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Gender bias? In photonics?

Yes, this excerpt from a study on gender bias in science is from this year, 2012:

“Despite efforts to recruit and retain more women, a stark gender disparity persists within academic science."

The recent study from Yale University involving several institutions investigated gender bias on the part of faculty in biology, chemistry, and physics, and found that male and female faculty were just as likely to:
  • judge a female student to be less competent and less worthy of being hired than an identical male student
  • offer her a smaller starting salary and less career mentoring
  • appear to be affected by “enduring cultural stereotypes about women’s lack of science competence” that translate into biases in student evaluation and mentoring
  • and yet … report liking the female more than the male student.

“I think we were all just a little bit surprised at how powerful the results were -- that not only do the faculty express these biases quite clearly, but the significance and strength of the results was really quite striking,” Jo Handelsman, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, and the senior author on the paper told The New York Times. Subtle gender bias is important to address, the study said, because “it could translate into large real-world disadvantages” such as not being hired, mentored, or promoted.

“Whenever I give a talk that mentions past findings of implicit gender bias in hiring, inevitably a scientist will say that can’t happen in our labs because we are trained to be objective. I had hoped that they were right,” Handelsman told the Times.

While the Yale study looked specifically at biology, chemistry, and physics, the bias behind the trend has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in the world of science.

One trackable metric is pay. In a survey by SPIE of photonics professionals earlier this year, median salaries for women trail those of men in every region, with the greatest gap in higher-income Asia, and the lowest in the Middle East.

A significant effort to overcome the bias was launched last year in the European Union. SPIE Fellows Zohra Ben Lakhdar and Jürgen Popp were among speakers at the inaugural European Gender Summit in Brussels, which signed a policy manifesto urging gender equality in European research programs. The 2012 summit will be held 29-30 November at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Stories of success from women in science
are featured in the Women in Optics planner.
There is much at stake, both in opportunities for women and, as European Commission Director General for Research and Innovation Robert-Jan Smits notes, "for the full realization of European innovation potential.” And it’s a timely issue for Europe, as policy makers at EU and national levels are deciding on the future of the European research and innovation landscape, and on the implementation details of the initiatives such as HORIZON 2020, European Research Area, and Innovation Union.

Looking for inspiration? Each year, stories of women finding success in optics and photonics are published by SPIE in a “Women in Optics” planner. When launched several years ago, the planner was intended to promote the work of women in the field. It has also become a tool for introducing girls and young women to the possibilities of careers in all sciences, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), with sound advice from successful women scientists all over the world.

Regarding the salary differences shown in the SPIE salary survey, Society Executive Director Eugene Arthurs said that the data point up the need for the industry to look more closely at pay equity. "It is disappointing that such a forward-looking and innovative sector mimics the historical injustice in this," he said. "We hope to see more women quickly realize the leadership positions in the field that their work and capabilities deserve."

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