Editor-in-Chief Ron Driggers shares his thoughts on gender balance in engineering and physics.
© 2017 Optical Society of America
First, I want to wish all of you a Happy New Year and the best 2017 that you could ever imagine! For me, the holidays always go by too fast. Living in Florida, it also means that the mild weather season—my favorite time of year—is halfway over. In addition to reflections on the last year and good intentions for the New Year, I also pause to give thanks for the life I am fortunate to have, including my awesome family, great friends, superb colleagues, and continued good health. I always think about and appreciate those in uniform who work to keep us safe. Lastly, I am also thankful for an interesting and lucrative career that is endlessly fascinating and also humbling, in that it continually teaches me that I do not know everything. In fact, I know very little and I have become very comfortable with this!
My hope is that my children will enjoy the same opportunities and good fortune that I have experienced. I think this is a common feeling for most people, whether it is a hope for your own children or for the next generation in general. However, two events over the past few months cause me to worry about whether this will be possible for women in our field (primarily comprised of engineers and physicists). The first event was an advisory board meeting at the University of Memphis Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. I was very proud that Dr. Chrysanthe Preza has been selected to become the new chair of the department, where one of her goals is to “increase the number of women enrolled in electrical engineering as well as on the faculty.” We discussed the issue and the fact that the percentage of women in engineering and physics is still extremely low. Jeanna Bryner of Live Science (www.livescience.com) reports that, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation, 9% of the doctorate degrees in engineering are awarded to women, and women hold only 10% of high-level faculty positions in science and engineering fields (an improvement from 3% in the early 1970s, but still a dismal number) .
The second experience was a discussion with my daughter, Megan, who is a sophomore in electrical engineering at the University of Central Florida. She was complaining that she would like to meet some friends with the same interests, but that it was difficult in engineering. She explained that the majority of her engineering and physics classes have 50–100 students, but only 3 or 4 students in each are women. She referred me to the Bryner article, which references a study in Psychological Science by Stanford University psychologist Mary Murphy and her colleagues, who found that women are less likely to participate in activities when they are significantly outnumbered by men . It is the result of socialization, in which girls are influenced to steer clear of jobs and studies pursued by boys and men. Murphy also measured the responses of women and men while watching gender-unbalanced videos. The results showed that women in particular felt less desire to participate, that there was a sense of not belonging as well as not feeling safe. I was happy to read that both men and women wanted to participate more when there was a gender balance in the videos. Along the same lines, I believe more women would be welcomed in our field.
I will also point out that when the gender breakdown in the hard sciences is reported (somewhere around 30% female now ), I do not believe that these numbers reflect the poor showing in physics, which would be closer to the percentage of women in engineering. I even noticed that among the main characters in the popular American television comedy “The Big Bang Theory,” the physicists and engineers are men and two women are biologists!
So, what are we going to do about it? I have a few suggestions:
- 1. For all of us in optics and electro-optics, please talk to your daughters seriously and encourage them to consider a career in physics or engineering. Take them to work, show them demonstrations, and be excited to share these experiences with them.
- 2. For those who are faculty, please go out of your way to ask the women in your class or research program if there is anything you can do to help them feel like they belong. Have a welcoming attitude and encourage the men to welcome (in words and actions) their female colleagues so that they know they are valued.
- 3. All of us can take a lesson from Chrysanthe and make a conscious decision to make a difference, taking appropriate actions to encourage women to share in our unbelievable field.
Bryner writes: “Social scientists have studied it, lawyers have tried to fix it and post-feminist society is over it. But women are still outnumbered by men in math, science and engineering fields.” We can do better as a community and we can all make a difference if we just make an effort.
Editor-in-Chief, Applied Optics
1. J. Bryner, “Why men dominate math and science fields,” Live Science, www.livescience.com/1927-men-dominate-math-science-fields.html (October 9, 2007).
2. M. C. Murphy, C. M. Steele, and J. J. Gross, “Signaling threat: how situational cues affect women in math, science, and engineering settings,” Psychol. Sci. 18, 879–885 (2007). [CrossRef]
3. American Physical Society, “Fraction of bachelor’s degrees in STEM disciplines earned by women,” https://www.aps.org/programs/education/statistics/womenstem.cfm (accessed January 11, 2017).