SWE Takes Activism to Capitol Hill

SWE members petition federal legislators to support equal pay, STEM education, and reentry programs for women in STEM.

By Laurie A. Shuster, SWE editor-in-chief

Clockwise from left, Deb Whitis, Korianna Rosenthal, Megan Sheth, Emily Smith, and Isabelle Rowell pose in front of the Capitol during the SWE Congressional Visits Day. Whitis, who posted this photo on LinkedIn, wrote: “Feeling a bit like I’m in a Schoolhouse Rock video … I was honored to be part of the SWE Congressional [Visits] Days 2024.” CREDIT: Courtesy of Deb Whitis

Eighty-three participants took more than 79 meetings with congressional leaders and staff at the 2024 SWE Congressional Visits Day on March 21, advocating pay equity, investment in K–12 STEM education, and help for women re-entering the workforce in STEM careers.

The event, held in Washington, D.C., included meetings with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., as well as with dozens of congressional aides representing senators and members of the U.S. House of Representatives. It coincided with the delivery of a letter to Congress written by SWE Executive Director and CEO Karen Horting, CAE, requesting congressional support for women in engineering and the STEM workforce. (Read letter here.)

“SWE’s annual Congressional Visits Day, ‘Diversity and Inclusion Fuels Innovation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM),’ is the only event on the Hill that focuses solely on the need to strengthen the diversity and inclusion of the STEM workforce,” Horting said. “Given the severe lack of women and those underrepresented in STEM within the engineering and technology professions, it is vital to keep diversity on the minds of our elected officials as they shape the policy that will impact the world we live and work in.”

Policy priorities

Participants continued to advocate for the STEM RESTART Act (S.662/H.R.1403), which calls for funding for small and mid-size businesses to provide paid opportunities for midcareer professionals returning to the STEM workforce. The act would prioritize women, Black, and Latino STEM professionals and those in rural areas. This bill has been introduced twice before, and the number of sponsors has grown each year, said Jenny Tsao, SWE Public Policy affinity group lead.

“The STEM RESTART Act was introduced in both the 117th and 118th Congresses,” she said. “During the first Congress it was introduced, it had two co-sponsors in the Senate and four co-sponsors in the House. In this Congress, there are four in the Senate and 17 in the House. We were able to get several co-sponsors as a direct result of SWE members talking to their congressmen and women.”

While the bill may not pass this year because of congressional gridlock and election year activities, Tsao said, “Persistence in talking about these issues and their importance with our legislators keeps the issues at the forefront and hopefully, eventually these bills will become codified to help impact and support the advancement of women in engineering.”

Another continuing legislative priority is the Paycheck Fairness Act (S.728/H.R.17), which would require the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to collect data to help it enforce laws prohibiting pay discrimination. The bill calls for pay transparency and stronger remedies for those who experience a gender-based pay gap.

“Given the severe lack of women and those underrepresented in STEM within the engineering and technology professions, it is vital to keep diversity on the minds of our elected officials as they shape the policy that will impact the world we live and work in.”

— Karen Horting

“The congressional staff was somewhat familiar with both bills but especially the Paycheck Fairness Act,” said Stacey DelVecchio, FY14 SWE president and a longtime participant in the event. She added that those who weren’t as familiar asked probative questions and expressed genuine interest. “The congressional staff was very supportive of our issues.”

Participants also asked for increased support from the U.S. Department of Education for more equitable K–12 STEM educational opportunities. This would include efforts to increase the ability of minority-serving institutions to graduate more students in STEM fields. This request, in particular, resonated with participant Megan Sheth, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Cincinnati and vice president, external, of the UC SWE Collegiate Section. “My advocacy in this area was deeply personal, stemming from my own transformative experience with STEM education programs like Project Lead the Way, offered in Lakota Local Schools in Butler County, Ohio, through a partnership with Butler Tech,” Sheth explained.

“These programs played a pivotal role in shaping my career path in engineering by not only providing me with technical skills but also instilling in me a passion for innovation and problem-solving,” she said. “They laid the foundation for my success and continue to inspire my work today.”

Sheth was one of many college students who attended the event. “I noticed more collegiates in attendance,” said DelVecchio. “I hope that’s an indication that we’ll see even more advocacy engagement with the engineers who will soon be joining the workforce.”

Many attendees were newcomers, Tsao said. “It was great to see so many new faces in the crowd and know that there are still SWE members who are new to the experience and learn from the Congressional Visits Day that SWE puts together.”

Thorough training

Before the congressional meetings, on March 20 and March 21, SWE held training sessions to prepare participants to discuss these issues. Speakers included Horting; FY24 SWE President Alexis McKittrick, Ph.D.; Roberta Rincon, Ph.D., SWE director of research and impact; Nicola Mohan, SWE senior manager of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging; and Della Cronin and Austin Hall of Bose Public Affairs Group, who assist SWE with this annual event.

Participants also heard from Victoria Rubin, senior professional staff member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology; Dana Weinstein, principal assistant director for CHIPS Research and Development and Industrial Innovation for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Rebecca Pasini, deputy assistant secretary for private sector exchange at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs within the U.S. Department of State. CHIPS refers to the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, a federal investment in research and development, science and technology, and workforce training.

“SWE’s annual Congressional Visits Day is a phenomenal opportunity for SWE members and allies to inspire change and generate momentum on critical policies and legislation that are core to SWE’s mission and goals by connecting with their own representatives in Congress and having their voices heard,” said Dr. McKittrick.

Attendee Deb Whitis, executive chief consulting engineer at GE Aerospace, agreed, and was one of many who posted about their experiences on social media. She told SWE Magazine: “This event gives SWE members a great opportunity to describe what is most important to women engineers and also educate ourselves about the various bills in Congress and how they can impact our lives. I found all the representatives’ staffers to be gracious hosts who actively listened and took notes regarding the topics we discussed.

“My main takeaway is that we can, as individual citizens, have a role to play in informing our representatives about what is important to us, and we should take every opportunity to do so.”