It is no secret that there are long standing disparities that exist within the STEM fields. Despite women’s groundbreaking research, discoveries, and achievements in science and technology, in 2019, only 35 percent of students enrolled in STEM coursework were women. Women earned less than half of degrees in most STEM fields (46.3 percent associate’s, 49.4 percent bachelor’s, 43.6 percent master’s, 45.2 percent doctoral), less than a quarter of all degrees in engineering, and STEM Bachelor degree attainment for women was decreasing. In 2019, women accounted for just 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce. Further, the opportunity gaps that women and people of color face have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As our nation grapples with the impact of the pandemic on both the workforce and education systems, focusing on closing these opportunity gaps and bringing equity to STEM education is more important than ever before. We must fund robust programs to create opportunities and training that lead to viable career paths in technology, engineering, health sciences, science policy, and academia — and we must do so in a way that builds a stronger and more diverse STEM workforce.
Since the beginning of this term in Congress, my office has met with numerous constituents — from Michigan’s 11th District to graduate programs in STEM at the University of Michigan, Georgetown University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and beyond. They all shared the same concerns: lack of funding for STEM education, lack of critical STEM opportunities for women and students of color, and an overwhelming fear for what the future holds for them. As schools across our nation closed, many graduate programs did not accept applicants for the fall 2020-2021 school year due to funding shortages caused by the pandemic.
As we enter a post-pandemic world, what would it look like if women held half of the positions available in STEM fields? What if girls and young women saw themselves represented in these fields? What if girls of color and girls from low-income backgrounds had the opportunity to pursue these careers? Our nation’s educational system demands rigor and practical skills within math and science. Preparing to enter a 21st-century workforce begins much before young women make the decision to enter postsecondary education. Lack of access to high-quality STEM learning opportunities exists at the early education levels and these gaps threaten our nation’s preparedness to meet the STEM challenges of the future. Leadership at the federal level is critical to help advance gender equity for America’s students.
As chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Research & Technology and co-founder of the congressional Women in STEM Caucus, my first piece of legislation, The Building Blocks of STEM Act, targeted these disparities. It aimed to open pathways for girls to be immersed in STEM education at the early education level. The bipartisan and bicameral bill, signed into law in 2019, allocated National Science Foundation funding to conduct research on early childhood education’s encouragement of girls in STEM activities and the development of gender-inclusive computer science programs. We must continue to pass legislation that funds programs for women and girls in the STEM fields and creates a more equitable future for American women and a workforce that is ready to tackle the challenges of tomorrow.
Stevens represents Michigan’s 11th District. She is chairwoman of the House Science Subcommittee on Research & Technology and co-founder of the congressional Women in STEM Caucus.