“This is your member of the National
Academy.” Rather than turning to me,
the President kept talking to my husband, saying, “Well, what do you do?”
He never did talk to me!
Living with these stereotypes sometimes feels akin to water torture. Bit
by bit, these incidents occur when we
least expect them, and when combined,
they add up to a serious impediment, if
not to our careers, then at least to our
The first step is to become aware of these
biases. We all harbor them. The women’s
movement in the 1970s introduced the
idea of consciousness-raising, and it is a
concept that remains important today
for women and minorities.
It helps to talk to others who are
in the same situation. Once you have
decided to enter a profession in which
you will be in the minority, you’ll find
that you’re now part of a new culture
altogether—one that combines your
profession and your minority status.
This is where professional societies that
target minorities come into play. There
are several listed as resources at the
end of the article. Becoming involved
with other minorities through our own
MWOSA (Minorities and Women in
OSA) is important, particularly as you
encounter these biases and struggle to
Once you are comfortable with your
status within optics, you can begin to
discover how to overcome these biases.
For example, I could have introduced
myself to the President rather than waiting for him to act. I’ve learned to identify
myself as worthy of respect within a
group by bringing up a subtle technical
point and asking what others think of
it. I’m always careful in a talk to provide
a bit of in-depth analysis to prove that I
know what I’m talking about.
Let people know who you are. Get
involved in OSA professional activities.
Volunteer for committee work. Your
input is valuable because you offer a new
point of view. Your reticence is a loss to
the profession. Attend social functions
A woman’s place? In a demonstration of hidden biases, subjects are shown two scenes and
a sequence of male and female names. They are first told to place the women in the kitchen
and the men in the lab by yelling “left” or “right” as quickly as possible. Then they are asked to
put the women in the lab and the men in the kitchen. It generally takes both men and women
longer to place the female names in the laboratory than it does to place them in the kitchen.
I’ve noticed hidden
bias within myself
when I write letters of
I fight it, I unwittingly
describe my female
students in a different
way than males.
and make it a point to meet new people.
I sought out authors of papers I respected, thereby building up a cadre of friends
who knew me and my capabilities.
What if you’re not a minority?
What can you do to help? Identify the
hidden biases and stereotypes within
yourself. This is not easy, but constant
vigilance will help. In what ways do you
react to those who look different? Are
your responses helpful or hindering?
When asked to nominate someone for
an award or volunteer position, look
beyond the obvious choices.
I’ve noticed hidden bias within myself
when I write letters of recommendation.
Unless I fight it, I unwittingly describe my
female students in a different way than
males. I tend to write more about how
“nice” the female student is and less about
how “competent” she is. I tend toward
using the first names of my women
students more than I do with males.
Elsa Garmire ( email@example.com)
is the Sydney E. Junkins 1887 Professor of
Engineering at Dartmouth College in Hanover,
N.H., U.S.A. She was OSA’s president in 1993.
[ References and Resources ]
>> Minorities and Women in OSA:
>> National Society of Black Physicists:
>> Society of Women Engineers:
>> National Society of Black Engineers:
>> Society of Hispanic Professional
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