SWE Urges Federal Legislation Benefiting Women in STEM

SWE’s yearly visit to Capitol Hill — via virtual Zoom meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic — addressed the need for federal legislation ranging from research lab equality to pregnancy employment rights to STEM education funding.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

Credit: Greens87

Bipartisan efforts are part of SWE’s mission to advocate public policies that promote equity in research and in the classroom, ensure access to workforce opportunities, and support high school and college programs that provide high-quality STEM education for girls and women.

The proposed laws that SWE highlighted — bipartisan legislation that Congress has yet to pass — are particularly important because the COVID pandemic disproportionately increased women’s responsibilities for schooling, caregiving, and outside-work duties.

“As the country navigates an ongoing pandemic, it has been widely reported that women are feeling its economic effects disproportionately. Their professional and academic endeavors have been upended by the need to take on other responsibilities — child care, schooling, and caretaking among them,” said SWE Executive Director and CEO Karen Horting, CAE. “SWE members are familiar with these struggles and are educating legislators on this burden working women are bearing during these difficult times.”

SWE pointed to its internal research to show the need for the public policy that keeps women and girls at the forefront of STEM laws. That research is detailed in this year’s SWE Literature Review: Women in Engineering: Analyzing 20 Years of Social Science Literature (https://magazine.swe.org/lit-review-22/) and the State of Women in Engineering 2022 full magazine issue (https://magazine.swe.org/).

The Society’s efforts also underscore research by the National Science Board (NSB), which reported in its Vision 2030 report that faster progress in increasing diversity is needed to reduce a significant talent gap — a gap in engineering and science it called the “missing millions.”

For America’s engineering and science fields to represent the U.S. population, the number of women in STEM must nearly double from that of two years ago, the number of African Americans must more than double, and the number of Latinos must triple, the report said. The NSB based its forecast on U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, along with data from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

SWE’s list of priorities included proposed legislation that would address the “missing millions” gap by starting a program to support midcareer workers reentering the STEM workforce. SWE urged Reps. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., and James Baird, R-Ind., and U.S. Sens. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., and Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., to co-sponsor House Bill 2784 and Senate Bill 1297, respectively, to make the program a reality.

The measure would prioritize funding to small- and medium-size businesses so they could offer jobs to midcareer professionals who had left the STEM workforce. And it would seek to help women, Black, and Latino STEM professionals, and those in rural areas.

As the country navigates an ongoing pandemic, it has been widely reported that women are feeling its economic effects disproportionately. … SWE members are familiar with these struggles and are educating legislators on this burden working women are bearing during these difficult times.”

– Karen Horting, CAE, SWE executive director and CEO

From education to workforce equity to boosting research

Other efforts focused on education. SWE emphasized the importance of keeping provisions in a bill still being negotiated that would improve STEM teacher recruitment, preparation, and retention, and offer students hands-on STEM learning, high-quality STEM coursework, and apprenticeships.

The bills are Senate Bill 1260, called the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, and House Bill 4521, the America COMPETES Act.

SWE leaders told the lawmakers that SWE prefers the House version for several reasons. The latter addresses the importance of collecting data on who receives federal research grants; acknowledges the cultural and institutional barriers to expanding the academic and federal STEM workforce; and would invest in rural STEM education research and STEM efforts at minority-serving institutions.

As for fiscal year 2023 funding, SWE urged Congress to provide money for the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program, authorized in Title IV, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act, and funded by the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education bill.

The program supports STEM projects in K-12 schools crucial to exposing young women to disciplines that will offer them a foundation in STEM.

SWE urged another year of increased funding for K-12 after-school programs, early childhood education, and research on the teaching and learning of STEM subjects. Congress funded the Student Support and Academic Enrichment formula grant program at $1.28 billion in fiscal year 2022, a $60 million increase from the prior year.

At the collegiate level, SWE supported funding requests from historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions to expand their ability to accept and teach students in STEM fields, with the goal of seeing the students graduate with STEM degrees.

Workforce equity took center stage, too.

SWE urged U.S. Senate leaders to bring to the floor for a vote the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. The U.S. House passed the bill and a Senate committee approved it. The legislation, HR 1065/S 1486, would bar employers from discriminating against employees who are pregnant or otherwise impacted by childbirth. The employer would be prohibited from denying the worker opportunities or forcing the employee to take unpaid leave.

SWE also urged continued investment in research agencies important to scientific discovery and innovation. The Biden administration has proposed double-digit percentage funding increases for most scientific agencies, but midterm elections in November look likely to lead to more political deadlock on turning those proposals into reality.

The Biden administration has proposed a fiscal year 2023 budget with spending levels for basic and applied research that top $100 billion for the first time, and spending for total federal research and development spending that tops $200 billion for the first time.

Biden is asking for a 19% funding increase for the National Science Foundation, a 9.6% boost for the National Institutes of Health, 4.5% more for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and a 5% hike for NASA’s science missions.

The president has also requested $2 million for a Center for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Research. It would build on a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report recommending federal agencies do a better job of collecting the data.

His 2023 request also revives the NSF’s plan to spend $200 million on 10 regional innovation centers.

Biden’s budget proposal would increase spending for STEM education at all levels. That includes upping the annual size of NSF’s flagship graduate training program by increasing the number of new graduate research fellowships by 37.5%, to 2,750.

SWE members made a point of asking congresswomen — in both the House and Senate — to ask their female colleagues and supervisors to join their respective legislative bodies’ Women in STEM Caucus. The bipartisan caucuses aim to highlight the issues facing women in STEM professions and the federal policies that do or should support them, as well as female students who hope to become STEM professionals.

The Society of Women Engineers supports the caucuses as important venues to discuss issues and develop policies that support women in STEM. Senators Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., lead the Senate Women in STEM Caucus, while Reps. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), and Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., head the House Caucus.