On Wednesday, February 18, the bipartisan Senate Women in STEM Caucus hosted its inaugural event—a panel discussion on women in the STEM workforce. The panel brought together leading women in business, academia, and government to better understand the unique and evolving challenges that working women in STEM have faced during the pandemic. Participants included Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV); Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV); Karen Horting, Executive Director and CEO, Society of Women Engineers (SWE); Dr. Aster Sigel, Director, INBRE Undergraduate Research Program, Nevada State College; and Dr. Rolanda Johnson Wilkerson, Senior Director, Fellow Beauty Care, P&G Beauty.
SWE’s Karen Horting opened the event by sharing several data points that shine a light on the gender inequity that exists in the STEM workforce. For instance, in 2018, only 22 percent of engineering degrees at the bachelor level were earned by women; one year later, women only made-up 13 percent of the engineering workforce.
Senator Rosen, a former computer programmer, expressed her hope that the Caucus will “serve as a forum for discussion and ideas for expanding access for women to STEM careers.” Senator Capito expressed that now is a “critical time to support policies that help women face these challenges and make it easier to both reenter and thrive” in the STEM workforce.
Dr. Wilkerson emphasized the importance of research funding at universities when it comes to attracting women to STEM careers, especially at underfunded schools, such as HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Wilkerson added that affordable and quality childcare is needed to keep those women in STEM. “So many women have to make a choice when it comes to quality childcare and pursuing a STEM profession especially during this hard time,” said Wilkerson. This sentiment was echoed by all panelists.
Senators Rosen and Capito referenced the Building Blocks of STEM Act, legislation that they introduced together and was passed last year. The bill, which was endorsed by SWE, would create and expand upon STEM education initiatives at the National Science Foundation for young children, including new research grants to increase the participation of girls in computer science. Senator Rosen additionally stressed the importance of relaunch and “returnship” programs and highlighted the STEM RESTART Act that provides funding to STEM businesses to offer robust and paid internships for mid-career workers seeking to return or transition into the STEM workforce. This piece of legislation is a high priority for SWE, and much of the proposal is based on the work of SWE’s STEM Re-entry Task Force.
In closing, panelists were asked to elaborate on what success looks like in relation to the difficulties discussed. “It’s really important for us to have and set measurable goals… For example, Olay’s mission is to double the number of women in STEM and triple the number of women of color in STEM by 2030,” said Dr. Wilkerson. “We can only measure success when women aren’t forced to choose between STEM careers and family,” added Dr. Sigel.
You can watch the full 40-minute event here.
The Senate Women in STEM Caucus was launched in November of last year by Senators Rosen and Capito. The Caucus is the first in the chamber that works to advance women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and math education and careers.