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Glass ceiling, sticky floor: countering unconscious bias in photonics

Who knew … until last year: Three African-American women working — in obscurity — for NASA as mathematicians played a vital role in the mission that sent astronaut John Glenn into orbit around Earth and brought him back again, in 1962.

Publication of Margot Lee Shetterly's book Hidden Figures and the subsequent release of the acclaimed 2016 film brought the story of the important roles played by Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson to light for the first time for many.

Among key findings in a 2017 photonics
industry survey, respondents cited higher
percentages of men in management and
senior academic positions, with the
largest gaps in later career.
While their story may have been little known for decades, struggles for opportunity and inclusion are familiar to many women and to members of under-represented minorities or other groups working to make a career in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field.

Findings on gender equity from the latest SPIE Optics and Photonics Global Salary report indicate that women in the field lag behind men in salary and in representation in management and senior academic positions.

The cost of bias and exclusion is not paid only by those excluded or denied opportunity. Where under-representation occurs, organizations and society as a whole suffer from a loss of creative talent and the mix of perspectives that sparks innovation and helps avoid costly errors due to tunnel vision, group think, or a shortage of new ideas.

For example, a recent Financial Times article reported that, “Innovate UK, a government agency, estimates that the lack of women in sciences and science entrepreneurship is causing an annual loss of £2bn to the British economy” — calculating the lost value of unrealized business growth due to an absence in technology-based industries of a large segment of the population.

Among comments collected at SPIE-
sponsored events in 2017 on diversity
and inclusion were the differences in
what defines "diversity" in various
countries, the need for organizations
to provide information about unconscious
bias, and the need for respect for person-
hood as well as science — and
"We all have implicit bias.
Admit it and manage it."
And of course there’s more to diversity than gender or ethnicity, noted Anita Mahadevan-Jansen, chair of an ad hoc committee on diversity of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. Mahadevan-Jansen is professor of biomedical engineering and neurological surgery as well as director of the Biophotonics Center at Vanderbilt University.

“Under-represented groups may include those who speak a different language or are from a different country, are older or younger, or even those who work in a different division of the company or university,” she pointed out.

Toward solutions

A key first step toward improving the picture has to do with addressing a perspective humans everywhere trend toward: unconscious bias.

Kuheli Dutt spoke at SPIE Photonics West
in San Francisco in January 2017 on
unconscious bias: "Become aware."
“One cannot address a problem if a majority of people don’t believe there is one,” said Kuheli Dutt in a talk at a Women in Optics reception during SPIE Photonics West in San Francisco last January. Dutt is assistant director for Academic Affairs and Diversity at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Dutt offered recommendations to foster inclusion, with the vital first and most important step: become aware.

For institutions, she advised:
  • Examine search committee procedures
  • Adjust work-life balance and family-friendly policies
  • Embrace institutional accountability
  • Advocate for visibility of the under-represented
  • Recognize accomplishments and contributions of women and minorities.

Another part of the solution is highlighting role models that encourage diversity.

To support and promote the work of female scientists,
and at the same time provide role models for girls and
young women thinking about careers in science,
SPIE annually publishes a Women in Optics Planner.
The 2018 edition will be out in a few weeks.
Isis Peguero, an optomechanical engineer at imaging and design software developer Zemax LLC, said in an interview with SPIE Professional that not having enough support is part of the reason that “not enough women are studying STEM. Being a Mexican woman in engineering, I didn’t have role models who looked like me, and that was difficult.”

Zemax is the latest company to be featured in the quarterly magazine for working to promote gender equity. The magazine covered gender equity efforts at Edmund Optics in its January 2017 issue.

For those trying to make careers in STEM, Dutt advised:
  • Tap into the data
  • Advocate for yourself and others.
The technology itself may work as a bridge.

Peter Delfyett advised on effective
outreach to under-represented
communities and policy makers,
during a talk at SPIE Optics + Photonics
in San Diego in August 2017.
Peter Delfyett, director of the Townes Laser institute at the University of Central Florida, said he uses “the five Ms of photonics" to encourage interest in optics and photonics among under-represented communities and policymakers.

“I tell visitors to my lab that I make light, modulate light, multiplex light, move light, and measure light,” Delfyett said.

This mnemonic helps him to describe why science is important in ways that are understandable, inviting, and memorable, and emphasizes the many contributions of photonics technologies — smartphones, communications networks, life-saving healthcare applications, virtual-reality entertainment, and much more.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell emphasized
the value of perseverance and
risk-taking, in describing her career
path in astrophysics during a talk at
SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and
Instrumentation in Edinburgh in 2016.
Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the astrophysicist from Northern Ireland who discovered radio pulsars in 1967, was not included as a winner of the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics shared by her academic advisor and another astrophysicist for the discovery. Nonetheless, she persevered, took risks, and kept her options open, pursuing a long, productive career of her own design and “peaking late (70+).”

Now an advocate of the Athena Swan program to address gender issues, she advises organizations to identify unconscious bias in recruitment or retention, and to be aware of differences in management styles. (Some UK funding agencies require the program’s accreditation before accepting applications for research funds.)

Her advice to individuals: aim high — as high as you can!

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