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08 March 2017

Celebrating women in optics and photonics: stories to inspire

International Women's Day has been observed on 8 March for more than 100 years, and Women's History Month is celebrated variously in March (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and October (Canada) for nearly as long. (See some of that history via The Huffington Post.)

Women in optics are celebrated year-round in a planner produced by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. The 2017 version features comments from 28 women in multidisciplinary fields within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), sharing their inspirational stories, crediting influential mentors and role models, and lending valuable advice to others considering careers in STEM. (The planner is distributed at no charge; to get yours, email CustomerService at SPIE.org.)

The SPIE 2017 Women in Optics Planner includes comments
from women such as Irene Sterian, ReMAP, who advises,
"If you are interested in STEM, have passion and dream big.
Take calculated risks, meet challenges with creativity, and
turn failures into assets. Failure is the colleague of
success; it takes both to balance the equation.
Industries and disciplines falling under the umbrella of STEM have often proven to be challenging environments for women. In addition to celebrating women's accomplishments in the annual planner, SPIE Women in Optics programs serve in a number of ways to explore how the professional environment and culture within the optics and photonics community can better facilitate equal employment opportunities, rewards, and recognition for members, irrespective of their gender. Efforts focus on identifying measurable steps to improve ongoing advocacy and career support for women, as well as attract more women to careers in optics and photonics.

To better understand gender disparity issues within the optics and photonics community, a series of questions have been incorporated into the annual SPIE Global Optics and Photonics Salary Survey, helping to set the stage for real and measurable change in the community. The 2016 report produced many key findings; some expected and some that may come as a surprise.

Women made up 17% — about the same as their representation in SPIE membership and at SPIE events — of the 7,000 survey respondents from 105 countries.

Among the findings related to gender:
  • Median salaries are 38% higher overall for men than for women. The salary gap is smallest during early career and grows over time.
  • Wage gaps persist in most demographic subsets of the data, though gaps are lowest in early career stages, non-existent in lower-income Asian countries, and reversed in lower-income Europe.
  • Women’s representation in the workplace declines over time. At the earliest career stage, 26% of workers are women, but participation drops with increasing years on the job, reaching 11% for employees with thirty or more years at work.
  • Men and women are similarly satisfied about most aspects of their careers — more than 90% of both genders enjoy their work and find it meaningful. In contrast, fewer women feel that they are paid fairly (69% women versus 76% men), and that promotions are handled fairly at their organizations (59% women versus 65% of men).

First task: combat unconscious bias

First, combat unconscious bias, advised Kuheli Dutt
In a compelling presentation at SPIE Photonics West in San Francisco, California, a few weeks ago, Kuheli Dutt, Assistant Director for Academic Affairs and Diversity at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), offered counsel based on extensive studies.

“One cannot address a problem if a majority of people don’t believe there is one,” Dutt pointed out.

Presenting only a fraction of the research on gender bias in the STEM workplace, Dutt addressed how the natural tendency to develop subconscious biases has led to vast under-representation of women and minorities, and created an environment that favors men.

She outlined recommendations for organizations wanting to create a culture of inclusion:
  • examining search committee procedures
  • adjusting work-life-balance and family-friendly policies
  • embracing institutional accountability and transparency and mentoring programs
  • advocating for visibility and recognition of women and minorities.

Most importantly, she urged individuals and organizations both to acknowledge that awareness of implicit bias was key to the successful implementation of change.

Dutt also tasked women and minorities in STEM to find their voices to influence awareness. As scientists, she said, "go back to the data," and advocate for yourself and for other women in science.

Reporting from SPIE Photonics West by Alison Walker, SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.

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