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'Breaking stuff': photonics careers and women

What is it like for women pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields?

Clearly, the experience is different for women and for men. Salary data show global pay disparities: across the world, women in photonics, for example, earn less than men.

It isn’t a quality issue. The Association of Women in Science reports that awards, patents, and funding opportunities for women are proportionately fewer -- but at the same time, women publish in higher percentages and in journals with higher impact factors, and startups with women as top executives are more successful.

Noting that "the problem is not the lack of female talent," the European Commission has quantified what it calls a “leaky pipeline.” In 2006, for example, women accounted for 45% of PhD graduates but in the same year, 82% of the most senior researchers were men and just 18% women.

In the United States, women are 50% of the total workforce but 24% of the STEM workforce.

In Africa the percentage of women working in technology is less than 15%, even though women comprise half of the workforce.

Statistics aside, what motivates women to pursue careers in STEM?

The best answers to that question are from women scientists, engineers, and technologists themselves. The SPIE Women in Optics planner collects a number of these stories and insights every year. Excerpted from the 2013 planner:

  • Anna Grazia Mignani, Senior Scientist at CNR – Istituto di Fisica Applicata “Nello Carrara,” enjoys the freedom of exploring her own research interests to find solutions for niche applications, most recently developing sensors for assessing food quality and authenticating products such as olive oil, beer, wine, and whisky. “Taming light is probably the greatest satisfaction for me,” Mignani said. “I feel privileged, since research is a constant learning and growing experience.”
  • “If this is what you want to do, just do it,” said Sarah Kendrew, postdoc fellow/engineer at the Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie in Germany. “When you start becoming aware of any gender disparity, resist the temptation to think of yourself as a minority, or different in any way from your peers.” Kendrew stressed the importance of identifying a worthy project, staying focused, and finding good mentorship as well.
  • “I’m inspired by the fact that we can change the world with science,” said Fatima Maria Mitsue Yasuoka, project manager and researcher at Opto Electronics and research collaborator at the Physics Institute of São Carlos in Brazil. She is responsible for the optical design of equipment in ophthalmological research, and does new product research in interdisciplinary areas of physics, ophthalmology, and electronic, computer, and mechanical engineering.

Initiatives across the world are working to increase the number of women working in science.

In Kenya, Akirachix, an all-female group of computer programmers based in Nairobi, aims to inspire and develop a successful force of women in technology that will change Africa’s future through networking, mentorship, and training. (“Akira” in Japanese stands for “bright,” “intelligent,” or “energy,” among other meanings.)

Members share a passion for technology, and focus on solving local problems. For example, because even many impoverished farmers in Kenya have cell phones, much technical work is geared toward designing cell phone applications. One designed by an Akirachix member brings math and reading help by cell phone to village schools. Another lets Kenyans without computers do their online shopping by cell phone. (More of their story is told in a recent report from NPR.)

Closing the gender gap isn’t important to only women and their families.

“Achieving gender equality is a legal, economic and moral imperative,” said Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe and a participant in the European Gender Summit last November. “We simply can’t afford to exclude half the population from the efforts that we should undertake to achieve social and economic progress and to guarantee lasting peace."

How to get started in a career in science? “Go ahead and start breaking stuff,” advised researcher Gayle Hagler, researcher at the U.S. National Risk Management Research Lab and one of 94 recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2011. “Take some risks, put yourself out there, and I think you will end up being really happy that did that."

Video interviews with the SPIE Newsroom provide more insights. Hear:

Sue Minkoff, University of Texas at Dallas, on modeling trace-gas sensors to increase efficiency.

Alison Flatau, University of Maryland, on nature-inspired improvements in sensor and activator designs.

Danxia Xu, National Research Council Canada, on silicon photonics for biosensing.

Eva Campo, University of Pennsylvania, on inspiration and meeting challenges.
What is your story -- what motivates you in your STEM career?

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