Female scientists from LGBTQIA+ minorities suffer from a double discrimination: as women they are subject to transversal gender discrimination and inequality; whereas as LGTBIA+ individuals they are also affected by the persistence of serious problems such as infrarepresentation, pressure to stay in the closet, harassment in the workplace, or the high unemployment rates of transgender scientists. Futhermore, women within the LGBTQIA+ community are often less visible than their male counterparts.
Nowadays, in our scientific environment, the need for rising up our voices against gender and LGBTQIA+ discrimination is still relevant. A worldwide turning point in the fight for sexoaffective and gender identity equality were the Stonewall riots (1969); in commemoration of this milestone, June was chosen as the LGBTQIA+ Pride Month. For all these reasons, to join our claims for equality, SEDOPTICA-MOF and PRISMA got together to interview scientist and changemaker Dr. Arti Agrawal, during this LGBTQIA+ Pride Month 2020: we want to give her the voice she deserves as a woman, as a scientist, and as a LGBTQIA+ activist.
Dr. Agrawal joined University of Technology Sidney (UTS) in January 2018 with time evenly split between roles of Associate Professor in the School of Electrical and Data Engineering within the Faculty of Engineering and IT, and Director of the Women in Engineering and IT programme. In this role she is responsible for policy, strategy and implementation to increase female participation in engineering and IT at UTS.
Dr. Agrawal’s research interests lie in predicting and controlling the flow of light: modelling of photonic components such as plasmonics, solar cells, optical fibers, sensors, lasers etc. She is an expert on numerical methods for optics including the Finite Element Method (FEM). She is a Senior Member of the IEEE, OSA and Fellow of the Australian Institute of Physics. She has published journals and books in photonics modelling.
In addition to her work at UTS she is also involved heavily with the IEEE, as Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion for IEEE Photonics Society. Dr. Agrawal is the New South Wales representative for Australia’s national Queers in STEM initiative. She is also an OSA Ambassador from the inaugural class of 2016.
Arti, you are currently an Associate Professor at University of Technology Sydney, but you have had previous appointments at City University London and IIT Delhi, could you tell us, which was/is the most exciting stage of your scientific career? And which was the scientific result you are more proud of?
In some ways I am in the most exciting stage of my scientific career right now- maybe I’ll always feel that at each stage!
After my move to Sydney I had to set up my research anew and start collaborations in a completely new environment.
I currently work with several experimental groups and provide simulation expertise. As a result I am working on a larger variety of photonics problems than ever before, at the cutting edge, and learning so much! For example my current projects include:
- Coupling of plasmons-phonons in a Graphene-SiC system
- Design of nanoplasmonic array for cancer biomarker detection
- Tackling Stimulated Brillouin Scattering in high power fiber amplifiers
- Design of photonic lanterns
- Design of nano photonic components with 2D Transition Metal Di Chalcogenides (TMDCs)
The scientific result I remain most proud of is the design I made of spiral photonic crystal fibers (see https://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/1226/ and https://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/1227/). It was so much fun to convert an abstract mathematical concept into a design. And then to use more abstract geometry to show mathematically how to adapt stacking/circle packing can achieve this exotic design (see https://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/2016/)- all simulation though.
When did you discovered that you wanted to be a scientist? What references/mentors did you find when you were a student? And do you feel that you can be a reference for future generations of women scientists?
I always knew I wanted to do Science, from when I was a kid 8 years old and could not even spell the word “scientist”. I saw Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series and I was hooked.
As a student there were few famous female scientists that I could name and say I wanted to be like them. The drive and love for science was more internal for me than through external reference. In fact most of my family are doctors, lawyers, accountants… so I was a misfit.
During PhD I was and remain inspired by my advisor, Prof. Anurag Sharma. He has an amazing clarity of thought and mathematical ability. I wanted to be like him as a scientist but also as a human being.
Though yes I do think mentors and role models are important. For sure all of us, including myself, can be role models to younger scientists, especially women. When younger women see women succeeding it can just make the path look more possible.
As a female scientist in a male dominated topic and as a strong advocate for Women in STEM (and particularly in Optics), could you tell us any specific situation (in the lab, in the University, etc), where you feel you were treated differently just for being a woman? What would you say to those scientists that deny a gender gap in Science?
In India so many girls do STEM, and at college for my undergrad, during my PhD, I did not feel treated differently at all or feel isolated.
For me the difference in treatment became pronounced when I moved out of India. It was intertwined with race as well. There was no real way to separate out my race and gender. The major difference I noticed was that (in Engineering) the atmosphere seemed much more macho and overall culture needed huge improvement.
As a postdoc it was fine- my boss was lovely, but when I became a lecturer I felt like I had to do 3-4 times better than others. Unconscious bias or other factors were the cause but there was a lot of micro aggression to deal with from some (not all!!) male colleagues. Career growth in terms of leadership seemed limited to someone like me: as though I was invisible and often opportunities went to white guys.
Numbers tell a story- if there wasn’t a gender gap then why should less than 30% of scientists be female? I’d say we need to sit with people who deny gender (or other gaps) and talk frankly with evidence.
More specifically, we would also like to know your view on the fact that the postdoctoral stage is killing the scientific careers of many women. We usually focus on education, on attracting girls to careers in STEM but problems really pile up during the postdoctoral stage, with a subsequent dropping in the numbers of female postdocs. Furthermore, establishing yourself as an early career professional typically requires to be more ambitious, a quality that can be very gendered in our society. Can you tell us how has been for you the jump from the PhD stage, where you are still a student, to the postdoctoral stage? What programs do you think should be targeting that specific stage of the scientific career?
There are barriers at every stage. The uncertainty of funding in postdocs and continuing that to get a faculty position are really tough.
It was no different for me. Getting the first postdoc was really hard, especially because I was trying to move overseas from India: people don’t want to/can’t sponsor visas. Even though I graduated from a top Indian institute which is really excellent, the degree was not always treated with the same respect as a western university. I made over 100 applications and eventually was awarded a Royal Society postdoc through a competitive peer reviewed grant process.
After that, I did postdoc for a few years. But the pressure to keep applying for funding was intense and not knowing what would happen was quite stressful.
Many young postdocs get married and may have child care responsibilities too around this crucial time. The pressure of managing all that and work is formidable. Plenty of studies show that women’s careers suffer more due to this.
I’d say having funding scheme for females to help them continue in postdoc and then transition to faculty positions would be useful.
You have lived in different countries. Which differences regarding the situation of women in Science have you found between them, if you did?
I think developing countries have better statistics for female participation in Science than developed western countries. There is also better social mobility in these countries. Girls, young kids from rural and/or poor backgrounds can study Science and do well economically- a key motivator for people to study STEM there. Whereas in many western countries etc. the biases on who studies Science is very deeply ingrained and is gendered. Upward social mobility is in my view limited.
Being queer in STEM can also be quite challenging. Recent studies still show higher drop rates, workplace discrimination and harassment, and a significant fear of coming out in professional environments. In this situation, having visible role models like yourself can be a game changer. How has been your personal journey on this regard? Was it a tough decision to become visible as a lesbian scientist? How has the response been?
Being a lesbian in Science has been tricky but it’s a long story.
Growing up in India with the hideous homophobic Victorian era laws left to us, was hard. I was not out to anyone. I didn’t know any LGBTQIA+ person – not in my school, college, family, neighbourhood; not in media or TV. I didn’t even know the word for gay in my own language, Hindi. So there was a lot of fear and homophobia (including internal) to live with.
I came to accept myself during the postdoc in London. But I was not out at work- which was a very cis hetero macho male culture. I didn’t know a single gay colleague or LGBTQIA+ scientist. I found support outside Science and outside work, through the Gay Women’s Network (www.gwn.org.uk) and eventually came out at work.
I still don’t know many LGBTQIA+ people in optics, almost no one in the generation older than myself. So there are no role modes I can look at and learn from.
But I was determined that what I went through should not be the case for the next generation. Partly for that reason I’ve worked on LGBT events and groups within Optics, STEM organisations. It is also the reason that I am publicly out – if it can help a young person realise they are not abnormal, then it is worth it.
In fact I received this email (see excerpts from the message below) from a young woman, which shows how important this is:
“I’m a high school student from —. I was going through the 500 Queer Scientists Instagram page. See, recently (last year) I came to terms with the fact that I’m a lesbian and …I was pleasantly surprised to find someone from India—someone who grew up without any LGBTQ role models or influences—on an Instagram page for queer scientists and with success in her field. I find it very inspiring since I’m from Bangladesh and growing up, I didn’t even know that being gay was possible. Since coming here I’ve discovered my love for science along with my sexuality.
I find your involvement in the STEM as a lesbian woman from India very inspiring and I suppose in some ways, it gives me hope for my own future. Thank you for that inspiration. I haven’t seen many LGBT people of colour in the media, much less in the sciences. Your success and position means so much to me as a young woman just discovering my passions. I just want to say thank you. Thank you for being such an inspiration and role model. Thank you for being who you are.”
LGBT+ discrimination is also affected by gender. “Exploring the workplace for LGBT+ Physical Scientists (UK, 2019)” shows that queer women are more likely to suffer harassment (19% vs 13%) and less likely to come out of the closet (44% gay men are out to everyone at work, whereas this rate falls down to 38% in the case of lesbian women, and to 14% in the case of bi/pan scientists). How do you think that we can incorporate the fight for gender equality in the fight for LGBT+ equality, and viceversa?
This is a tough question! Firstly we need to stop putting all inclusion and equity work in separate boxes and join hands. There is no hierarchy of human rights, and we should be fighting not for one group but for all of us.
I work a lot for women’s rights in STEM, most of whom are cis hetero women. But I don’t often see straight women stand up and talk about gay rights.
No matter how we identify we need to develop empathy with others and stand up for what is right, not just what is right for “me”. Being totally self absorbed and only doing things for one’s betterment cannot lead to an egalitarian society.
The LGBTQIA+ community is not homogeneous either: there is sexism, racism, trans phobia, bi-erasure and other issues within it.
Training on equity issues: unconscious bias awareness, bystander training etc. Cross –group events can help to facilitate understanding and ideation by bringing together people of different characteristics. It can help overcome biases and create collaboration.
You are a member of the Board of Directors of the Optical Society, serving as Chair of the Membership Engagement and Development (MED) Council and Associate Vice President for Diversity for IEEE Photonics Society. Could you tell us what type of programs have these scientific societies? Moreover what programs would you like to implement?
My term as Chair of the MED and member of Board of the Optical Society ended in December 2019 after a very rewarding and tiring 2 years!
During this time (focused on diversity), the Board created the anti-harassment policy and code of conduct for the Society and conducted a survey of harassment faced by individuals at conferences (see https://www.osa.org/en-us/meetings/code_of_conduct/). This is really important to weed out any kind of harassment and/or bullying within the Society.
A Diversity and Inclusion Advocacy recognition was set up to recognize and publicise best practice in diversity and inclusion. I was very proud of the work MED did in targeted efforts to increase the number of women in the Senior Member rank and increase the geographic as well as cultural diversity of senior member applicants.
In 2016 the Optical Society had set up a Rapid Action Committee (RAC) on gender which I chaired. This RAC made several recommendations on improving processes and function vis a vis gender, including the 50-50 gender target for the Board which was adopted.
With IEEE Photonics Society there has been a lot of ground up work on all areas of diversity. Now an oversight committee with members that bring expertise on different aspects of diversity has been active. The Women in Photonics group hosted and supported events all over the globe and female membership went up. Scholarships, travel grants for women, were set up. We saw female membership go up substantially as a result.
The 2 societies joined hands to set up the Susan Nagel lounge at OFC. The inaugural Pride in Photonics workshop was held at CLEO 2019 (due to Corona the 2020 workshop had to be put on hold). Several diversity training sessions have been held and are now part of the regular conference programming in USA.
I think it is time now to move to even more ambitious things: diversity programming is needed in all global locations not just the US.
I’d love a Women in Photonics conference, similar to the international Women in Physics or IEEE’s Women in Engineering ILC conference. I want that we publish a journal special issue featuring research led by females. I want a Pride march in CLEO/OFC!
It’s also time that there was a strict 50-50 requirement (gender) and a reasonable requirement (on cultural diversity) amongst editorial boards, conference invited speakers and committees, awards etc.
I want to see something done to make content (journals for example) more accessible for people with visual impairments, and conferences to be much more accessible for people with mobility limitations. Currently there are few to none disabled participants in most of our conferences and this is not right.
We can do more and must do more.
What would you tell a senior scientist, a group leader, who wants to improve gender and LGBT equality within a research group?
Attend diversity and inclusion training and events. We all need to learn and it will not waste your time! If you are a leader then use your clout to talk about diversity issues at various forums and influence processes/decision making to be equitable and fair.
Gender: Do not give roles, responsibilities in your team based on gender. Rotate responsibilities and develop everyone and their skills. In general women are over mentored and under sponsored. So, sponsor women: open doors to opportunities for them (a place on a key committee/project role etc.) that they can’t access themselves but you feel they would do well in.
LGBTQIA+: Use gender neutral pronouns, e.g. do not assume that a person’s partner is of the opposite gender. Help change the “normal = cis + hetero” culture. Have some visible LGBTQIA+ signifiers around in the physical and virtual spaces: in your email signature, or stickers on the door, lanyards that show you are an ally. Go through some ally training. Try and attend LGBTQIA+ events open to allies and meet people- you will learn a lot from people and see them as normal. Being a visible ally will make LGBTQIA+ people feel more safe in your group.
And finally, what would you tell a person considering a scientific career and belongs to a minoritized group in STEM, such as women or queer?
No matter what, follow your passion. You are neither abnormal nor odd. Look for and create a support network of like-minded friends and colleagues so you never feel alone. In whatever way you can give back to your community: it will give you joy, a sense of connection, and a stronger community makes you stronger and safer.