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.

Career, Communication skills, Conferences, Women in Science , , , ,