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Standing in Our Potential

Janet Fender

Janet Fender

Despite much work toward gender parity in the physical sciences, women continue to make up but a small fraction of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce. According to the World Economic Forum’s "Global Gender Gap Report 2023," the number of women in STEM jobs has grown since 2015, but still comprises just 29.2% of all STEM workers.

Fortunately, these data don’t tell the full story: Women have always had a role in science, and today those numbers are growing, shifting that trajectory one young woman at a time.

But young women in science need our encouragement. They need to know that the science and engineering community values their contributions and encourages their growth. I am proud to be a part of one effort to accomplish just that.

Assembling leading women in science

Annually, the Optica Foundation provides 20 US$10,000 scholarships to women leaders in optics and photonics via the Optica Women Scholars program. This year, the Optica Foundation took the program to the next level by launching the Optica Women Scholars Conference at the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO) in Charlotte, NC, USA.

We convened 42 scholars from 18 different countries to connect, share and build one another up. As Optica Women Scholar Dulce M. Simón, a master’s student at the University of Valencia, Spain, put it, “The Optica Women Scholars Conference was not only a safe space to share and connect with so many colleagues and role models, but it was also an enlightening experience. I've never felt so valued and understood.”

Group photo Women Scholars

Gaining a network

These women gathered as a powerful force, forging relationships from firm foundations of shared experiences and understanding. While the term “network” gets thrown around in professional settings, the Optica Women Scholars Conference created a true connected community.

These relationships continued to grow as the Scholars participated in CLEO. Whether they were cheering on their peers who had paper presentations at the conference, sitting in the front row of the plenary sessions, attending the Optica ambassador and editor meetups in the Optica booth, or demonstrating their competitive sides at the NASCAR reception, these women developed bonds that will help them throughout their careers.

Women Scholars at Optica booth

Beyond that initial link, the authenticity of each woman’s experience strengthened the ties between them. Some participants shared that they had never had the opportunity to attend an optics conference, while others remarked that they were gaining new insights into potential career plans. Revealing experiences to one another and hearing one another’s stories, as well as those of their mentors, helped attendees consider new dimensions of their work and new paths to self-discovery.

To that point, attending the Optica Women Scholars Conference led to more professional-development breakthroughs. Not only did attendees reconnect to their STEM passions, but they also saw new doors of opportunity opening to them.

The potential to succeed

Perhaps one of the most satisfying developments to watch was the enthusiasm each of these women showed for one another’s goals. The more they learned of one another, the more supportive they became. The environment conspired to bring back the big dreams each woman had when they began their work—and reminded them that they had the power, capability, resilience and support to not only achieve, but exceed, them.

These Optica Women Scholars brought with them the determination and drive necessary to advance their careers, and a desire to make the world a better place. With that combination, they will soar to new heights and continue to increase the number of women in STEM roles and leadership positions. And therein lies the true story of women in STEM: They will make a difference, one woman at a time.

But don’t take my word for it. I’m proud to share some thoughts from four of my new and inspiring young colleagues.

Grounding my career in a lifelong network

Viviana Maldonada Estrada

Viviana Maldonada Estrada

“Speakers at the Optica Women Scholars Conference deliberately impressed on us the idea of professional networks as sources of opportunity and solidarity. In some of the speakers' experiences, connections provided work positions that would have never existed without them, while in others, networks of women were a resource to resist and overcome discrimination. I think most people have some intuition about the importance of having connections to others in their fields, but it becomes different when people describe it explicitly and tell you about the effects this has had on their lives.

While the variety and extent of their work was fascinating, listening to the speakers talk about their careers and getting a glimpse of their contexts felt like a revelation. I have been planning to pursue graduate studies and research abroad for some time now, but this plan felt like some abstract thing that existed completely outside of my current life and therefore had unknowable meaning. Now, after receiving the experiences and mentorship of the speakers, it seems closer and more tangible; I feel I can build a career full of meaningful work in a context that supports it.”

—2022 Optica Women Scholar Viviana Maldonada Estrada, Tecnológico de Monterrey, México

 Encouraging big dreams

Dulce M. Simón

Dulce M. Simón

“I can't put into words how immensely happy and grateful I felt at the Optica Women Scholars Conference, which was both safe and stimulating. Moreover, each and every one of my colleagues is remarkable and unique; they all have something special that I can learn from.

The greatest lesson was to be more ambitious with my dreams, understanding that our work can have a profoundly positive impact on the community. By doing so, we can inspire future generations just as the speakers and other women have inspired and continue to inspire us.”

—2022 Optica Women Scholar Dulce M. Simón, University of Valencia, Spain

 The gamut of essential conversation

Manon Bart

Manon Bart

“I found the sessions and conversations at the Optica Women Scholars Conference continuing beyond our set program times—there was so much to talk about. From leadership to navigating research, jobs in industry, mentorship and more, there was so much to discuss. Listening to each speaker emphasize the significance of collaboration and community in our field made a strong impact on me, and reiterated the importance of initiatives like the Optica Women Scholars program. I left the conference as excited as ever to continue my research and graduate studies.

Even after the Optica Women Scholars Conference ended, the impacts have endured: We now have a new support network and a professional circle of friends. I gained an amazing global community with this experience, and I look forward to remaining connected with them over the years to come. I am extremely grateful to the Optica Foundation for putting together such an incredible conference and providing us with this opportunity.” 

—2023 Optica Women Scholar Manon Bart, Tulane University, New Orleans, USA

Finding purpose and driving toward impact

Malley Richardson

Malley Richardson

“When you see passionate people talk about their work, you can't help but also feel passionate, even if it is in an area of science you have never explored before. I am very grateful to have met so many mentors who instill a belief in you that your work can lead to meaningful impact. Meeting these mentors reminded me of why I decided to pursue research in the first place.

The Optica Women Scholars Conference was one of the best experiences I have had as a graduate student. I feel so lucky to have met all the brilliant scholars and connected with the inspiring mentors.

The Optica staff made this experience feel safe and empowering. I am so fortunate to be a part of the Optica Women Scholars and the supportive community Optica made for us women.”

—2023 Optica Women Scholar Malley Richardson, University of British Columbia, Canada

Janet Fender was the 1997 Optica President and served as the scientific adviser to the Commander, Air Combat Command (ACC), Langley Air Force Base, USA, from 2004 until her retirement in 2018. She is currently a member of Optica’s Presidential Advisory Committee.

Viviana Maldonada Estrada, Dulce María Badia, Manon Bart and Malley Richardson were among the attendees of the inaugural Optica Women Scholars Conference held Sunday, 5 May at CLEO in Charlotte, NC, USA.

Publish Date: 25 June 2024

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