Are You Being Heard in the Optics and Photonics Community?

Are You Being Heard in the Optics and Photonics Community?

By Arti Agrawal


The answer is yes. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields have historically had a massive under-representation of women- an under-representation that continues to this day. Plenty has been written about this gap and for some years there have been attempts to address it. Groups like MWOSA are testament to this.

In this article I want to address what I see happening in the future that can make a positive change, as well as what all of us can do – every day of the year.

Celebrate female successes and creating role models. We will see more and more that groups (MWOSA, IEEE Women in Photonics, Women in Physics) and many others bring to the fore the achievements of their female members (through award ceremonies, magazine articles). This explicit recognition and celebration of successful women scientists will also go towards showcasing them as role models to younger women and girls. For example, check out the We the Geeks Google Hangout series at the White House which celebrate some very cool women role models.

Boost women’s networks. The power of networks in helping members make connections (to get that job or promotion or new project) is widely recognised. Traditionally women tend to have narrow but deep networks (compared to male counterparts who on average have wide but shallow networks) and may often hesitate to ask for help unless they know a person very well. Increased training and awareness in all female networks are catering to some of the specific behavioural styles women have.

Is there something that we can do as individuals?

Check our biases. Research has shown that women, like men, are prone to unconscious bias. Therefore when it comes to interviewing candidates, peer reviewing proposals and papers, women and men, both unconsciously (where direct prejudice is absent) tend to favour male candidates. Even when the gender is unknown, a name that seems “male” tends to get higher approval.

Our understanding of unconscious bias is now better. So one thing that each one of us can do is to introspect and perhaps take tests like (the Implicit Association Test) to check our own tendency towards unconscious bias and eliminate it.

Many large corporations and businesses now train their recruitment managers on unconscious bias and treat it as a serious issue. They do not want to lose good talent because of such bias.

Use our voices. Another perhaps an even more powerful strength we all have is our voices. As members of OSA and other technical bodies we can volunteer in outreach efforts to young girls, it is possible to act as mentors to younger members, and also to ask the society to prioritise equality in its policy. In addition there has been discussion on creating quotas for women in boards of businesses. Some countries like Norway have implemented it while in others targets have been set for businesses. The point is that the business world and policy makers are addressing the under representation of women at the top level. Talent and ability are just as important here as in STEM, so the solutions being looked at do not compromise on quality.

Scientific bodies, research institutions and higher education bodies have not yet set targets (for female representation) or openly discussed quotas. Perhaps these can be thought of in different forms: gender balanced editorial boards for journals, conference committees etc. As members we can contribute to this debate and bring it to centre stage.

OSA and IEEE Photonics are in many ways trend setters: with CEO Elizabeth Rogan and the immediate past president of OSA, Donna Strickland, Dalma Novak the President of the IEEE Photonics Society all being female. Work by Topalova et al. suggesting that exposure to powerful women reduces bias against powerful women (though this study looks at electoral and political arenas. Having female leaders in Photonics sends a powerful message to all the young women in Optics: you can get to the top.

Posted: 21 April 2014 by Arti Agrawal | with 0 comments