Sabrina Stierwalt: How to Diversify Engineering (and Why We Should)

A plenary talk from SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation 2018.

21 June 2018

Sabrina Stierwalt, Caltech (USA) Diversity is the key to the future of engineering. As the talent pool becomes increasingly diverse, the academic programs and tech companies that are able to successfully recruit this new workforce are proving to be more competitive.

The inclusion of women and other minorities in technical fields has also proven to be crucial to innovation, talent recruitment, profits, and global competitiveness. While more diverse workplaces are clearly the future, some engineering programs and companies still struggle to keep up.

In this plenary talk, Sabrina Stierwalt of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) discusses salient reasons why it's imperative to diversify our engineering workplaces, as well as showcasing multiple proactive opportunities to do so.

slide from Sabrina Stierwalt: How to Diversify Engineering

Stierwalt uses a series of wide-ranging studies to illustrate the current lack of diverse representation, including one study that looked at more than 10 million STEM publications. She explaines that being an author on a publication can be a good proxy for field representation because it shows who's doing the work, who are being invited to be on research teams and projects. In most countries, around 40% of the authors are women.

"Now 40% doesn't sound too bad," Stierwalt says. "But this group also looked at the change in this fraction over time, [including a] calculation of, if we continue at that same rate of increase of the percentage of female authors, when will we reach gender parity." If we stick to what we're doing now, according to the study, it will take us more than 100 years to reach gender parity in our publications.

"If we value a diverse and equitable workplace, we need to do something different," she notes. "Luckily for us as scientists, engineers, innovators, doing something different is what we do. If our ultimate goal is having the best and brightest minds working on the next space mission or the next ground-based telescope, then I think what we are really after is removing barriers so that STEM is accessible to everyone."

slide from Sabrina Stierwalt: How to Diversify Engineering

The second half of Stierwalt's presentation focuses on what the audience can do to make STEM more accessible to everyone. In doing so, she outlines three critical themes:

1. Active support and mentoring:

Not having a mentor or not even knowing how to approach someone to be a mentor can be a huge barrier. Stierwalt tells a humorous story of her first professional meeting as a 19-year-old college student. "I had never been to a conference before so I made that poster out of construction paper - colorful construction paper. I make sure that my students know where they can get their posters printed on professional paper."

  • Offer advice based on your experience and your connections: ‘I think this funding source could be a good fit for you' or ‘Hey, do you know where the poster printer is?'
  • Offer rewards for mentorship; create a mentor-mentee matching program at your institution.
  • Echo and promote women's voices: highlight the women at your company like the stories of women engineers on the SPIE website.
  • Nominate deserving women for awards and prizes; suggest women at your company be added to high profile projects.

2. Hiring and recruitment:

Actively and intentionally recruit under-represented applicants. Leverage professional societies that are maintaining these networks. A lack of qualified candidates is a myth: if there are not diverse, qualified candidates in your stack, ask why they're not there. Do what you need to do to get them there.

  • Be open to considering alternative applicants, and advocate for fair hiring practices. If you can, hire in groups: studies show that hiring committees are more willing to take so-called risks and look outside the cookie-cutter employee Steirwar explained. "I've been in hiring situations where I've heard, ‘Well this resume lacks polish.' Now, lacking polish in a resume doesn't necessarily mean that that person wouldn't be great for the job or that they don't have a good attention to detail, it may just mean that they don't have the background knowledge to know what you expected to see. Just because that poster was on construction paper, doesn't mean the science wasn't solid."
  • Let candidates know that you value diversity. You will get better candidates.
  • Consider where you find your collaborators and branch out. "If you're looking for new collaborations and projects at SPIE, that's great: meetings like this pull all of us together and we can learn so much in a week. But we must also remember that it's expensive to get here, so we're limiting our pool."
  • When you serve on a Technical Advisory Committee or a funding panel, ask how the procedure limits bias.

3. Creating a workplace that works for everyone:

  • Emphasize and reward teamwork and collaboration. Make it clear this is the kind of work you want to see being done.
  • Remember that cultural and gender differences can mean differing levels of comfort with different topics so keep it professional.
  • Ask how your workplace accommodates parents: are there childcare grants for work-related travel? Is there an accessible lactation room? Ask these same questions if you are organizing a conference.

slide from Sabrina Stierwalt: How to Diversify Engineering

That Stierwalt is speaking at a plenary presentation points to the importance of the work being done to diversify engineering. Just as important as solving a critical lens-design issue, making strides in diversity and inclusion in STEM will impact science and engineering for generations to come.

Sabrina Stierwalt is a staff scientist at Caltech. Her research in observational extragalactic astrophysics focuses on star formation and the physics of the interstellar medium in galaxy mergers. Her work covers x-ray, UV, optical, infrared, submillimeter, and radio wavelengths.

Related SPIE content:

Glass ceiling, sticky floor: countering unconscious bias in photonics
Struggles for opportunity and inclusion are familiar to many women and minorities working to make a career in a STEM.

Optics businesses can promote gender equity
Edmund Optics outlines programs to support women in optics and photonics.

Gender equity in the workplace
The SPIE Women in Optics Gender Equity Task Force has released a report on gender equity issues in the optics and photonics community.

SPIE Women In Optics
Since 1998, SPIE Women in Optics promotes personal and professional growth for women through community building, networking opportunities, and encouraging young women to choose optics as a career.

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