International Womens day

International womens’ day comes about in March every year and much like many years there has been a bit of hype around it. The occasion is used by various womens’ organisations, policy makers, governments, to raise awareness of issues connected to women. The media is an important component in this ever growing do. And commerce is never far behind in exploiting every possible opportunity (behold the offers to women in shops: shop for more than x amount and get 10% discount. Never mind taht the amount you need to purchase is huge and the discount is measly)!cartoon on womens equality

For the scientific community does this day have relevance?
The answer is yes. The so called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields historically right up to this day have a massive under representation of women. Plenty has been written about this gap and for some years there have been attempts to address it. Groups like MWOSA are testament to this.

In this article I want to address what I see happening in the future that can make a positive change as well as what all of us can do.

Celebrating female successes and creating role models is becoming a big part of the prevalent thinking. We will see more and more that groups (MWOSA, IEEE Women in Photonics, Women in Physics) and many others bring to the fore the achievements of their female members (through award ceremonies, magazine articles) . This explicit recognition and celebration of successful women scientists will also go towards showcasing them as role models to younger women and girls. For example, check out the We the Geeks Google Hangout series at the White House which celebrate some very cool women role models.

Womens’ networks are getting a boost. The power of networks in helping members make connections (to get that job or promotion or new project) is widely recognised. Traditionally women tend to have narrow but deep networks (compared to male counterparts who on average have wide but shallow networks) and may often hesitate to ask for help unless they know a person very well. Increased training and awareness in all female networks are catering to some of the specific behavioural styles women have.

Is there something that we can do as individuals?

Research has shown that women are also prone to unconscious bias like men. Therefore when it comes to interviewing candidates, peer reviewing proposals and papers, women and men, both unconsciously (where direct prejudice is absent) tend to favour male candidates. Even when the gender is unknown, a name that seems “male” tends to get higher approval. Our understanding of unconscious bias is now better.

So one thing that each one of us can do is to introspect and perhaps take tests like (the Implicit Association Test) to check our own tendency towards unconscious bias and eliminate it.

Another perhaps an even more powerful strength we all have is our voices. As members of OSA and other technical bodies we can volunteer in outreach efforts to young girls, it is possible to act as mentors to younger members, and also to ask the society to prioritise equality in its policy.

Many large corporations and businesses now train their recruitment managers on unconscious bias and treat it as a serious issue. They do not want to lose good talent because of such bias. In addition there has been discussion on creating quotas for women in boards of businesses. Some countries like Norway have implemented it while in others targets have been set for businesses. The point is that the business world and policy makers are addressing the under representation of women at the top level. Talent and ability are just as important here as in STEM, so the solutions being looked at do not compromise on quality.

Scientific bodies, research institutions and higher education bodies have not yet set targets (for female representation) or openly discussed quotas. Perhaps these can be thought of in different forms: gender balanced editorial boards for journals, conference committees etc. As members we can contribute to this debate and bring it to centre stage.

OSA and IEEE Photonics are in many ways trend setters: with OSA CEO Elizabeth Rogan and the immediate past president of OSA, Donna Strickland, Dalma Novak the President of the IEEE Photonics Society all being female, this sends a powerful message to all the young women in Optics: you can get to the top.

It is too much to handle!

My best friend has been pestering me to download “Whats app” on my phone so that we can chat via text when ever we feel like. My neice wants me to download “Facetime” so we can talk for free when we like. The list of apps/software that I am being told to download, install and use for “all the time connectivity” seems to be endless! I just cant handle it!

I am not anti social and really enjoy talking to my friends and relatives. Some of these software and apps make it even easier to keep in touch with loved ones, especially when we live on different continents, so I value them.

But I have a horror of being always available.

Because it means I can never completely switch off or just relax. There is always someone who wants your attention and even if it is your bedtime you feel somehow pressured to respond. On holiday the temptation to check office emails is irresistible. The first thing many of us do when we get home is to switch on the laptop and look at the new mails in the inbox since 45 minutes ago!  There is always some one waiting to reach us from across a time zone and the technology now allows them to do it easily. Our minds are now always alert and it seems like we can never go into sleep mode like some of our electronic devices. I find this hugely tiring mentally.

Another impact this has the inability to concentrate on one thing. I feel so anxious that I am missing something that I must do two or even three things at the same time. More and more I notice that people are always fiddling with their phone/tablet/gadget when talking to someone/watching a film/relaxing. No more the time for focusing on one thing or person at a time. It is like being hyper children who cant sit down and eat a meal at the table! Our attention spans are shrinking rapidly.

It does not end at these sort of software and apps that human beings use and can thus regulate their behaviour and use of (do not text or whatsapp or facetime people when you expect them to be sleeping!). Many of our devices and software constantly beep at us, show pop-ups on our screen, send us messages etc.: in short these systems demand our attention agressively. The intention was probably to give us useful news/information about the system. But somewhere along the line the systems have taken on a life of their own. They are now in the foreground, while we keep placating them with completing updates, blocking pop-ups, setting cookies, downloading apps, doing virus scans and many more sophisticated things, just to keep the machines and our lives running!

This invasion of technology that is constantly demanding atttention is just crazy. Mark Weiser said in the Scientific American, “the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it…. “

I wish we could find a good balance that lets us use technology without letting it ruin our mental and emotional health!


By artiagrawal Posted in General

Opening minds in Delhi

Hey! You may have wondered why I didn’t post anything new here for a few days..I was missing in action so to speak. I am in Delhi to attend a workshop on computational photonics co-sponsored by the Royal Society and the DST of India.

I have spent a brilliant 3 days attending this workshop, meeting people and listening to some great talks. The informal format and relatively small size meant there was a real opportunity to interact for the participants.

The topic of the workshop meant that I had a keen professional interest. Listening to the various talks on different computational methods and having sufficient time to discuss with the speakers was great: at the end many of us were thinking of trying other techniques than the ones we usually specialise in. There is a tendency for many to use, popularise and advance a technique they espouse and to usually stick to that one for the most part. It is rare to use several techniques. These 3 days however have convinced me that using the best technique is more important than using “my” technique.

In that very vein, these were the techniques that I enjoyed listening about:
– VOpt method which applies the Variational method (see for example,
– TLM or Transmission Line Matrix method
– Using the scattering approach in the FEM.The speaker, Uday Khankhoje, also spoke about very exciting applications (remote sensing for figuring out surface structures of planetary satellites such as Enceladus)

I am excited about trying some of these methods.

Cheers for now!

By artiagrawal Posted in General