Fostering diversity and inclusion in Photonics

This month, we spoke with Kirsty Annand, co-founder of Opening Up Photonics, a platform supporting the Scottish photonics industry to discuss, challenge, and address – as a community – barriers faced by minority groups. The project aims to enhance accessibility, champion diversity, and ensure a welcoming and supportive environment for all.

Can you tell us about the creation of Opening Up Photonics?

Coming to the end of my PhD study in 2018, I faced the daunting challenge of securing a permanent job in a world that I felt didn’t look like, or resonated with, me. Many job adverts for industry positions across the photonics sector at that time asked for candidates to be ‘bold’ and ‘brave’ and required experience that I felt was far beyond my capability at that stage.

So, whilst I began the task of carving my own career path, I saw a huge opportunity to, in parallel, support a step change across our sector. At the time, Photonics Scotland was reporting a considerable lack of skilled people required to fill job vacancies whilst the industry was crying out for talent, yet I knew many brilliant, perfectly aligned women who were seeking opportunities outside of STEM. Something didn’t add up.

Conversations with Opening Up Photonics co-founders in Technology Scotland, the Institute of Physics and the KTN led to the collective realisation that as a community, there was both an obligation and a drive to do more to support our community to access the talents it needed to thrive and thus, Opening Up Photonics was born.

The word photonics is not widely used yet. What does it mean? 

You’re right! Photonics is not a word that is currently taught in mainstream high school physics classes in Scotland today, and yet photonic technology delivers a UK output of £14.5bn per year [1], making it one of the UK’s most productive manufacturing sectors.

Put simply, photonics is the physics of light. Light extends to all corners of our planet and is one of the fundamental ways in which we analyse and interpret the world around us. As light can cleverly be generated, detected, and manipulated in many novel ways, it is the building block behind much of what makes modern society what it is today. Lasers, optical fibres, the cameras and screens in our phones, optical tweezers, and lighting in our cars, homes, computer screens, and TVs are just a few examples of photonics!

How critical is the Photonics industry for Scotland’s economy?

Photonic technology is poised to tackle many 21st-century grand challenges. By 2035 UK photonics is forecast to be a £50 billion industry [1], bringing people digitally closer than ever before. It will support productivity across agriculture and manufacturing sectors, underpin novel photonics tools used for scientific understanding, and contribute to healthcare efficiency and net zero targets.

To support this growth however, it is no surprise that there is a pressing need to invest in supporting skilled people to both transition into and remain within photonics roles in the UK.

We know that there is a significant skills shortage in the UK, across the STEM sectors. What role Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (ED&I) can play to address some of the challenges your industry is facing? 

It is no secret that diversity is critical to the growth and development of the talent pool in Scotland. It helps organisations attract and retain the best and brightest talent. It makes organisations more adaptable, helps avoid groupthink, and contributes to disrupting the status quo. Diversity is good for business because different perspectives drive innovation, accelerate growth, and lead to more robust decisions and outcomes.

Our Opening up Photonics partners believe that diversity is not an end, but a powerful means to collectively improve our sector. By broadening the talent pool from which we can select our workforce we can ensure that the recognised and chronic skills gaps in the sector can be minimised.

Diversity is more than statistics. It must also be felt and seen in the actions taken, the language used, and in our everyday interactions.

What is the state of the industry as we speak?

We acknowledge that the photonics sector can and should do more, with greater energy and speed, to increase equality, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility within our organisations. In order to move forward, those of us who hold power must show through our actions and words that we are serious about delivering a more diverse photonics sector, and hold ourselves accountable for seeking out and supporting a more equal sector, which benefits everyone.

You work with many industry partners across Scotland. How do these organisations share and support your values and commitment to creating a more diverse and inclusive sector?

To support the delivery of the Opening Up Photonics vision, we asked organisations within the Scottish photonics sector to commit to our ‘Opening up Photonics Principles’.

In committing to these principles, industry partners don’t only highlight their organisations’ drive towards a more diverse workforce, but collectively we aim to show the sector’s proactive approach to developing the diverse talent pool required to meet our ambitious growth targets.

What responses to your principles did you get from organisations since the launch? 

We’ve had a tremendous response from industry partners so far, with over 20 industry bodies signed up to our principles, and have built a steering board which brings together the talent and experience across the community – from students, professors, consultants, hiring managers, project managers, business supports, research & development, and technical roles – to develop some real actionable steps we can take to achieve our diversity targets and aim to treble the sector in Scotland by 2030 [2].

Thinking about women in our network who may be interested in pursuing a career in photonics… what are the top employability skills in your sector? 

Many fulfilling roles within photonics require transferable skills that many well-aligned candidates may not realise they already possess!

Creativity, teamwork, curiosity, and strong communication and time management skills are imperative to many roles within the photonics sector. However, technical competence, coding, and mathematical skills, which can be gained via a multitude of avenues through the STEM sector, will make you a strong candidate to pivot into a career in photonics!

Where can women with STEM skills find more information and resources?

Several places and websites can be very helpful when looking for information and finding out about opportunities available in the sector!

To find out more: