SPIE Photonics West DEI Roundtable

Lessons Learned from Students, Candidates, Employees & Employers 


I was proud to be asked to lead this roundtable discussion on a topic that is critical to the growing field of photonics. That in no way makes me an expert in DEI. As a business owner who works with many of the market leaders in photonics, I am simply committed to doing the work.

I’m pleased to share the highlights from our active discussion on topics including:

  • What’s the state of the industry today?
  • What are some actions you can take to improve diversity in photonics, whether you’re a student, candidate, employee, or employer? 

The Business Case for DEI

SPIE’s extensive job fair and DEI programming recognize the need in the photonics industry to improve our diversity, inclusivity, and equity. While we have made great strides in improving the diversity of students entering the field, employers are now catching up to improve the way they hire, onboard, and retain an ever more diverse workforce. 
The need is real: 


unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2025 due to US skill gap.


of employees intend to look for a new job.


Boomers, or 25% of the workforce, are about to retire.


Employers’ growth is limited by their ability to attract and train new talent. Their needs have shifted, and ‘new collar workers’ with the skills they need today don’t look like they did before. It’s a competitive market, and candidates have more options than ever before. Companies don’t need to be attractive to just customers but to prospective employees. 

There is a real and quantifiable business case for DEI: 
Companies that focus on creating a culture that is inclusive and equitable, and actively attract diverse employees have a competitive advantage.
Innovation. They bring innovative products to market faster and generate 19% higher revenue from innovation.
Action. Make better decisions and solve more complex problems with an increased diversity of thought. 
Profit. Companies that prioritize DEI are 36% more profitable than those that don’t. 
Growth. Values-based companies have 5.5x NPS (net promoter score, a key metric for customer satisfaction and lifetime customer value). 

Defining DEI

We know we need to change our practices to attract the best pool of talent available. Better talent means a more diverse employee base. What exactly do we mean by diversity and DEI?

Diversity of

Race ∙ Age ∙ Ethnicity ∙ Creed∙ Color ∙ Sex ∙ Gender ∙ Identity ∙ Socio-economic Status ∙ Culture ∙ Language ∙ Religion ∙ (Dis)ability ∙ Perspective


Fair and just practices so everyone can thrive. Not equality, treating the same, but equity—acknowledging & addressing inequalities.


Respect ∙ Belonging ∙
to Participate
& Achieve



Many at SPIE’s event pointed out ways that companies could better serve those who are neurodivergent, working with physical or mental health challenges, or overcoming language barriers.

Whatever your role whether you are entering, working in, or managing your workplace, you have the power to create an impact in DEI. Test your assumptions, ask questions, and identify actions you can take toward better inclusivity in photonics. 

Current State of DEI in Photonics

The approximately 80 attendees at the Photonics West event rated their workplace’s current state of DEI at a 2.07 on a scale of 1-5. Their commitment is clear to listening, participating, and taking action. Here’s what they said: 

Current Challenges:

  • Increase diversity (of all kinds) in universities and earlier on—nursery/kindergarten
  • A huge pool of untapped talent exists in the ‘non-western’ world
  • Accountability
  • No integration into the team
  • Language barrier (science)
  • Unsure how to navigate Visas/hiring international talent
  • Lack of diverse hiring in a diverse surrounding community
  • Barriers to science/publishing due to lack of sophisticated equipment
  • Inclusivity for neurodiverse people is lacking at work, e.g., recently the new offices and buildings have been made of glass walls which can be distracting
  • Email Etiquette
  • Identifying and convincing talent from historically excluded groups to join the team
  • Lack of accessibility for physical and mental disabilities
  • Placement after Ph.D. at mid-age
  • Diversity in experienced candidates (10+ years)
  • Research funding for projects
  • Limited job opportunities after PhD
  • Being stuck in the past/how things were
  • Overthinking
  • Self-doubt
  • Being late to take the first step

What’s Working & Actions They’re Taking

  • Unionization
  • Language Courses
  • Anti-harassment policies
  • DEI training
  • Ensure everyone can access lab facilities—address accessibility issues
  • Salary benchmarking
  • Bonuses for cost-of-living crisis
  • Pay Transparency
  • Encouraging open discussions about pay in the workplace
  • Small, measurable actions with rewards
  • Regular meetings, talking about challenges or just what’s going on
  • Hiring process: pay for the trip to the final round of interviews to broaden the candidate pool
  • Develop rapport with 1-2 other people to build broader trust
  • Celebrating and promoting diversity stories
  • Transparency: why aren’t companies hiring more diverse candidates?
  • Challenging job descriptions to include statements like “please apply even if you don’t meet all the requirements”
  • Interview feedback for all candidates
  • Highlight important terms & conditions clauses
  • Keep qualifications open
  • Emphasize the desire for diverse candidates externally
  • Start with awareness—make people aware at work of the existing neuro-diverse people that belong to the organization, and how ‘normalizing’ forms of working do not work for all. 

Other takeaways include: 

  1. Ask. Don’t assume.
    It’s ok to ask—their pronouns, and how they like to connect & collaborate with the team. What they need to be supported in their role.
  2. Model empathy. 
    Deeply embedded empathy for a better employee and customer experience. Don’t consider what you would do or need; consider what they need.
  3. Revisit requirements.
    Are you putting up unnecessary barriers? If you’re a candidate, APPLY ANYWAYS.
  4. Represent your diversity honestly. 
    Avoid the token role. Set some metrics and work toward them.
  5. Network outside your circle. 
    Be uncomfortable. Own it. Build your relationships and contribute your energy to urban programs, women’s groups, community colleges, and fellow business owners with training programs that might “graduate” talent.
  6. Celebrate the wins. 
    Highlight new employees’ successes and employee initiatives.
  7. Diversify your feedback loops. 
    Make safe spaces to hear from all your employees.
  8. Someone needs to go first.
    Help change your onboarding. Volunteer to mentor. Organize a new social activity.
  9. Take a role in onboarding. 
    Be the friend and ally they need. Understand employees with different backgrounds may have different learning gaps.