Do hashtags, even ones that inspire an outpouring of support, generate much more than a few headlines and maybe a party?
That’s what I came to find out on Thursday at the #ILookLikeAnEngineer networking event in San Francisco. In the jam-packed Rackspace office where the program was held, women outnumbered men by three to one and a cross-section of underrepresented groups filled the chairs and lined the walls.
One 22-year-old man, noticing he was in the minority, joked, “Now I know what it’s like to be a woman in tech.”
The event and the hashtag were inspired by OneLogin engineer Isis Anchalee, who was mocked on Twitter and Facebook after appearing on her company’s recruitment billboard ad. She couldn’t possibly be a real engineer since she was so attractive, people wrote. She took to Twitter to confirm her identity and, after an avalanche of supporting tweets, here we are in this room.
“I say ‘I look like an engineer,’ you say ‘Now what?’” Wayne Sutton, founder of the diversity-focused non-profit BuildUp, hollered to the crowd from the stage. “We’re here, we’re tweeting, we’re hashtagging. But is this hashtag going to be gone next week?”
Good question. Jocelyn Graham, founder of CloudNow, an organization for women working in the cloud computing industry, hopes more will come out of this beyond a few speeches and some wine. “I’m here to see what’s next,” Graham said. “If it’s just about awareness, people will lose interest — like the skinny jeans trend. It has to be about action.”
Awareness around tech’s awful track record on diversity has hit a high. From the Ellen Pao trial to the litany of tech company press releases detailing the meager progress being made to fix the problem, it is clear something needs to change. What is lacking is any clear direction.
Backstage in the speakers’ room, two of the presenters — BuildUp’s Sutton and Leslie Miley, a lead at Twitter — discussed the gap. When asked whether he feared the recent calls for more diversity could lose steam, Sutton said, “I honestly do. I’m aware of all the moving pieces it takes to keep this momentum going — the leadership, the CEOs, the market in general, press.”
The discussion continued onstage with several well-known activists, including Erica Baker, the former Google engineer who crowdsourced anonymized salary information to illustrate pay inequality at her former employer.
“People in tech like to call black engineers unicorns because we’re so rare,” Baker said. “If you’re a unicorn in a whole pack of horses and all the horses keep telling you you’re a unicorn, you start to feel different and alienated and isolated and alone.”
The speakers threw out a few ideas: Take names off resumes in job interviews, pay equal salaries and give equal bonuses, hold leaders accountable.
And though the ideas were interesting, if not particularly original, the people who desperately needed to hear them were nowhere to be found. They might have been hiding, but I didn’t spot any big-name CEOs in the crowd.
For all the attention on the issue, most tech leaders have failed to articulate clear action plans to improve diversity. That’s why many of them either stumbled through their responses or regurgitated platitudes about the importance of diversity in the workforce when we asked them.
#ILookLikeAnEngineer was a nice gathering for people with first-hand knowledge of the problem. But having any lasting impact before the next Internet meme sucks all the air out of the room will require a bigger meeting place and a different guest list.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.