A Woman's Place Is in the Lab

1. April 2014

Arlene Smith

As a female engineer, one becomes accustomed to being a minority: in the lecture theatre, in the graduate lab and in the workplace. We have come a long way from the days when women scientists were an anomaly, but the number of women choosing STEM courses and careers still lags behind our male counterparts. Increasing female representation in STEM, from the classroom to leadership roles, requires increased support not just within the research and education communities, but also from hiring managers in industry.

 A recent study carried out by U.S. business school professors at Columbia University, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago found that a gender bias is still present at the hiring level for STEM roles. Hiring managers, both male and female, were asked to rate candidates based on their completion of simple mathematical tasks. When the managers were provided with no information other than appearance, men were twice as likely to be hired for a mathematical task then women. If a woman’s performance on the task was equal to that of a man, the man was still 1.5 times more likely to be hired for the role. The authors also concluded that, in an interview scenario, males tend to overestimate future performance, whereas women underestimate. Employers do not appreciate the extent of this bias, nor do they compensate for it at the point of hire.

In February 2014, the AIP Statistical Research Center released the results of a survey of U.S.-based Ph.D. graduates. The year 2012 saw an increase of 131 percent in the number of women completing Ph.Ds. in physics, compared with 2001. However, this accounts for just 20 percent of the total physics Ph.D. graduates in 2012. While this trend is encouraging, it’s clear that women are still underrepresented in the field and thus the graduate job market.

To increase female participation, there is an onus on women in the field to foster change, to take action and become involved. We need to communicate more, both with each other and with our male colleagues. This can mean outreach to middle and high schools, or staffing an industry booth at a career fair. You can show your support through mentoring programs and local and national societies and networks. Involvement is not limited to women— you don’t have to be female to recognize the advantages of a diverse workforce and support equality in the workplace. If women no longer fear that they will have to struggle against unfair prejudice in a STEM career, then more women will choose to study those subjects.

Luckily, we are not starting from scratch. Minorities and Women in OSA and SPIE Women in Optics provide seminars and networking opportunities for female scientists and engineers in optics. Connecting Women in Science, Technology and Entrepreneurship (WiSTEE Connect), established in 2013, provides an opportunity for connectivity and mentorship among women in science and engineering. I encourage you to educate yourself on these groups, as well as others on your campus or in your workplace, and support their efforts in building a more diverse and equal optics community.

What does it mean to be a female optical scientist today? For me, it means being part of an established, vibrant and growing community. What will it be like tomorrow? The trajectory will likely have its peaks and valleys, but we have every reason to be optimistic about the future—because it is ours to shape.

Arlene Smith (arlsmith@umich.edu) is a research fellow in the department of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, U.S.A.

 

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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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