Despite the immense strides women have made in the workforce during the past 60+ years—particularly in science, engineering, mathematics, and related fields—hurdles remain.
Moderated by Natalie Gibson, an optical scientist at Meta Reality Labs, a group of women engineers and scientists took the stage at Laser Focus World’s 2023 Executive Forum for a panel discussion to share their perspectives and experiences in a historically male-dominated industry.
Most women are juggling a multitude of tasks. And their careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields are demanding, the panelists all agreed. Add to that raising children, caring for family members, and other family-related obligations, and a whole new dynamic emerges.
Denise Mendez, a principal software engineer for Microsoft, says it can be very difficult to fulfill basic requirements of everyday-life tasks, such as working in the lab or office, getting children to school and the activities they’re involved with, maintaining a home and taking care of pets, and caring for elderly parents.
“These are all things we face,” she says. “It’s not easy.”
A saving grace for Mendez came in the form of the restrictions and necessary life changes the COVID-19 pandemic prompted—notably, offices were forced to close, which in turn forced employees to work remotely. She says she’s now a strong advocate for remote work after experiencing first-hand the advantages of not having to be in the office every day.
Emily Mount, an AR Systems engineering lead for Google, offers a different perspective. She notes that some tasks, particularly in her group, are best handled on-site. Working remotely in such instances can require the team to accommodate changes that may not be so simple and clear-cut. A hybrid remote/office setup works well for some, but that can present logistical challenges.
But whether working remotely or in the office, all of the panelists agreed that management can make all the difference. Working with a team and supervisors who are supportive is crucial for women’s overall success, as is establishing a trusting relationship with managers and ensuring the work environment is safe.
Building a network
When Mendez began her engineering career, she never realized just how important a support network could be.
“I just had the mentality of keep your head down, work hard, and you’ll proceed in your career,” she says. But after the company changed hands more than once, her team was essentially gutted and only a handful of engineers were kept on staff. “I had to jump into a new phase in my career. I just thought: ‘Okay, where do I go next?’”
Mendez struggled at that point, wishing she’d discovered sooner how helpful a network could be. “I should’ve taken advantage of a women’s employee resource group, but I didn’t,” she says.
When she started a new job at a technology development company, she had every intention of building such a network by getting involved in a women’s employee resource group and other similar groups. She soon discovered there were no such groups at this company, so she took action.
Mendez began organizing lunch meetings for herself and fellow employees, which led to creation of other similar resources. She also helped develop a diversity and inclusion model that still exists at the company today, although she now works for Microsoft.
“Taking on that leadership role, helping create those opportunities for women, led me to understand the power of a network and being in a room with other people who look like you,” she says. “Most of the time, I was in a room where nobody else looked like me. By creating a group, once a month I could go into a room of people who looked like me and have conversations that I wasn’t having before, with people who understood what I was going through.”
The panel also included Madhu Mahadevan, a research scientist at Magic Leap (a developer of augmented reality and computer vision technologies), and Julia Majors, a technical program manager at Meta Reality Labs.
Majors has been involved with organizations such and SPIE and Optica since she was a graduate student, when she was a member of their student chapters. These affiliations have been very valuable in her career, she notes, thanks to the network they provide.
“I realized years later that my time with those student chapters was a huge support, not just in the programs that each of those organizations run, but in having the network effect to get me to these conferences and supporting me there as a student,” Majors says. “It’s helped me find opportunities to explore.”
Majors’ network began growing very early in her career, after seeing a colleague she remembers connecting with during student chapter meetings as a graduate student. This colleague was the only other woman on the team.
“Having her there was so important—not only was it a familiar face but she was someone who has a lot of experiences that were relevant to me coming into a company and industry that doesn’t have a lot of women on the engineering side,” Majors says. “In multifaceted ways, these types of organizations—SPIE and Optica—can help smaller companies through that network, and help with involvement from bigger companies, as well. The more established groups have women-focused and minority-focused groups within a company for a very powerful network effect.”