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Reaching Out to Congress from the Comfort of Home

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, SWE has made a smooth — and potentially permanent — transition to virtual congressional outreach.

By Jon Reisfeld, SWE Contributor

Organizers continued to call it a “congressional fly-in,” but SWE’s April 2021 two-day public policy blitz of the U.S. capital no longer required SWE members to board planes or even to leave home. Instead, they simply met via Zoom, in groups organized by home state, to join in virtual face-to-face policy discussions with their respective members of Congress and their staffs.

All told, 150 SWE members from 30 states and the District of Columbia signed up to take part in this year’s meetings, which ran from April 14 to 15 and included from one to 10 SWE members each. During the sessions, members pressed for specific legislation to expand access to STEM education for women and minorities and to make STEM employment more inclusive and equitable.

Some shared their personal stories and experiences of gender discrimination and sexual harassment to help emphasize the need for greater legal protections. And they cited recent research findings by groups such as SWE and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that documented COVID-19’s negative impact on the educational prospects of young women in STEM and on the academic and research careers of women of all ages and minority backgrounds.

The virtual sessions were arranged and moderated by members of the Bose Public Affairs Group, a Washington, D.C., political advisory that has coordinated SWE’s congressional outreach events for years. As many as 30% of the attendees came from SWE’s collegiate program.

Karen Horting, CAE, SWE executive director and CEO, noted that the event’s virtual format — part of the new normal during the COVID-19 pandemic — had broad appeal because it offered greater scheduling flexibility and convenience than the prior, in-person approach to advocacy. It also made fewer demands on members’ time, energy, and resources.

“We had more first-timers this year,” she said, “because it was virtual and people didn’t have to travel or invest. They were able to participate from their dining room tables or wherever. I think that’s good,” she added, “because it allowed more people from within the Society to talk about their experiences.”

Horting said she had been excited to learn, in early April, that several senators already had informed Della Cronin, Bose coordinator for the event, that they, too, personally planned to take part in the virtual meetings — along with their staffs.

“That’s unheard of in the face-to-face meetings,” Horting explained. “They may pop in for a photo op or something like that, but it’s pretty rare for them — particularly senators — to sit down and be part of the meeting. It’s usually just their staff. I think that these were some pretty good, impactful meetings.”

Horting said she hoped members of Congress have gained an even deeper appreciation for science, engineering, and technology after the role those disciplines played in helping meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. “If it weren’t for science and engineering, we wouldn’t be getting the vaccines right now,” she noted. “I think the pandemic has shined a light on the importance of these fields and having diverse people in them and having the right preparation to study these fields and excel. My hope is that the pandemic may be the launch point for more bills that support science, engineering, and technology and rally the support of Congress and, ultimately, the executive branch.”

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“My hope is that the pandemic may be the launch point for more bills that support science, engineering, and technology and rally the support of Congress.”

The time is now

If there ever was a time for SWE to successfully advance new pro-STEM legislation — bills designed to promote better inclusivity, equity, and opportunity in both STEM education and employment — that time is now. With the executive branch and both houses of Congress once more under a single party’s control for the first time in years, the gridlock that has plagued Congress and kept the passage of new legislation to a minimum appears to be coming to an end — at least until the next midterm elections in the fall of 2022.

SWE currently supports more than nine STEM and women’s rights bills either still under development or currently working their way through Congress. “We’d like to see a few of the pieces of legislation we’ve been advocating signed into law,” Horting said. She cited the STEM Opportunities Act and the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act as two examples of “bills that have been circling around for a couple of Congresses without much action” that she would now like to see advance.

The STEM RESTART Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., directs funds to small and midsize businesses to help create reentry jobs — otherwise referred to as “returnships” — for midcareer women professionals who left the STEM workforce. The bill would prioritize funding for such underrepresented groups as women, Black, and Latino STEM professionals as well as those who live in rural areas. It’s possible, Horting said, that the bill may be wrapped into the Biden Administration’s infrastructure package, “since there will be an obvious need for engineering talent.”

“That’s a piece of legislation that we specifically worked on with Senator Rosen,” Horting said. “So, it’s something that wouldn’t be getting introduced if it wasn’t for SWE’s efforts.”

“Title IX is another major issue,” she said. The previous administration ignored one of the largest number of public comments ever offered in response to a Department of Education request and took actions that, Horting said, “SWE and many other women’s groups do not support.” One goal of the “fly-in” was to ask members of Congress to restore the guidelines to where they were during the Obama administration.

Looking ahead, Horting said she sees a place for “virtual advocacy meetings” as a permanent option, particularly for those SWE members who can’t take time off work or school to go to D.C. “I’m hopeful that at some point, the face-to-face meetings will return,” she said. She wondered aloud about what Capitol Hill security might be like following the events of January 6 of this year.

“Will there be an appetite for having constituents up on the Hill?” she asked. “I don’t know, but I think virtual meetings always will have a place.”