By Della Cronin
On Friday, May 13, the National Coalition of Women and Girls in Education organized a briefing—in cooperation with Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI), titled Women in STEM: Ways to Address Gender Inequity to Advance U.S. Global Competitiveness. The well-attended event focused on gender issues facing women in STEM, and featured discussion of a recent GAO Report which identified 13 potential actions federal agencies could take to address the underrepresentation of women in STEM research, provided a review of current scientific studies on obstacles to women’s participation in STEM and an overview of pervasive sexual harassment in STEM fields.
Erin Prangley, Associate Director of Government Relations at the American Association of University Women, moderated a panel featuring Nora Boretti, U.S. Government Accountability Office; Pamela McCauley, Ph.D., Association for Women in Science; and, Stacie Gregory, Ph.D., American Association of University Women. The briefing was cosponsored by a number of NCWGE organizations, including the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).
Erin Prangley opened the event by reminding attendees that while Title IX has been a policy largely identified with ensuring that male and female college athletes have similar opportunities, its true intent is much broader. It should be used as a tool in making sure that colleges and universities are treating STEM faculty and graduate students equitably and to ensure that federal agencies are considering equitable awards and the appropriate supports for female researchers in awarding grants. Prangley reminded attendees that it is in the county’s economic interest to support such policies, since professions and teams that embrace women and minorities, as well as diversity in race, religion, ethnicity and economic background, will perform better, be more innovative and creative and yield better results, solutions and products. From a federal policy perspective, she noted that findings of a recent GAO report, to be addressed by Nora Boretti, showed that the federal government could do better in both enforcing Title IX penalties and collecting data about grant recipients and urged the audience to support a bill recently introduced by Senator Hirono, the STEM Opportunities Act of 2016 (S 2784). (SWE has endorsed this bill.)
GAO’s Boretti kicked off the discussion by sharing that GAO’s analysis of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) research grant awards made between fiscal years 2009 and 2013 identified no disparities in success rates between women and men at three agencies selected for review, but data limitations provided limited insight into success rates at three other agencies selected for review. At two of the agencies with data limitations—the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Energy (DOE)—GAO found evidence of disparities in success rates for women and men within certain agency components. Data limitations at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) prevented GAO’s analysis of success rates altogether. This lack of complete, linked electronic proposal and award data at NASA and some components at DOD and DOE impacts their ability to fully evaluate their programs’ performance against their stated goals of funding the most qualified scientists, irrespective of gender. Adhering to federal internal control standards regarding data collection of an entire process can ensure that these agencies have the data needed for effective program management and monitoring.
Two of six agencies GAO reviewed that fund STEM research at universities—DOD and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—are not conducting required Title IX compliance reviews. Since HHS oversees Title IX compliance of National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding recipients, which account for the bulk of STEM research grantees, billions of federal research dollars may not be subject to potential Title IX oversight. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is designated by Executive Order to coordinate Title IX compliance across federal agencies, including information sharing, but it has no formal information sharing process among STEM agencies. Officials at five of the six agencies GAO interviewed reported a desire for DOJ to facilitate interagency information sharing on Title IX best practices for compliance activities. Without such information sharing, these STEM agencies may miss opportunities to improve their compliance programs and coordinate with each other.
GAO identified through a literature review and expert interviews 13 potential actions federal agencies could take to address the underrepresentation of women in STEM research. These actions fell into four areas: (1) enhancing agency leadership and collaboration, (2) establishing family-friendly policies for grantees, (3) overseeing the research proposal review process, and (4) funding and assisting academic institutions. While not all of the actions GAO identified are relevant to or feasible for each agency, all six agencies in GAO’s review indicated that they are either taking actions in some of these areas, or would be willing to explore their applicability. Most of the agency officials GAO spoke with acknowledged the potential benefits of these actions.
As a result of these findings, GAO recommends that DOD, DOE, and NASA collect additional data; DOD and HHS conduct Title IX compliance reviews; and DOJ facilitate information sharing among STEM agencies. Agencies agreed in principle, but some cited potential implementation challenges. GAO maintains action is feasible and warranted as discussed in the report.
Following Boretti’s comments, Dr. Pamela McCauley spoke of the difficulties women and minority women face in pursuing STEM studies and careers. She noted that she considers the mismanagement of female and minority talent in these fields to be a “human capital crisis,” noting that while 47% of STEM degrees are earned by women, only 27% of those women remain in the STEM workforce. She finds this troubling and called for a clearer set of resources for women on campuses and in the workforce, such as clear reporting processes and an environment in research teams that supports active monitoring, reporting and levying of consequences. For example, she said a female team member in a laboratory environment might hesitate to report bad behavior of a team leader because of the consequences to the collective work and team. She said that male team members must support and encourage such reporting, regardless of the adverse consequences to them and their work.
The final panelist was Dr. Stacie Gregory, who conducts research and provides analysis on topics related to gender equity in STEM. She opened her remarks by a powerful poem recounting the experiences of a black woman maneuvering the pathway from undergraduate to successful engineer. She then shared stories she has heard from years of research on the persistent challenges young women and particularly women of color encounter on campus and in the workplace. Her work clearly shows there is much work to be done.
The event closed after a lively question and answer with thanks to event sponsors, including SWE, and a plea to remain involved in addressing policies that can alleviate some of the challenges facing women and underrepresented populations in STEM academia and professions.