At Major Engineering Conferences, Women Are Still Hard to Find

More than 15,000 attendees and 700 exhibitors descended upon downtown San Diego last week for the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition (OFC), presenting and talking about the latest developments in the field, such as new kinds of integrated circuits for mobile phones and quantum computing technologies. As with many conferences, there was much to see and discuss, but one topic in particular became something of a sore spot with engineers in the field: Nearly all of the high-profile speakers were men.

“We are very concerned. There are few women here,” said Alba Vela, a postdoctoral researcher at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain. She joked that a conference photographer seemed to be following her around, given that there were relatively few women to highlight with photos on the conference website.

The annual meeting is co-sponsored by the Optical Society (OSA), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Communications Society, and the IEEE Photonics Society. The OFC bills itself as the largest global conference and exposition for optical communications and networking professionals. This year’s lineup included talks looking ahead at the next frontiers of artificial intelligence, data centers, and 5G mobile network technology — in which Silicon Valley companies like Intel and Oracle and local companies like telecom giant Qualcomm are heavily invested.

For years, engineers and advocates for women in engineering and science have talked about gender disparities and tried to educate the community in hopes of changing the dynamics and achieving gender parity. “We thought it would happen organically,” said Elizabeth Rogan, chief executive of the OSA, “but it didn’t.”

And as it relates to the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition, it still hasn’t. Since 2006, the OFC has included only one woman among the 42 plenary speakers, and women made up only about 10 percent of the roughly 100 invited speakers this year. Previous OFC meetings have been similar — and the problem arises at other related engineering conferences, too. Relatively few women have given headline talks at meetings of the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE), for example, and the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO), which is also convened by the OSA. Still, over the past few years, women have made up about 18 percent of SPIE’s Optics + Photonics meeting plenary speakers, and 19 percent of CLEO’s — both better track records than OFC.

Vela, the postdoc, was one of 10 recipients of the inaugural Women in Optical Communications Travel Grants, along with three Women in Optical Communications Scholarship winners. “This prize is like we’re a rare species or something,” Vela said. Indeed, for general prizes, like the John Tyndall Award, “presented to an individual who has made outstanding contributions in any area of optical-fiber technology,” all recipients since it began in 1987 have been men.

But Vela adds that she is happy to get the travel award, since it gave her the chance to attend the meeting. And she doesn’t mind appearing in multiple conference photos, especially if female students see themselves reflected there and thereby feel they can succeed in optics and communications. “Having women leaders and mentors visible to young women really helps encourage them to pursue engineering in the first place,” said Penny Wirsing, president of the Society of Women Engineers.

“Speaking at conferences, she added, “gives them a chance to showcase some of the work that they’ve done in their career,” and gives them an opportunity for visibility.

Because engineering remains heavily male-dominated, the relative lack of women at these conferences comes as no surprise. In physics and computer science, women are similarly underrepresented, and those fields’ conferences, too, have faced pressure to become more diverse and inclusive.

Women comprise about one fifth of engineers in the United States, earning 20 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees and 23 percent of doctorates, according to the National Science Foundation. Women of color account for just a fraction of those degrees. And what’s more, according to the American Society for Engineering Education, women account for just 17 percent of tenured or tenure-track professors.

The fraction of women drops to 13 percent in industry, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women leave the workforce faster than men, with only 30 percent of women with engineering bachelor’s degrees still working in engineering 20 years later. According to a survey published in 2011, 30 percent of those leaving the industry cited the corporate work culture as the main reason. When women don’t feel supported by management, which doesn’t look like them, and when they come up against rigid schedules and work-life policies that aren’t family-friendly, Wirsing said, it creates an environment where they don’t see themselves succeeding there.

Or they protest. Last fall, frustration about Google’s mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations and gender inequality in pay and opportunity led to thousands of employees joining walkouts around the world. Facebook has received similar criticisms as well, as the #MeToo movement spreads in the tech world.

Social scientists argue that persistent gender stereotypes in engineering continue to discourage girls in high school from pursuing engineering degrees at the university level. Many people still often associate engineering with stereotypical masculine traits like assertiveness and competitiveness. And then when men occupy most of the gatekeeper roles within the industry, dominating hiring committees, and program committees for conferences like the OFC, the lack of gender diversity continues. When fewer women are considered for leadership positions, fewer get them, and then fewer women can serve as role models for the next generation.

Rogan, at the OSA, realizes that more needs to be done. “We need to create an insistence and an expectation,” she said, that women will be better supported, and gender disparities will be addressed. In addition to the new scholarships and travel awards targeted at women, she also pointed to grants the Optical Society gives for dependent care, so that mothers, fathers, or people caring for elderly family members would have help when attending conferences like this one.

The Optical Society has begun sharing demographic data with chairs of program committees as well, so that they can make more informed decisions about whom to invite to speak, said Chad Stark, the OSA Foundation’s executive director. The OFC has had more success with other kinds of diversity, including geography, Stark said, bringing in speakers from outside the U.S. and Europe.

The OFC also developed the Suzanne R. Nagel Lounge in the exhibition hall for the second year, named after the first OFC chairwoman, in the 1980s. It serves as an inclusive space where both women and men can feel comfortable and get advice about developing their careers, said Curtis Burrill, the Optical Society’s director of outreach programs. In addition to his work on the Nagel Lounge, he has helped organize trainings at the sister conference, CLEO, focused on issues like unconscious bias, bystander intervention, and anti-harassment.

But despite this growing awareness, the OFC still had no women plenary speakers last week, while CLEO will have two (out of seven) in their upcoming conference in May.

Even if men continue to dominate the field, leaders of women’s groups in other scientific disciplines say the conference lineup should reflect the demographics of the industry. “Even if there’s only 20 percent women,” said Meredith Hastings, president of the Earth Science Women’s Network, “then 20 percent of the speakers and awards should be going to women.”

Hastings cites the old boys’ network, where men in leadership all know each other, without much overlap with women. As a result, when a man comes up with good candidates for something, he unconsciously thinks of mostly men. But, Hastings adds, “there’s no good reason for them to be so limited at this point.”

Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba) is an astrophysicist turned science writer and freelance journalist who is based in San Diego. He has written for The Atlantic, Slate, Scientific American, Nature, and Science, among other publications.

Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba) is an astrophysicist turned science writer and freelance journalist who is based in the Bay AreaSan Diego. He has written for WIRED, The Atlantic, Slate, Scientific American, and Nature, among other publications.