If you’re reading this, the chances are you’re male. While exact numbers are not recorded by OSA, our best estimate is that fewer than 1 in 10 of our regular and Fellow members are female. The good news is that the fraction of female student and young professional members is double that of the regular (i.e. older) membership, so things are slowly improving.
The small proportion of women in optics has two aspects I would like to discuss in this month’s column. The first is the low number itself, which represents a lost opportunity both for women and for our profession. The second is the effect that low number has on the women who have chosen optics as a career but find they are a minority in their workplace.
All of us would agree that the number of women entering physics and engineering is too small. According to statistics from the American Institute of Physics, the physical sciences attract fewer women than the life sciences. Any one of us, or indeed the whole OSA acting together, cannot single-handedly change this societal issue. However, surely there are small actions we can all take to make a difference.
One of these is at the high school level. Many of us engage in some level of outreach to high school children, either by inviting classes into our workplace or by going into the classroom with an OSA “Optics Suitcase” or other hands-on activities. We all know the importance of mentors, so when we do any education outreach, it is absolutely essential that we are represented by equal numbers of men and women. It’s a pretty basic aspect, yet time and again I have seen all-male teams enthusiastically demonstrating optics to children, not realizing that they are also delivering the message “optics is for men only.” What kind of role model is that?
Women in optics are often isolated and treated differently. Because there are so few women in optics, they stand out and never fully belong, somehow feeling that they are neither a “proper woman” nor a “proper scientist” (as it was put to me by a senior female colleague). So what can men do? For a start, try to assume your woman scientist colleague is a man: Would you react in the same way? Go and have a coffee with your female colleague, perhaps asking more questions than talking about yourself. And when it comes to selecting committees and speakers for events, make sure that both men and women are represented.
All of us have, at one time in our career, been helped by mentors. For example, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my Ph.D. supervisor and a handful of (now) senior colleagues who were supportive at critical times. For female scientists in a male-dominated environment, mentors become even more important. Does your organization have an effective mentoring system for both male and female colleagues?
You might be interested in listening to a talk on this subject by Michal Lipson, a professor at Cornell University and recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, which is freely available on osa.org in the MWOSA section of the “OSA Media Library.” Or check out OPN’s blog post about Michal by searching for her name on the Bright Futures blog on the OPN website. In addition, OSA board member Ursula Keller recently contributed an important editorial on this topic, which appeared in the February OPN. If you have any comments or questions, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This month in OPN, be sure to see our features on computational 3-D holographic microscopy, RAPID lithography and the life of Heinrich Hertz.