Female engineers encouraged to partake in new role model initiative

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In March, the American Association for the Advancement of Science launched a programme to give women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers the opportunity to share their stories and serve as high-profile role models for middle school girls.

Participants in the programme will connect with students in person and through various media outlets, including popular YouTube channels and TV shows. The programme is open to US-based women who represent a diversity of STEM professions, including both academic and private-sector researchers and scientists working across different sectors. Applications opened on 1 April

The Ambassadors programme is part of IF/THEN, a $25 million initiative of Lyda Hill Philanthropies and various science, education and entertainment organisations that aims to boost girl's interest in STEM careers through changing the narrative around them.

Having a fictional or non-fictional STEM role model increases the proportion of girls interested in getting a job in the sector to 52 per cent from 32 per cent, according to a 2018 Microsoft survey. A 2018 research report by Lyda Hill Philanthropies and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, however, found that just 37 per cent of STEM professionals portrayed in media are women.

More specific to the photonics field, having women figures to look up to is an important way of improving the uptake of women, which make up just 21 per cent of the photonics community, into the sector (according to SPIE figures).

Writing for Electro Optics, Daniela Marin, an engineering student at University of Colombia in the US, said that role models and mentors are vital for raising awareness, and interest in, optics and photonics courses. ‘I always had the blurred figure of a male cross my mind when I thought of an engineer, or I thought of my eye doctor when I thought of optics,’ Marin commented.

‘At college, I was fortunate enough to have been exposed to the eclectic themes associated with optics through my mentor…who taught me more than just the fundamentals of optics, [such as] what research was like, how to find opportunities, and provided advice when I felt unsure.’

Getting photonics into earlier stages of education was referred to in the latest European photonics roadmap, which was handed over to the European Commission last week by Photonics21 in preparation of the new EU framework programme, Horizon Europe. The report, which outlines the potential photonics has for solving Europe's social, environmental and economic challenges and highlights factors that stand in the way, stated that photonics 'needs to become a pervasive discipline at all levels of education' and that 'outreach towards young minds and students,' will be essential in realising photonics' potential. 

IF/THEN aims to inspire young girls' interest in STEM fields by highlighting real-world STEM applications and their importance in our daily lives. Coalition members include partners like Girl Scouts of the USA, National Geographic, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the World Wildlife Fund.