Removing Barriers

SPIE promotes diversity and inclusion in STEM.

01 January 2019
Karen Thomas

Diversity in STEM

Diversity is the key to the future of engineering," said Sabrina Stierwalt of Caltech during a plenary talk at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation in June. "The inclusion of women and other minorities in technical fields has 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."

That Stierwalt was speaking on this subject at an SPIE plenary presentation points to the importance of the work being done to diversify science and 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.

To address some of the persistent gender equity challenges in the optics and photonics (O&P) community, SPIE formed a Gender Equity Task Force (GETF) in 2015 to identify how the professional environment and culture of the O&P industry can be improved such that O&P professionals are offered opportunities, rewards, and recognition independent of gender. The primary products of the GETF efforts were a Strategic Plan and a Feasibility Study, which together outlined recommendations of what the Society should do (Strategic Plan) and how the Society should do it (Feasibility Study).

SPIE Diversity & Inclusion Ad-hoc Committee

The committee defines diversity as the inclusion of all individuals represented in the fields of science and engineering, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, lifestyle, economy, and geographic location.

To develop a set of strategies to improve and enhance diversity and inclusion in all aspects of SPIE, the Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) group was formed first as a Presidential Task Force in 2016 and converted to an Ad-hoc Committee on Diversity and Inclusion for 2017-2019.

As a policy, SPIE does not preclude membership or participation to any group in the O&P community. However, implicit bias and a lack of conscious planning can result in a lack of recognition of colleagues from diverse backgrounds. While gender is only one aspect of diversity, the goal of the D&I committee has been to address and increase all diversity and support inclusion in SPIE activities.

The membership of the committee comprises SPIE members from academia and industry, including students such as Perla Marlene Viera-González of Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León in Mexico.

"It's been hard for me to get recognition in science in my country," says Viera-González. "My work is better recognized in international societies such as SPIE than in my local community."

Viera-González notes that in her culture, women are seen as primary caretakers of the family while men are considered the provider and ultimate authority.

"My family believed my career choice was just a phase and one day I would choose a more ‘home-friendly' career path," she says. "In the end, they understood that I wanted to be a scientist and I enjoyed doing experiments, getting dirty in the lab, and other cool stuff."

As part of the D&I committee, Viera-González says she learned that diversity goes beyond gender and origin, and "sadly, there is a lot of discrimination for various reasons in the world. But thanks to this committee, we can create a diverse community in optics and photonics."

Changing the culture

To promote diversity, the D&I committee has developed several activities including increasing the diversity in SPIE committees, nominations in SPIE programs, and programs for family friendliness. The D&I committee developed a multi-pronged approach to "change the culture," which will "likely to take time to see full fruition."

Steps include encouraging members of the Society to consider diversity in nominating a colleague and hosting more D&I events at a variety of SPIE conferences. These efforts have led to some improvements such as increasing the diversity in the nomination pool for Senior members (2018 - 10% women), Fellows (2017 - 14% women) and Awards (2018 - 15% women).

According to the D&I Ad-hoc Committee's report to the Board of Directors, research reveals that the "baby penalty" negatively affects women's, but not men's, career mobility, with even larger penalties for women of color. By promoting a parent-friendly environment and culture, professional societies would send a strong message of support and inclusiveness that could help retain parents in their academic or industrial fields. This year, SPIE will begin offering grants of up to $500 U.S. per family, per calendar year, to assist SPIE Members who need financial assistance to attend SPIE conferences.

The Awards Committee took the inclusivity message to heart, renaming a few existing SPIE awards and creating new awards that encourage and support diversity. These include the SPIE Diversity Outreach Award and the SPIE Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award in Photonics. Renamed awards include the SPIE Maria Yzuel Educator Award and the SPIE Aden and Marjorie Meinel Technology Achievement Award.

No silver bullet solution

In 2018, SPIE participated in a national- level study of members of STEM-related professional organizations and societies. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the STEM Inclusion Study ( provided comprehensive diversity and inclusion insights about the experiences of women, racial/ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, and LGBTQ persons in the United States.

The study found that "personal experiences of harassment in general are relatively low, and respondents across demographic groups generally felt their work is respected by their colleagues and that their supervisors treated them with respect." But, the study also pointed to "several concerning trends regarding the marginalization and professional devaluation of under-represented members of this organization."

There were "pervasive gender differences in workplace experiences: women had significantly more negative experiences on nearly every measure in our analysis, net of variation by age, education level, employment sector, and other demographic factors. Similarly, LGBTQ respondents, and racial/ethnic minority respondents reported significantly more negative experiences than their peers across a number of different marginalization and professional devaluation measures." In other words, we're not there yet.

The summary also notes that SPIE's participation in the STEM Inclusion Study is "an important signal of its willingness to consider and confront diversity and inclusion issues among its membership. Inequality in STEM is an intractable problem that has no silver bullet solution. It will take deliberate and sustained effort to help move the needle in this and other STEM-related professional organizations."

As Stierwalt noted in her plenary talk, the academic programs and tech companies that recruit from a diverse talent pool are proving to be more competitive.

"If we value a diverse and equitable workplace, we need to do something different," she said. "Luckily for us as scientists, engineers, and 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."

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