STEM Women Scale Electoral Barriers

The year 2018 saw the largest cohort of STEM candidates who ran for Congress. The STEM wave has not abated, but are STEM women going to keep pace?

By Marc Lefkowitz, SWE Contributor

When SWE Fellow Pam Dingman, P.E., ran and ultimately won office in 2014, the Lancaster County (Nebraska) engineer inherited a space lacking the basic tools, such as voicemail and email, for communicating with the public. Since fighting through a particularly contentious campaign against an incumbent, Dingman, who ran on her experience operating an engineering consulting firm in the private sector, has focused on raising the profile of the county engineer’s office.

Dingman can explain in public and online what goes into delivering road resurfacing, bridge rebuilding, snow removal, and managing 110 employees and $1 million in engineering contracts each year. Also, how she has modernized her department, using an app to track rainfall amounts, in real time, in order to prioritize which bridges are inspected. She can be seen in TikTok videos below bridges pointing out why structures are in dire need of repair in what she calls “The Bad Bridge Tour.” Her office posted a video with the Bob Seger song “Night Moves” when a sweltering summer forced her crews to pour concrete at night (Seger himself became a follower).

“We’re trying to push out content to show we’re not the boring government people,” she said. “The bonus of being a leader is you have the opportunity to influence what the landscape will look like.”

In an episode of the Facebook series “Reverse Engineering with YOUR Lancaster County Engineer,” Pam Dingman, P.E., F.SWE, discusses a culvert replacement project. Credit: Traci Dragoo, Lancaster County Engineering Department

The role model effect

Because there were so few opportunities for women in managerial roles before she arrived, Dingman also invests time building up the future ranks of civil engineers. She speaks to a professional development class of engineers at the University of Nebraska, organizes an annual career fair for engineers, particularly young women, and she started an internship program that has three to four student interns per cycle. Driving these efforts is a recognition that it is her responsibility to pave the way for others to follow in her footsteps.

“What I call ‘heavy’ disciplines like civil engineering have been a little bit of a holdout, but it doesn’t have to be. Once you have a woman in leadership, it organically brings change,” she said, adding, “What’s interesting about being in a managerial role is there were no other female professionals when I arrived. I was the first, and as I walked to the corner office, there was this moment of silence.”

Dingman’s experience is a concrete example of the “role model” effect, says Meredith Conroy, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino and contributing writer to FiveThirtyEight on barriers to women entering politics. Dr. Conroy is also co-author of Who Runs? The Masculine Advantage in Candidate Emergence.

Role models — in this case, women and individuals from underrepresented groups — not only gain a foothold in a position of authority but also demonstrate they are leaders who are ready to meet the moment. “They are some of our best and biggest cheerleaders,” said Dr. Conroy, “and helpful for the next class that is running. It has been wonderful to see the leadership they bring to their office.”

“There’s something to be said about women in STEM going into politics because they face similar barriers (in their professional careers). They know what it takes to break into male-dominated fields,” she added.

In Dingman’s case, getting elected opened the door for women to step into positions of leadership. She has produced a better gender balance in a department that employed no women when she started to now 50% of department hires being women, including a traffic engineer and a water resources specialist who hold advanced degrees in civil engineering and hydrology.

Being a role model, however, can come at a personal cost, as Dingman recalls confronting gender bias on the campaign trail, including a man who asked to see her professional engineer license. “I’m OK with being questioned, just not on my gender,” she said, then softened. “You’re meeting people where they’re at. I suppose I have an opportunity to change public opinion about what an engineer looks like and do it one household at a time.”

Dingman’s first campaign (she’s running for her third term this fall) came before the wave of candidates with STEM educational degrees and work backgrounds formed in the 2018 election season. That cycle saw the largest number of STEM professionals — scientists and engineers — running for public office in recent memory.

“It was called ‘the year of scientists running for Congress,’” Dr. Conroy recounted, noting how science came to the fore during the 2018 midterm elections. Referring to the general election just two years later, in 2020, she said, “Here we were in a pandemic with people first denying and then undermining (science) with bad public health measures. It really showed people the danger.”

Motivated by a political environment that undermined basic science, aeronautical engineer Tracy Van Houten ran to represent California’s 34th Congressional District in 2018.
Meredith Conroy, Ph.D., associate professor, political science, California State University, San Bernardino

A rocket scientist hits the trail

For astronautical engineer Tracy Van Houten, the environment in 2018 of undermining basic science motivated her to run for Congress, along with more than 100 candidates nationally from STEM backgrounds. Why was she willing to leave her “dream job” and represent California’s 34th District? Because, she asserted, “if I wanted to make impactful change, I have to have a seat at the table with those who disagreed with me. To have a voice in those spaces where you are a minority is important.”

Van Houten, a longtime SWE member and recipient of the SWE Distinguished New Engineer and Emerging Leader awards in 2012 and 2016, respectively, was indeed in the minority as a woman running for office with a STEM background. If she had prevailed in her primary (it was a crowded field with more than two dozen candidates), her odds of winning in the general election likely would have increased, however.

“There is a fairly large gender gap with 75% of the STEM candidates being male, although interestingly, women were no less likely to advance than men in (general election) contests,” explained Matthew Motta, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of health law, policy and management at Boston University. Dr. Motta produced a report on the 2018 STEM Congressional cohort.

“The fact that women are less represented in the candidate pool but are no less likely to win than men speaks to an inefficiency of sorts on the candidate side,” Dr. Motta continued. “Perhaps if more women ran, we might see more STEM candidates in office. And the question becomes, ‘Why are women less represented?’”

To answer that question, 314 Action, a political action committee aimed at building a pipeline for STEM candidates in public office, was formed. Its founder and president, Shaughnessy Naughton, is a trained chemist. After an unsuccessful bid to enter politics in 2014, she decided to help others surmount the barriers, foremost, funding and guidance operating a campaign.

“Here we are, still in a pandemic, and reproductive rights are being pushed back to the state level, and we’re still seeing a lot of people running,” she observed about the current election cycle. “Science really has a role in public policy. We need more scientists and engineers to step up; whether it’s at local boards or infrastructure, engineers bring their skill set to tackling these problems.”

Though women overall in 2018 boasted an impressive win rate of 46%, Dr. Conroy said, only two women with engineering backgrounds prevailed among the 15 STEM candidates who won their races in 2018, including nine engineers (eight in the House and one in the Senate — The 117th Congress also has one physicist and one chemist in the House and one geologist in the Senate). Only 23% of STEM candidates won in 2018, Dr. Conroy noted, meaning the STEM candidate was less likely to win than the non-STEM candidate. She posits that the same barriers to entry affect women from STEM.

“STEM is male dominated, and the jobs are perceived as being focused on discovery, not necessarily looking to help people,” observed Dr. Conroy. “You obviously want people to go into politics that help people, but politics is framed as power seeking and it discourages women from running.”

Facing the Slings and Arrows in Running for Office

For Tracy Van Houten, Hillary Clinton’s historic run for president inspired her to sign on and volunteer for a campaign where she saw a future for women like herself in politics. While the campaign did not succeed, in 2017, Van Houten, like many, joined the March for Science, a nationwide protest that the young mother of two and astronautical engineer says served as a launchpad for her eventual run for Congress.

“For someone who works on earth science missions, we provide a lot of data and step back and let politicians make good decisions,” she said. “I was seeing a war on science and a broad distrust of data.”

Since social norms were being bent during and after the 2016 election, Van Houten says, it felt like a moment to reconsider the role of engineers in broader public life. “As an engineer, I was trained to be apolitical, but politics dragged me in,” she said. “If evidence is not being heeded, it’s time to get involved.”

Still, with less than 2% of Congress holding engineering degrees, Van Houten was heading into uncharted territory.

“I’m an anomaly,” she admitted, “but people liked to point out that I’m ‘a rocket scientist.’ It opened the door for a lot of conversations. I generated this common, exciting idea of exploration and it gets a foot in the door.”

Though she didn’t win the seat to represent the 34th Congressional District of California, the experience of running for office built confidence that has led to her joining local and national boards and commissions working on recruiting more women into politics. She also speaks to engineers about what drew her into the political arena.

“(While campaigning), I would pivot to conversations on a number of things, like evidence-based policy as it related to climate and the environment, gun restrictions, and public schools,” she said. “Things I’m passionate about. And it led to proposing some more nontraditional solutions. I just feel that we’re not being good stewards of our community if we’re keeping our STEM talents in the 9-to-5.”

Even in a “blue state” like California, Van Houten, who ran in a crowded primary field on the Democratic ticket, was considered on the vanguard.

Meredith Conroy, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino and a contributing writer to FiveThirtyEight, confirms that “often women see themselves as less qualified than men, while men, even if they aren’t confident whether they are qualified for the office they seek, will run anyway.”

Helping candidates find the confidence to face the slings and arrows of politics is a challenge that 314 Action, a political action committee that Shaughnessy Naughton formed to help STEM professionals, is prepared to meet.

“It can be tough because scientists and engineers can be quite literal,” Naughton, a trained chemist, observed. “You’re not going to get many votes showing up with spreadsheets. It’s more of an emotional connection.

“But, we see their credibility extends beyond where (engineers see themselves),” she added. “It’s one of the most trusted professionals. They are looked at as truth tellers, and people are really looking for that from elected officials.”

In conservative Nebraska, Pam Dingman, P.E., a Republican, ran and won her race in 2014 for Lancaster County Engineer. During her first run for office, she faced questions about her credentials, which she attributes to gender bias.

“A lot circled around (the insinuation of) do we really want a woman engineer here?” she said, adding, “If you can data justify what you’re doing, you’ll be fine.”

Dingman, a single mother of two, says her nerve was steeled from managing a consultancy in civil engineering, a field where, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 13% of engineers in the U.S. are women.

“I’m seeing more women run for office,” she said. “There’s a lot of passion for the way the world is changing. As people get more impassioned, you will see more women (get in).”

Among the candidates who ran for national and statewide political office in 2018 were hundreds of scientists running for the first time who were emboldened by the 2017 March for Science.

“For scientists to take public-facing political action to advance their many and varied interests, I call ‘mobilized science,’” said Matthew Motta, Ph.D., who studied the 2018 cohort of STEM candidates. “Scientists were taking to the streets and were saying, ‘This is unfair.’ What is new is they were taking the next step, moving from the streets to try to make it to Washington and state houses to try to enact change and do something about what was going on.”

It may not be a lack of confidence, Dr. Conroy added, but the nuances of what goes into the decision that produced fewer women with STEM backgrounds running for office.

“Studies show that women who do run are more qualified and are more deliberate about where they run,” she said. “Women are going to be more conscious about their chances because they take into account family obligations before they run.”

“Data shows women are better able to handle women’s issues,” Dr. Conroy said. “My takeaway goes back to women who are running are more qualified, including women with STEM backgrounds.”

Building the future now

From Dingman’s point of view, the younger generation of engineers are driven by a different calculus, one that may lend itself to greater participation in public life. “I’m seeing more women run for office,” she said. “I do feel optimistic about prospects for growth in this area mainly because the next generation of professionals are more dedicated to community and to making a difference in people’s lives.”

Van Houten shares her experience with younger engineers, particularly those who feel excluded from mainstream politics such as LGBTQ+ and minority women. She described the satisfaction of hiring women and people of color into positions of authority in her campaign.

“I had a very strong team of women,” she said. “That was one of my joys of my campaign. I was extremely concerned about the rights of my LGBTQA colleagues and seeing their faces in the future.”

For colleagues considering a run, Dingman and Van Houten acknowledge that the near continuous cycle of fundraising is a concern.

“What I was potentially least prepared for was the immense amount of time fundraising,” said Van Houten. “Candidates are expected to put in 40 hours a week just asking people for money. For talented people who should be out leading to be spending it asking people for money is challenging.”

“Running costs money that most people can’t afford on their own,” said Dingman, adding that her unopposed campaign for re-election this fall has cost upward of $15,000. “I had my own consulting firm and wouldn’t have any trouble telling you the engineering work cost this much and hand you a plan. I have been active in local charities and wouldn’t have trouble asking for a charity donation. But asking people for money for your campaign is humbling, and it can be exceptionally difficult for women.”

One possible solution, Dingman says, is to approach fundraising analytically. “I would encourage women who want to get into politics to not be afraid to ask for financial support and create a strategic plan to raise funds.”

Shaughnessy Naughton, chemist, founder, and president, 314 Action
Matthew Motta, Ph.D., associate professor, department of health law, policy and management, Boston University

Still, Dr. Conroy has found that women who are their family’s “primary breadwinner” may be less likely to take the leap into the fray of politics. That was certainly the case for Van Houten, a mother of two who was earning a paycheck as an engineer.

“My husband has a career, but I couldn’t just quit my job,” Van Houten said. “As a mom at the time I ran, less than 2% of (officeholders) were moms with minor children.”

Dingman decided it was possible to involve her school-age sons in her campaign. “My running for office became a family event,” she recalled. “My one son would go out and knock on doors for me. The other son got postcards out to absentee voters, and he would put signs out. As far as the balance of it, it would be wrong telling anyone we balanced our family time. We integrated it, but then, not all family time is a trip to Disneyland. My children were definitely with me.”

“Family considerations are still a reality,” Naughton, of 314 Action, added. “For women, they often think everything has to be perfect before they run. That is part of it. Fundraising is another. It is especially weird because no one wants to give you money until you’ve raised money. It can be tough for women to break through.”

Which is where 314 Action comes in. Endorsed candidates receive training to get them ready to run successful campaigns and to receive fundraising support like the recent digital campaign for state legislative candidates that raised $3,000 each.

“I was largely locked out of the traditional donor network when I ran for Congress,” Naughton shared. “I started cold calling chemists and saying, ‘We could benefit from having a chemist in Congress.’ Ultimately, I didn’t win, but part of what I learned is it’s very hard to break into politics.”

Endorsements and support, specifically from 314 Action, was indeed a difference maker for STEM candidates in 2018, Dr. Motta found.

“314 Action has made an effort to not just support and lend endorsements and money to their activities,” he said. “They are also making an effort to train the next generation of STEM candidates to run in 2022 and beyond.”

For Van Houten, her experience running for public office in 2018 continues to shape her thinking about why Congress needs more scientists and engineers. “I think we have to start by changing the people who are in office. Lawyers are extremely overrepresented in Congress and lawyers are trained to argue,” she said. “People in STEM are trained to problem-solve. We need problem-solvers because there is never an all-or-nothing solution. There’s a lot of nuance, and then you have to be able to communicate. STEM is still far from representative in Congress. It’s hard to have those voices stand out.”

Dr. Motta’s outlook tacks slightly more optimistic. “Throughout Covid and beyond, these individuals (who ran in 2018) have been vocal supporters of evidence-based medicine in health policy, in response to a health crisis, and in responding to climate change. Collectively, they have been a force for science.”