Women in STEM Caucuses Pursue Unified Goals

In the U.S. House and Senate, women in STEM caucuses seek to fill the STEM pipeline, offer support across careers, and honor those who have helped pave the way.

By Christine Coolick, SWE Contributor

Within the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, congressional caucuses provide spaces where like-minded members can come together around shared interests to learn, network, and strategize. And the interests those caucuses span are vast. For example, during the 116th Congress, which ran from January 2019 to January 2021, more than 450 caucuses convened on subjects ranging from algae to zoos and aquariums. Not one, however, was focused on women in STEM, or STEM plus the arts, known as STEAM.

“The fact that there wasn’t a women in STEM or STEAM caucus in 2020 was a pretty sad statement as to where our values and priorities were in making sure that 51% of the workforce — being women — were having opportunities to help our economy and to work in the STEM fields as now their male counterparts do,” said U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., who was elected in 2019 as the first woman to represent Pennsylvania’s 6th District, an area just west of Philadelphia.

A former engineer in the U.S. Air Force and former Teach for America chemistry teacher, Houlahan has a passion for STEM that she brought with her to Congress.

Sharing that dedication is U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., elected in 2019 to represent Michigan’s 11th District, just north of Detroit — also as the first woman in that seat. She had previously worked in a manufacturing research lab and helped launch an education program to introduce middle school and high school students to digital manufacturing concepts.

“Certainly, I have found myself on many occasions — and not willfully — being the only woman at the table,” she said. “It was a little overwhelming, particularly early in my career, to be the only woman on the team.” The ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology, Stevens also co-chairs the Manufacturing Caucus with Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio.

Together, Houlahan and Stevens helped form the Women in STEM Caucus in 2020 in the House of Representatives along with Reps. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., and Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz. The four served as co-chairs of the caucus, whose aim is to promote diversity in STEM as a way to strengthen the economy. (In August 2022, Walorski was killed in a car accident. In March 2023, U.S. Rep. Young Kim, R-Calif., joined the caucus as a co-chair.)

Encouragement and support for developing the caucus also came from The Science Coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of more than 50 public and private research universities that advocates for sustained federal investments in research and development to drive innovation, accelerate the economy, and grow a diverse workforce pipeline. “As universities, our colleagues see the importance of growing the STEM pipeline,” said Laura Kolton, the immediate past president of The Science Coalition and executive director of federal government engagement for Syracuse University. “So, it was sort of an ideal opportunity to work with these great members of Congress.”

CREDIT: U.S. Government Printing Office

“Giving our youth the tools and confidence they need to pursue degrees and careers in STEM fields is not only important to their development, but also for the future of our country and our workforce.”

— U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

Bipartisan effort

Together, The Science Coalition and the House Women in STEM Caucus have coordinated multiple events to bring together members of Congress, academia, and industry to discuss challenges with the school-to-work pipeline and resources for women in STEM.

Stevens noted STEM is a “great unifier.”

“When we talk about women in STEM, it brings so many stakeholders to the table and … is truly one of the bipartisan, collaborative lights in the United States Congress,” Stevens said.

“The motivation was to create a space for people to find each other who have these common interests,” said Houlahan, “and, importantly, the caucus — although it’s named the Women in STEM Caucus — also addresses any underserved population.” The caucus seeks to “make sure that our entire workforce, as diverse as it is, is represented in the STEM fields,” she said.

Senate action

The Senate followed the House in 2021, when Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., jointly launched the bipartisan Women in STEM Caucus in the Senate, also the first of its kind.

“As West Virginia’s first female U.S. senator, inspiring the next generation of female leaders is very important to me,” Capito said at the caucus’s launch. “Giving our youth the tools and confidence they need to pursue degrees and careers in STEM fields is not only important to their development, but also for the future of our country and our workforce.”

Together, Rosen and Capito have a history of championing women in STEM — and finding success. They jointly introduced the Building Blocks of STEM Act in 2019, while Stevens and Rep. Jim Baird, R-Ind., introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives. It was the first bill Stevens introduced as a member of Congress.

The bill passed into law later that year, providing research grants through the National Science Foundation to help understand how best to engage young girls in STEM activities, to explore common barriers, and to develop strategies to enhance pre-K through 12th-grade STEM education.

Stevens said the caucuses are important not just in raising awareness of the gaps that remain in the representation of women and minorities in STEM fields, but also to ensure that bills such as the Building Blocks of STEM are not one-off pieces of legislation.

“We really need a continuum” throughout the STEM pipeline, Stevens said. “We’re very focused on the postsecondary educational community mentorship opportunities.” Stevens said the caucuses work with organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Science Foundation board to make sure students don’t fall off the continuum. “If they’re in a degree program, are they getting the internships? Are we making sure the talent pipeline is continuing to be nurtured? Are we investing in historically Black colleges and universities? That is one thing that has been uncovered — that HBCUs have been left out of some of the greater STEM investments.”

In 2020, Rosen, along with Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., introduced the Rural STEM Education Act to help break down some of the barriers rural students can face in receiving a STEM education. The same year, she also introduced the Advanced Manufacturing Jobs in America Act with Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., to help fill gaps between the number of new advanced manufacturing jobs and the number of individuals qualified for these positions. Though neither bill passed on its own, several provisions from both were incorporated into the CHIPS and Science Act, which was signed into law in August 2022 as part of a broader initiative to boost domestic research and invest in U.S. semiconductor manufacturing.

“The motivation was to create a space for people to find each other who have these common interests, and, importantly, the caucus — although it’s named the Women in STEM Caucus — also addresses any underserved population.”

— U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa.

Mid-career support

Currently, the caucuses are focused on enhancing resources for women and underrepresented minorities in STEM who can benefit from mid-career support. In 2020, Rosen and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., introduced the STEM Restart Act, or the Restoring Employment Skills through Targeted Assistance, Re-entry, and Training Act, which would offer grants to small and medium-sized STEM businesses to offer paid, mid-career internships. The internships, known as “returnships,” are targeted toward employees seeking to return or transition into the STEM workforce in positions above entry level. The program would prioritize women, Black, and Latino STEM professionals and those living in rural areas.

The bill failed to receive a vote in the 116th Congress. Rosen reintroduced the bill in 2021 during the 117th Congress, and Houlahan and Baird introduced identical legislation in the House. Neither bill was brought to a vote.

In March 2023, Rosen, along with Hyde-Smith and Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., reintroduced the bill in the Senate. Houlahan and Baird jointly reintroduced the bill in the House. Neither version of the bill has yet been passed by a committee or put to a vote.

Houlahan noted that while the number of women and girls who come out of school with a STEM education has been increasing, there is no reliable support system that continues across their careers. This is why she has championed the STEM Restart Act. “We’re losing women as they get to their mid-career, when they begin to have families or begin to feel as though they’re not necessarily making the progress that they see their male counterparts are,” she said.

Educational opportunities

In addition, caucus members on both sides of the legislature have been active in introducing legislation to provide more resources for STEM fields in the U.S. education system.

In May 2023, Rosen and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, co-sponsored the STEM Education in Accounting Act, which seeks to implement programs to teach accounting, including by increasing access to high-quality accounting courses through 12th grade for students who are members of underrepresented groups. At the same time, Stevens and Kim introduced the companion Accounting STEM Pursuit Act in the House.

Additionally, Stevens and Kim, along with Baird and Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., of northern Virginia, have introduced the Data Science and Literacy Act to increase access and support for data science education, while Houlahan and Baird have introduced similar legislation around statistical modeling to help modernize the math curriculum in the United States.

“We aren’t necessarily addressing the skill sets that are most in need right now in the education system,” Houlahan said.

In a rapidly changing digital landscape, especially with AI developing quickly, Stevens noted the tech market needs more people who are experts in coding and data science. “We don’t want to leave American talent behind,” she said. “We want to bring all parties to the table to expose everyone during their educational careers to STEM and that is by investing in digital literacy initiatives [and] showcasing financial services, accounting, and other STEM fields.”

CREDIT: US House Office of Photography

“Are we investing in historically Black colleges and universities? That is one thing that has been uncovered — that HBCUs have been left out of some of the greater STEM investments.”

— U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich.

Honoring past pioneers

Most recently, in July 2023, the four co-chairs of the House caucus — Houlahan, Kim, Stevens, and Lesko — introduced the Mercury 13 Congressional Gold Medal Act, the first piece of legislation introduced by the caucus in the 118th Congress. The bill would recognize and honor the contributions of the first group of women — known as the Mercury 13 — who, in 1959, successfully completed the first phases of astronaut testing but were not permitted to join NASA’s spaceflight program because of their gender.

Houlahan, who also serves on the House Intelligence Committee, attended a committee meeting in April 2023 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. During a dinner on the base at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, she began exploring the exhibits and came across one dedicated to women in aviation and space.

“There was an exhibit on the Mercury 13, and I had never heard of them,” she said. “And I thought it was really interesting that I had never heard of them because, you know, I am an engineer. I went to Stanford because Sally Ride went to Stanford. I wanted to be an astronaut.

“So, of all the people in the world who ought to know about the Mercury 13, I would have been one of them. Yet I didn’t know about them.”

Looking forward to the Artemis II mission scheduled for 2024, for which one of the four astronauts set to fly by the moon is mission specialist Christina Koch, Stevens said, “We want to show young girls — all ages and all demographics — that a career in aeronautics and space travel is something that is accessible to them. It comes down to recognizing the brave and talented women who rightfully earned their spots as the first female astronauts and were also, at one point, told that they couldn’t do this because of their gender.”

Beyond legislation

The House Women in STEM Caucus is in its third year and now has close to 50 members — not all of whom are women, nor are they all STEM professionals, noted Houlahan.

“It’s really kind of a place where people can land to find their commonalities,” she said. Beyond championing legislation, they also coordinate events for themselves and their staff to learn and engage together, as well as with interested people working in industry.

In June 2023, for example, Rosen and Capito led a caucus discussion with the Girl Scouts of the USA on the STEM pipeline for girls. They were joined by officials from the U.S. Department of Education and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Kolton noted how important these events can be. “For industry, trying to diversify their workforce, hearing from U.S. members of Congress that this is something that is important” has impact, Kolton said. “And for universities to be able to go back and talk with our faculty and our leadership about this — this is what’s important for them for the next generation.”

The networking opportunities from the events are important, too. “We’re bringing together the research community, the business community, [and] the policymaker community, and that also serves as a platform for generating new ideas and policy approaches,” said Stevens. “It’s also a way to work across government. Having the caucus allows us to bring in agents and stakeholders and ensure we’ve got bipartisan approaches. I know I was looking for co-sponsors for pieces of legislation, and because I’m in the caucus, it gave me opportunity to do that.”

Stevens is enthusiastic about STEM and would pursue legislation supporting STEM fields on her own. But with the caucus, she explained, “I have a ripe-and-ready network that empowers and emboldens the work and only makes it better.”

Political challenges

Stevens said the biggest hurdle the caucuses may face is Congress’s penchant for placing political issues before policy matters. “We can talk all day about the things we ought to be talking about, and these workforce issues are one of them. But if we spend all our time spinning in political circles, we’re never going to get to the meat of the matter of how we can address this issue.”

Stevens is optimistic about the future. “I know we had a lot of energy around the caucus when we began; we continue to harness that energy even through some of the disruptions that hit at the beginning of 2020 and into 2021.”

AI, machine learning, and cybersecurity were just a few of the other issues Houlahan noted that she’d prefer to spend more time learning about. She stresses that one of the best ways to help champion these efforts is for individuals to encourage their congressional representatives to join the Women in STEM Caucus.