Women have made huge strides in our quest for equal standing in the U.S. workforce, and today we fill nearly 50% of all jobs in the nation. But the story is very different in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), where women still constitute less than 25% of workers.
This is a bit perplexing given the increase of college-educated women in the workforce over the last decade, the fact that women in STEM jobs earn 33% more than our counterparts in non-STEM jobs, and the relatively small gap between men’s and women’s wages in STEM fields compared to other fields.
Many factors likely contribute to ongoing male dominance in STEM jobs, and some of these, including lingering stereotypical perceptions that science and engineering are the domains of men and the lack of family-friendly flexibility in STEM workplaces, are direct targets of Obama Administration actions.
As a woman with a Ph.D. in molecular biology who is very familiar with these and other related challenges—I grew up with five brothers and no sisters—I took the opportunity two years ago to do a stint in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), where I saw a chance to be part of an effort that could enhance girls’ and women’s participation in science and engineering.
President Obama’s commitments to science and to broadening participation in the STEM workforce were apparent to me early in his Administration, underscored by his early Presidential appointments of such strong women scientists and engineers as NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, USGS Director Marcia McNutt, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, Lisa Jackson as head of the EPA, and DARPA Administrator Regina Dugan.
The value of these kinds of role models on girls, young women, and not-so-young women who are considering coursework and careers in STEM fields is substantial. Importantly, however, these appointments have been backed up by the development of substantive STEM education initiatives and policies.
I’m convinced that improving STEM education broadly will, in addition to boosting STEM literacy overall, offer new inspirations to girls as experiential learning opportunities proliferate and stereotypes dissipate. More STEM-inspired girls today herald a more balanced STEM workforce tomorrow.
Building STEM Capacity and Increasing Diversity
New Obama Adminstration initiatives to improve STEM education and increase diversity include Educate to Innovate and Change the Equation, among others. In 2009, the President launched the Educate to Innovate campaign to move American students from the middle to the top of international rankings in STEM achievements over the next decade.
The three priorities for Educate to Innovate are increasing STEM literacy to enable all students to think critically, improving the quality of math and science teaching for American students, and expanding STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and minorities.
In two years, this initiative has attracted over $750 million in donations and in-kind contributions from companies and foundations to improve teaching skills, upgrade school libraries, and develop new teaching technologies.
Out of the realization by industries that a growing number of high school and college graduates are not prepared for entry-level positions, Change the Equation emerged and was announced by the President on September 16, 2010.
STEM jobs increasingly require more technical and specialized expertise at a time when a minority of U.S. high school graduates is prepared for college-level math and science. Change the Equation is a network of more than 100 CEOs who have joined forces to achieve three objectives: “improve STEM teaching at all grade levels; inspire student appreciation and excitement for STEM programs and careers to increase success and achievement in school and opportunities for a collegiate education, especially among females and students of color; and achieve a sustained commitment to improving STEM learning from business leaders, government officials, STEM educators, and other stakeholders through innovation, communication, collaboration, and data-based decision making.”
The path toward improving Federal STEM education efforts requires many steps, one of which is recognizing how far extant efforts are from what’s considered to be ideal, or at least adequate—a challenging task since a compendium of Federal STEM education efforts didn’t exist. The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, signed by the President on January 4, 2011, charged OSTP with the establishment of a Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (CoSTEM)—to review current Federal STEM education activities, and develop and implement a five-year STEM education strategic plan.
In December 2011, the CoSTEM released The Federal Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Portfolio, the most comprehensive characterization of Federal STEM education programs ever produced.
This STEM education inventory described in detail 252 distinct programs at 13 agencies, representing $3.4 billion of the total $1.1 trillion spent by the United States on education. Approximately one-third of the STEM expenditures, $1.1 billion, is dedicated to 79 programs with a primary goal of targeting underrepresented groups, including girls and women. The CoSTEM is now developing a strategic plan aimed to produce greater results from this substantial investment.