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.


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