Finding common ground on gender issues in optics and photonics

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Optical research engineer, Katie Schwertz, discusses the need for mutual understanding and empathy within the photonics community in order to move towards gender equity

As an active member of local and national advocacy efforts regarding women in optics and STEM fields, I have participated in many women in optics and gender equity events including panels, keynote speakers, and networking receptions. It’s incredibly empowering to attend these events and participate in conversations about addressing gender issues in the workplace and in STEM culture. It is eye opening to see what issues are frequently discussed and how universal many experiences are for women in engineering.

When preparing to write this article, I considered focusing on many of the typical topics that come up with regards to women in science, and several of the proposed solutions to tackle gender inequalities. However, one thing kept nagging at me: Outside of events and conversations focused on addressing gender issues, I often hear statements such as, ‘I know there are problems, but I’ve just never experienced them myself,’ or ‘all the women I know seem happy in their work’. I also hear variations of, ‘but it’s so much better than it used to be’. These sentiments frequently come from people in positions of power, who have generally been successful in their careers. They are often stated by men, but I’ve heard them from women too.

A recent study showed that perceptions of gender issues differ across a variety of factors including education, age, personal experiences, and political affiliations1. I realised that while I could write many opinions regarding what issues need to be addressed or how to tackle gender issues in optics and photonics, until we are all on the same page – namely willing to acknowledge that a problem exists – substantial progress will not be achieved.

As a result, I wrote this article to provide a perspective to those who have been privileged enough to not have their career impeded or affected by their gender. I acknowledge that my perspective may be different from yours, and I am not writing from a place of derision towards those who hold different views. Instead, my goal is to provide insight, in hopes that I encourage the optics and photonics industry to find common ground in our perceptions, so that we can make a real and lasting impact towards gender equity.

First, let me talk about the term ‘gender equity’ and differentiating it from the term ‘gender equality’. Picture a race track at the Olympics, with athletes preparing to run laps around the track. All the athletes line up in a row next to each other, and have to stay in their lane throughout the race. You could argue that they are all being treated equally – they all start from the same place at the same time. However, the outer lane is longer than the inner lane, so the athletes are staggered such that the athlete on the outside lane is positioned in front of the athlete on the inside lane. We recognise the fact that the race is not truly fair without this compensation. The concept of gender equity means we recognise disadvantages that certain people or groups face solely because of their gender, and work to remedy those differences.

Now picture instead your co-workers or colleagues lined up in a single row at the start line. You place all the men towards the inside lane and all the women towards the outside lane. This may be an ‘equal’ start, but everyone in the inside lane you know will have an advantage. Therefore, we need to take actions to provide a more equitable ‘race’ by promoting programmes and policies that support women.

Now, you may argue: ‘Katie! But in a race, we can measure the distance differences from the inner lane to the outer lane, so we can make an accurate compensation’. Fortunately, we can measure differences in women’s abilities to advance in their careers just the same. We have robust global data that shows us exactly how much of a pay gap exists and how little representation women have in leadership and executive positions2. Gender equity policies are not meant for advancing one group over the other, but to improve fairness by recognising inequities and working to correct them.

If you’re a male reading this article, I’d like you to try a thought experiment. Picture that tomorrow when you arrive at work, all of your colleagues are female. Every meeting you are in, you are the only male (really picture this and consider it how it feels!). Every customer visit you make and trade show you attend, you are working entirely with women. When preparing for a trade show, you request a company shirt, and they say that they’ll have to figure something out because all the official work attire they have are women’s blouses. The most common comment you receive is about the fact that you’re a male in the industry. What is your gut reaction to this scenario? Was it negative? Do you feel like an outsider even if you’re just doing your job? Are you constantly aware of your gender as an obvious difference from your coworkers? This is the gender minority experience that many women experience on a daily basis in engineering.

Undoubtedly, the working environment for women in STEM, in general, has improved over time. Many women in the generation ahead of me can share experiences that would be vastly out of place if they happened today. However, just because one has not personally experienced or observed sexism in the modern workplace, it does not mean that nobody has. I will always recall once in an interview when my interviewer mused out loud that I seemed ‘too pretty of a girl to be an engineer’. Other personal accounts I have been privy to include everything from relatively minor transgressions to significantly more offensive actions and statements. Ask any woman in STEM and I guarantee she has a story to share. The term ‘microaggression has been used to describe the type of pervasive comments that are casual or subtle but still offensive. Think of it this way: Inevitably you have a partner, coworker, or friend that has an annoying habit. Maybe their habit isn’t frustrating when it happens the first few times, but after many, many repetitions of the same action you feel ready to snap. The habit may seem minor to someone who’s only seen it once or twice, but it becomes intolerable to the person who experiences it constantly. My point is, while some statements rooted in sexism may have been ‘meant as a joke’, or seem minor to an outside observer, it is important to realise that women receive these kinds of comments regularly, and they build up over time.

The SPIE Global Salary Survey3 shows consistently that people are happy in their workplaces within the optics and photonics industry, but this does not mean we are all satisfied with the gender inequities that are so consistently pervasive. I encourage you to start a conversation with some of your female coworkers or colleagues in the industry. Take into account that women don’t often go around to their colleagues expressing every time someone was dismissive of them in a meeting or someone makes a sexist remark. If you don’t feel as though you’ve experienced sexism, or think that the women you interact with don’t experience sexism, I encourage you to talk to others outside of your normal circle. You might find that even the most successful and happy women in your workplace have to deal with frustrating gendered commentary and attitudes.

For better or for worse, gender issues are not unique to the optics and photonics industry. We fall very much in line with other STEM fields with regards to attitudes, the pay gap, and representation4. I think that if there was any community or industry that would appreciate the need to have confidence in aggregate data and not personal observations, it seems that one rooted in science would be the most likely. To me this presents an incredible opportunity to differentiate ourselves as an industry. There is a rising concern about a global shortage of optics and photonics talent in industry5. Imagine all the untapped talent we could gain and retain by having a reputation as an inclusive and progressive industry.

With all this being said, I have learned that I can’t teach empathy. If you finish reading this article and recognise these are real phenomena happening in your industry but don’t care, then I don’t think anything I can write will help. Ultimately, the viewpoints of indifference and disbelief are fundamental to the overall problem of gender bias in STEM. That bias has a tangible impact on women’s careers, including their ability to earn a fair wage, be promoted into positions of power, and receive equal awards and recognition for their work.

One thing before I finish, as full disclosure. I’m one of those women that’s incredibly happy at their job and has been privileged enough to feel that their career has not been significantly impeded by their gender. But so many people have shared their stories with me and I’ve heard the same questions, concerns, and narratives over and over again. I’m hoping to raise awareness of those who have never thought twice about their place in the optics and photonics industry in the hopes that we can all work together to advocate for and implement gender equity policies and practices. Understanding the context of our viewpoints can help provide common ground in improving gender issues, so please continue the conversations, educate yourselves, and support gender equity in optics and photonics. It will make our industry a better place for everyone.


1 Horowitz, J., Parker, K., Stepler, R. Pew Research Center. Wide Partisan Gaps in U.S. Over How Far the Country Has Come on Gender Equality. October 2017. Available at:

2 SPIE, Bellingham, WA. ‘Gender Equity in the Optics + Photonics Workplace’.  August 2017. Available at:

3 SPIE Bellingham, WA. ‘2017 Optics & Photonics Global Salary Report’.  2017. Available at []

4 Corbett, C., Hill, C. AAUW, Washington, DC.  Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing. March 26 2015. Available at:

5 Daukantas, P, 2017. The Optics Workforce: Looking to the Future. Optics & Photonics, [Online]. July/August 2017, 26-33. Available at: