Women in Optics

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The optics industry is a wide-ranging field, responsible for enabling much of our increasingly technology-focused society. Our industry powers the internet, makes the magic of cellphones possible, helps advance medicine, and allows the exploration of faraway planets and stars.

In addition to the amazing technical advancements enabled by optics, the work done by our community to make it more inclusive and diverse constantly amazes me and makes me proud. Studies have shown that these efforts will result in increased revenue for businesses, increased satisfaction for employees, and improved scientific outcomes. A more diverse community will result in a larger employee applicant pool, a more attractive field for future scientists and engineers, and more perspectives with which to work on challenging problems.

Image taken through a negative focal length lens in front of the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences by Fletcher & Co. Courtesy of Katie Schwertz.

Image taken through a negative focal length lens in front of the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences by Fletcher & Co. Courtesy of Katie Schwertz.

This community includes Debbie Chachra, a materials scientist whose work at Olin College focuses on creating an equitable educational experience and graduating gender-equal numbers in physics. When speaking at the SPIE Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion reception at Photonics West this year, she told the audience that it is everyone’s responsibility to increase the diversity of our community and industry.

At Monroe Community College, Alexis Vogt is working to grow the pipeline of technicians. She is targeting typically underrepresented groups of people and helping them learn the necessary skills to become valuable contributors to the optics community. Her work will improve the lives of her students and their families, help solve a considerable workforce shortage, and increase the diversity of ideas and experiences present in our industry.

Jess Wade is an inspirational young British physicist who spends her spare time creating and editing Wikipedia entries highlighting women scientists and engineers, giving credit to their too-often ignored contributions. Her research has a scientific impact, and her outreach efforts undoubtedly help recognize and increase the number of future woman scientists and engineers who will contribute to science.

Edmund Optics, where I work, has sponsored an employee-led women’s forum for the past two years that connects about 50 employees for lunch each month. Chaired by Anoopoma Bhowmik, the Women in Optics Steering Committee invites internal and external presenters to speak on topics such as building confidence, mentoring, and career development. They’ve also organized interactive sessions such as speed networking, a negotiation workshop, and a panel on work-life dynamics.

SPIE now offers activity grants and awards, as well as child care grants for events, aimed specifically at increasing gender equity in our community. These programs resulted from ideas and feedback received from the SPIE Gender Equity Task Force chaired by Julia Craven. The task force recognized the value and need for outreach efforts with a specific mission to reach audiences often underrepresented, either consciously or unconsciously, in traditional outreach efforts.

These are just a few of the many examples where one person or a small group of people took action and advocated for a more diverse and equitable field. For our optics industry to continue its growth and betterment, we all need to advocate for a more inclusive workforce. Whether it’s in a research lab, on a manufacturing line, or in a corporate conference room, we all have the ability and opportunity to make an impact. We can all think about and speak up for diversity and inclusion when new teams are being formed or leaders are nominated. Doing your part can be as simple as committing to reading articles on the subject or attending (and bringing a colleague) to a presentation on the topic at a conference. In Chachra’s presentation at Photonics West, she reminded us that this work doesn’t always produce immediate outcomes. We are actually doing a type of terraforming: improving our environment by making it into one where all of us can prosper. We are planting seeds for continued growth, and each generation needs to tend the garden for future generations. What a perfect analogy for the optics community; we specialize in nurturing future telescopes, cellphones, tools for cancer detection, and so many other technologies.

I continue to be impressed with the individual efforts and actions being taken around the optics industry. If we continue to commit to a diverse and equitable workforce, we will all enjoy the community we create for future generations of optics engineers and scientists.

Meet the author

Katie Schwertz is a senior design engineer for Edmund Optics in Tucson, Ariz. She received her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in optics from the University of Arizona and the University of Rochester, respectively. Schwertz is a member of the SPIE Gender Equity Task Force.

Published: July 2019
OpticsKatie SchwertzDebbie ChachraAlexis VogtJess WadeAnoopoma BhowmikJulia CravenEdmund Opticsdiversitygender-equalOptics Special Section

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