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.


Academic careers, Career, Job Search, Women in Science , , , , ,

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