Just to try is not enough, say organizations working to promote women in science and technology

EC's digital technology department sets new policies to ensure appropriate female representation

21 April 2015

Maria Yzuel, Katarina Svanberg

SPIE Past Presidents María Yzuel, at left, and Katarina Svanberg were among those commending new guidelines announced by the EC's DG Connect aimed at ensuring appropriate female representation at their events. Professors Yzuel and Svanberg -- both active advocates for students and young professionals -- are shown above during an ICTP Winter College reception in Trieste.


BELLINGHAM, Washington, USA, and CARDIFF, UK -- Simply "trying" to ensure appropriate female representation among conference speakers and on panels is not enough, the European Commission's Digital Agenda (DG Connect) has decided.

The EC department tasked with ensuring that digital technologies help deliver the growth which the European Union needs has developed policies that will help ensure that women's voices are heard on these issues. Photonics community leaders including SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, are speaking out in support of DG Connect's action.

  • To continue to promote diversity and speak about the issues we care about alongside women, to ensure that everyone can listen to what women say about digital technology, and to make sure their voices are heard more widely, DG Connect has set three new policies for its events and staff:
  • To always include at least two women speakers at events organized by DG Connect
  • To no longer accept invitations to speak on all-male panels or at all-male conferences organized by outside stakeholders.

When speaking at events outside the EU or for which the organizer is not a European affiliate, to encourage the organizer to ensure better representation for women.

"These decisions are very important in making visible the work done by female scientists in science and technology," said SPIE Past President María Yzuel of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. "Role models are important for female students to see that there are high-level women in these fields."

Professor Yzuel noted that, in general and moreso in some countries than others, science and engineering are seen as fields for men at secondary schools, and that many young women choose not to pursue a profession or career as a scientist after earning the bachelor or even the master degree.

"Government agencies and companies are talking much about the attraction of talent," she said. "Decisions like the one taken by DG Connect should encourage women to take scientific or technical degrees, and PhD students and early-career professionals to stay in the field."

Serving on program organizing committees and giving talks in conferences are very important in developing one's CV, Yzuel said. But access to these forums is often difficult for women, so female representation is still low.

"The initiative from the EC's digital technology department is encouraging and highlights the gender imbalance in science as well as in higher academic positions," said SPIE Past President Katarina Svanberg and professor of oncology at Lund University. "It is frequently said that women and men should have the same possibilities. In reality, tradition, especially regarding family matters, puts women at a disadvantage due to an offset in active professional time."

Changing attitudes both on the personal and the societal level are needed, Professor Svanberg said. "Equal opportunities mean equal available time. It is really a question of creating equal time for women as is available for men to pursue advanced professional and scientific activity -- in which they of course are equally capable -- and of organizing work to provide equal possibilities.

"When men and women truly equally share in daily life matters, which is the trend in many countries, the situation will improve immensely, and women can have time to flourish with their full competence and brain force. Eventually, there will be as many females in high positions as men as well as numerous female Nobel laureates in science."

Women's salaries also continue to lag in most areas of the world, notes the 2015 Optics and Photonics Global Salary Report released this week by SPIE. The survey revealed that overall median annual salaries in optics and photonics were $68,254 for men, compared to $48,254 for women.

"DG Connect is to be congratulated for specifying actions that will ensure more recognition for women, and will encourage more female students and young professionals to enter and remain in scientific and technical fields," said Dr. Eugene Arthurs, CEO of SPIE. "The world's needs for technology advances in communications, healthcare, energy, and other areas are continually growing. To meet future needs, we will need the benefit of perspectives, insights, and intellect of the entire workforce, and cannot afford to discourage the 51 percent who are women from providing their contributions."

In announcing the new policies on its blog, DG Connect asked its stakeholders for support, including adding to a list of outstanding women in technology as a resource of potential speakers. Conference organizers are asked to consider the policy in making their plans as well.

Yzuel noted that SPIE has already been working in this direction, through its Women in Optics program, conference organization, and other areas. These activities help to highlight the fact that there are women working in the field who are producing excellent work, and to promote networking, she said.

Arthurs noted that over the last 5 years, SPIE has seen a 25% rise in female representation among the society's membership, and participation in its conferences has grown as well.

"We continue to work toward greater equity, and are encouraged by this strong action on the part of DG Connect," he said.

About SPIE

SPIE is the international society for optics and photonics, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1955 to advance light-based technologies. The Society serves nearly 256,000 constituents from approximately 155 countries, offering conferences, continuing education, books, journals, and a digital library in support of interdisciplinary information exchange, professional networking, and patent precedent. SPIE provided more than $3.4 million in support of education and outreach programs in 2014. www.spie.org



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