to work at a company where this diversity is a norm that defines our culture.
It’s crucial that women and other minorities in STEM continue charging and following their passions, for by doing so, they will continue to obliterate the assumption that certain people “don’t look like” they’re supposed to fly drones, develop software, or be an all-around pioneer in the STEM community. By refusing to conform to stereotypes, and continuing to make our genuine voices heard, we allow others to make their voices heard across the board.