Viewpoint: Addressing Minorities in a Majority Culture

26. August 2013

Elsa Garmire

Did you ever travel to a different country? Did you try to speak their language? Or did you expect those around you to struggle with yours? Did you try to modify your behavior to fit in? Or did you stick to your role as tourist?

If you are male, have you ever gone to a place that was predominantly female—perhaps a ladies’ shop to purchase a gift for a loved one? Or taken your young children to a park filled with female nannies? Did you feel weird? Were you glad to get out of there?

Now imagine being a woman or minority in a field mostly populated by Caucasian men, such as optics. You can’t help but feel different. This feeling permeates your life, whether you realize it or not.

The National Academy of Sciences analyzed the status of women faculty in the sciences and published a report, titled “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” showing that most bias against minorities in the academic sciences is unconscious but nonetheless impedes their progress. I recommend it as a good place to understand what I’m talking about.

The ultimate barrier, in industry as well as academia, is referred to as the glass ceiling. Many studies have shown that minorities will be less likely to be promoted than their majority counterparts, even when they have equally excellent qualifications. This glass ceiling describes the idea that, while minorities can compete for top jobs, they are at a disadvantage in obtaining them. The very idea of the glass ceiling can cause behavior changes. One person might compensate by becoming excessively assertive or competitive (thereby called aggressive); another might give up the dream, thereby becoming underpaid (women are consistently paid less than men).

The field of optics includes many individuals who are physically different from the “rest of us,” presenting a challenge to the community. Yes, you can argue that optics should not depend on culture as defined by gender, race, disability, etc. But we each bring our own preconceptions to our work, and ignoring our differences doesn’t make them go away.

We all accept that optics already has a wide variety of cultures as defined by work roles. Scientists and engineers approach optics differently. Small businesses differ from large ones. Forms of decision-making help define the culture of an institution: Is it top-down or bottom-up? Regarding both work cultures and those shaped by gender and ethnicity, my motto is: Vive la difference! Our differences can bring a richness to the field of optics if we allow them.

How can we break down barriers while still respecting our differences? Here’s a place to start:

Accept cultural differences and acknowledge that they can cause unintended biases and barriers. If you don’t believe this, read up in the field and you’ll be convinced.

Make lists of minorities that you know (include yourself if appropriate) and present them to those in power, so they’ll remember them when openings occur, whether in careers, or in volunteer positions.

If you have a job opening, contact women and minorities in your network and ask them to apply. My role model for this is former OSA Executive Director Jarus Quinn, who consciously made opportunities for every qualified woman within OSA to participate. We need to make sure his pre-action (action before it's requested) continues within OSA.

Understanding the differences between minority and majority cultures will benefit everyone. I look forward to the day when all OSA members are pre-active in acknowledging bias and reducing barriers. What a rich and comfortable society we will become!

Elsa Garmire (garmire@dartmouth.edu) is the Sydney E. Junkins Professor, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., U.S.A., and a former OSA president.

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Uncovering Hidden Biases in Optics

17. May 2012

Elsa Garmire

In my experience, hidden biases—the stereotypes that we are not even aware that we harbor—can be more damaging to women and minority scientists than overt prejudice. How do you fight what you cannot see, even within yourself? Here are some tips for uncovering and addressing hidden biases within yourself and others. My advice is mostly targeted at individuals who are underrepresented in the sciences, but hopefully everyone can learn something from it.

Become aware of hidden biases. Everyone harbors them; there’s no reason to beat yourself up over it. Whenever we encounter a situation that doesn’t conform to our expectations, it is natural to be surprised and perhaps even suspicious, until we can integrate it into our frame of reference. 

I’ve noticed hidden bias within myself when I write letters of recommendation. Unless I fight it, I unwittingly describe my female students differently than males.  I tend to write more about how “nice” the female student is and less about how “competent” she is.  To counter this, I carefully review all letters I write, making sure to provide a fair and comprehensive picture.

To start identifying your own hidden biases, ask yourself: In what ways do I react to those who look different?  Are my responses helpful or hindering?  When I am asked to nominate someone for an award or volunteer position, do I ever look beyond the obvious choices?

Talk to others in your situation. Once you have decided to enter a profession in which you will be in the minority, you’ll find that you’re now part of a new culture altogether—one that combines your profession and your minority status.  This is where professional societies that target minorities come into play—for example, the National Society of Black Physicists, the Society of Women Engineers and Minorities and Women in OSA (MWOSA). Becoming involved with other minorities through groups like MWOSA is important, particularly as you encounter these biases and struggle to understand them.

Make yourself stand out. Often we minorities find ourselves feeling neglected at conferences and events. When I was at the University of Southern California, I was invited to a black-tie dinner organized by our president.  Only members of the National Academy and their spouses were invited.  The president approached us, shook my husband’s hand and asked him what department he was in.  Being the gentleman he is, Bob gestured to me and said, “This is your member of the National Academy.”  Rather than turning to me, the president kept talking to my husband, saying, “Well, what do you do?”  He never did talk to me! 

As frustrating as that situation was, it’s important to remember that I was not powerless. I could have introduced myself to the President rather than waiting for him to act.  Over the years I’ve learned to identify myself as worthy of respect within a group by bringing up a subtle technical point and asking what others think of it.  I’m always careful in a talk to provide a bit of in-depth analysis to prove that I know what I’m talking about. 

Network, network, network.  Get involved in OSA professional activities.  Volunteer for committee work.  Your input is valuable because you offer a new point of view.  Your reticence is a loss to the profession.  Attend social functions and make it a point to meet new people.  I sought out authors of papers I respected, thereby building up a cadre of friends who knew me and my capabilities. 

While women and minorities have made vast inroads in many professions, there are still areas, such as in optics, where they are not catching up as quickly. I ask that all of us remain vigilant about overcoming our hidden stereotypes and biases. 

Elsa Garmire (elsa.garmire@dartmouth.edu) is the Sydney E. Junkins 1887 Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth College in Dartmouth, N.H., U.S.A. She was OSA’s president in 1993.

For more information about Elsa, visit her website.

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