Combating Stereotypes with Exceptional Role Models and Mentors
Exceptional role models are an important weapon in the fight against STEM stereotypes, and the President recognizes the need for more female champions and role models in STEM fields. That’s one reason why he has appointed so many talented women to top level science and technology positions. It’s also the reasoning behind last year’s launch of the Administration’s Women in STEM Speakers Bureau, which aims to connect these top officials with their potential successors by having them meet and inspire girls in grades 6–12 during their travels around the country.
The President and First Lady appreciate that young people themselves can be effective role models too. The First Lady has invited accomplished STEM students to sit with her at the annual State of the Union Address. And just as the President welcomes winners of high-profile athletic competitions to the White House, he also welcomes “STEM winners,” a signal to students everywhere that academic excellence in STEM is regarded in the Oval Office on par with winning a Superbowl.
As an example, the winners of the first annual Google Science Fair last fall were invited to the White House, and I was truly heartened to see those three talented young women with beaming smiles embracing their giant trophies as they met with the President in the Oval Office to describe their prize-winning projects.
Increasing Women in STEM Careers and Improving Conditions for Women in the STEM Workforce
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said that in our government, “responsibility for the advancement of women is not the job of any one agency; it’s the job of all of them.” Reflecting that recognition, President Obama established the White House Council on Women and Girls early in his Administration to ensure that executive branch agencies across the board evaluate and develop policies that encourage a balance between work and family, and that improve women’s economic security, among other objectives.
The Council on Women and Girls was concerned by the findings in the Department of Commerce’s 2011 report Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation, a report that described possible root causes of preponderance of men in STEM jobs. Among those, a lack of family-friendly flexibility in STEM jobs was posited as a cause.
Highlighting the problem, statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that unmarried women and women without children gained more full professorships from 1975 to 2006 than did married women and women with children, indicating that family status is relevant to a woman’s chances of academic success. Such statistics may seem daunting, but they are not immutable when there is a real commitment to use the levers of policy to make change.
Thus, in September 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama and NSF Director Subra Suresh announced at a White House event the launch of NSF’s expanded “Career-Life Balance Initiative.” The initiative provides options aimed to improve conditions for women (and men) through increased flexibility, such as postponement of grants for child birth/adoption, grant suspension for parental leave, supplements for technical support when researchers need to provide family care, and virtual review options for remote grant-proposal reviewers who cannot easily travel. Consistent with the Administration’s commitment to evidence-based policy making, it also includes funding for research and evaluation of the effectiveness of policies aimed to keep women in STEM careers.
I’ve been asked if I think the Obama Administration’s “women and girls in STEM” efforts will be sustained in the future. Watching these efforts unfold over the last two years, I can say that I’ve only seen them accelerate from the early days of the Administration rather than fade as an ephemeral campaign statement.
The creation of a White House Council on Women and Girls dedicated to the success of women and girls in STEM, an act that can only be reversed by an Executive Order by another President, gives me particular hope that some of the changes in this domain being wrought by this Administration will continue to thrive in the years and decades ahead.
The President has repeatedly said that America’s success in the 21st century will require “all hands on deck.” That resonates with my view that our future very much depends on the nation’s STEM enterprise taking advantage of the full diversity of its talent—including its women and girls.