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Point of View : Mar 1, 2012 (Vol. 32, No. 5)

Winning the Future with Women & Girls

  • Mary E. Maxon, Ph.D.

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.

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.