Through its ongoing diversity and inclusion efforts, the IEEE Photonics Society is building a global photonics community and bringing increased value back to its members. The Society is enabling practices that give its volunteer leaders more oversight on how to better welcome people from diverse backgrounds, develop partnerships with like social impact organizations and increase opportunities to engage with prospective members across the globe.
“The IEEE Photonics Society believes that equality, diversity and inclusion issues within the field are community issues, as well as culture issues. As such, the IEEE Photonics Society is committed to taking proactive steps to highlight how diversity is essential to innovation,” says Niamh Kavanagh, IEEE Photonics Society Diversity Oversight Committee Student Representative.
“Our Society seeks to ensure that its decision-makers are diverse. People of different experiences bring new ways of thinking to the table, which sparks creativity,” says Arti Agrawal, IEEE Photonics Society Associate Vice-President of Diversity.
As its first step in achieving a more diverse community, the Society’s Board of Governors created a ‘Diversity Oversight Committee’ to ensure that the global diversity of the community the Society serves is represented in all aspects of the organization and that the Society’s leaders are addressing diversity needs and concerns appropriately. For example, speaker composition guidelines, inclusion checklists, data collection standards, accommodation considerations and codes of conduct have been created by the Committee to aide chairs addressing diversity at conferences. The intent isn’t to intimidate with rules or enforce change, but rather to have principles in place to ensure productive, inclusive collaboration.
The Committee believes that the lack of diversity in engineering and physics contributes to a loss of talent and potential innovation in the field. The more the organization understands, the more it can address socioeconomic problems. Every member brings a diverse set of experiences, whether personal and/or scientific. The goal is to include more voices to shape the direction of present and future technological needs.
“When we actively engage people from different backgrounds, genders, and lifestyles, we are able to address the problems at hand more efficiently rather than reflecting the particular view of a few people. IEEE is a global body and it’s important that we look at this with a global perspective. The way we can have that global outlook is to include people from different communities. It is important that we offer all people a way to flourish,” says Chennupati Jagadish, IEEE Photonics Society President.
The outreach strategies of the Committee focus on reaching underrepresented minorities, women in photonics, multicultural groups, developing nations, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups interested in the fields of optics and photonics. The Society is also looking at its own makeup and, in turn, forming additional committees on Industry Engagement and Globalization in order to further diversify.
“We do not see inclusion as a hierarchy of underrepresented groups. We think all groups and needs have to be addressed. For that reason, we expanded our Diversity Oversight committee and added volunteers to address gender, race, disability, and other identifiers. Through collaboration, training, and engaging with our diverse membership, we keep learning about issues of various underrepresented groups,” says Agrawal.
Some outputs from the Society’s efforts include its own Commitment to Diversity Statement, a speaker database of diverse technical experts, educational materials, trainings, unconscious bias and equality awareness resources, and ‘ally education’ workshops, which empower allies to advocate for injustices and address resistance statements.
“Our hope is to educate our leadership to understand that recognizing inconsistencies is the first step to having an awareness of the obstacles one may face in the field,” says Lauren Mecum, Community Outreach and Development Manager for the IEEE Photonics Society.
“There needs to be a real commitment to changing the culture of our organization to be more diverse, equal and inclusive. Questions like, ‘Is everyone safe in this space?’, need to be asked. You cannot keep bringing fish into shark-infested waters and be surprised when they keep disappearing,” says Kavanagh.
“As a queer woman in Physics, I have felt very isolated throughout my career. I have seen the effects of systematic barriers, sexual harassment and discrimination, etc. I have seen talented peers disproportionately pushed out despite their ability, resilience and commitment. I think we need to change the culture of STEM so that people from different backgrounds can be truly included, valued and supported to reach their full potential,” says Kavanagh.
Additionally, the IEEE Photonics Society believes in the importance of partnership. The Society works with other professional associations, groups and diversity coalitions, like the National Society of Black Physicists, Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE), Physics 4 All, LGBT+ Physicists, GoPhoton, and other IEEE sister societies, to address how intersectional change can occur. Together the associations invite those who work in the diversity space in STEM to become a part of the decision-making process and share their knowledge on what the true needs are of marginalized groups.
The Society’s Diversity Oversight Committee refers closely to the IEEE Ethics and Member Conduct Committee, which ultimately advises IEEE boards on ethics policy and concerns and makes recommendations for educational programs to promote the ethical behavior of members and staff, among other activities.
The Society has also worked in partnership with other professional societies like the Optical Society (OSA), Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE), and American Physical Society (APS) to bring its diversity programming to scientific conferences. To date, the Society has held over 1200 large-scale and grassroots driven diversity and inclusion activities globally, through coalition campaigns, chapter challenges, leadership workshops, soft skills trainings, and public awareness projects.
“Our joint efforts with our partners bring value to the overall photonics community. We become a more inclusive body and can achieve more together,” says Agrawal.
“The IEEE Photonics Society has also made new roads in globalization. We are signing Sister Society Agreements with national consortia, like the Brazilian Society of Optics and Photonics (SBFoton), Australian Optical Society (AOS), Taiwan Photonics Society (TPS), Società Italiana di Ottica e Fotonica (SIOF) and the Optical Society of Korea (OSK). We are showing people that we want to work with them. It’s not us versus them. They’re our partner. We share resources, provide travel grants for our conferences, and become technical sponsors of their conferences.” says Jagadish.
The IEEE Photonics Society encourages other groups, including IEEE as a whole, to consider taking on similar initiatives. Here are some insights and suggestions for those interested:
“Create committees, find passionate champions, and realize that it takes time. It’s not something you can do for two or three years and then stop. The entire leadership community needs to come onboard and be engaged. Start with small, tangible items that can be measured. For example, the IEEE Photonics Society started an Industry Engagement Committee to determine if we are providing value to industry members. We found that since industry professionals don’t usually publish, the Society didn’t offer them many opportunities for recognition. So, we are devising awards and programs that better suit our industry members’ needs,” says Jagadish.
“Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. I know it is tempting to jump right into action, but there are many groups working on this. Take time to read the research that is out there, make connections with other groups that share your goals, and learn how you can make the most impactful change. Truly embracing diversity and inclusion is an ongoing commitment that takes a lot of hard work, difficult conversations, and self-assessment,” says Kavanagh.
“The more we support and build each other up, the more we will understand the inclusive needs of our community. The more we can then advance technology for the betterment of humanity, IEEE’s core mission. For example, the Society created a ‘Mentor Match’ program. It was designed to help our diverse young professionals and mid-career members find allies and support systems. This program helps expand professional networks while at the conferences, gain personalized career insights and receive guidance from senior professionals in photonics,” says Agrawal.
“I started my life in a small village in India and studied in front of a kerosene lamp until I finished primary school. I never imagined that one day I would be the President of a Society. I started as a Chapter Chair. The Society provided me a home and opportunities to develop leadership. Don’t think that chapters are small. Many of us started as Chapter Chairs and became a Society President. Use these examples to inspire and motivate people, globally,” says Jagadish.
“It is very important that we all reflect on our own implicit biases. Everyone has privilege in different ways in different spaces and each of us should be aware of how we can use that privilege for good. There are resources out there that can help and allies can be true champions in this space,” says Kavanagh.