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The White House on Why We Need More Women in STEM Education

One night while playing the piano in her Lancaster, Pennsylvania, home, Marian noticed that hitting certain notes caused the strings of a nearby banjo to vibrate. She was struck by a thought—could this same principle of frequency be applied to finding underground landmines? This moment of inspiration caused Marian to design a landmine-detection machine so innovative it was featured at the 2012 White House Science Fair this February.

Marian was one of many young women to attend the science fair, where young scientists of both genders showed off their science and engineering projects to President Barack Obama and members of the White House staff. This past Tuesday, the White House Council on Women and Girls released a video highlighting the young female scientists’ projects at an event featuring accomplished female science leaders. The event and video are small examples of the Obama administration’s continued support for the advancement of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, careers.

As President Obama said in remarks at the event, America “belong[s] at the cutting edge of innovation,” and innovation in science, engineering, and technology has been a historical driver of our nation’s economic success. It’s therefore critical to address the gender gap in STEM jobs, not only to advance equality and provide more career opportunities for women but also to maintain our competitive advantage with other countries in an increasingly globalized world. If half of American students feel discouraged from entering STEM careers, then economic competiveness becomes a whole lot harder. As the White House stated in a press release, “increasing the number of women engaged in … (STEM) fields is critical to our Nation’s ability to out-build, out-educate, and out-innovate future competitors.” Marian’s project is a prime example.

Public support for women in STEM careers is particularly important in light of a recent report showing that the timeline for STEM career advancement often harshly conflicts with women’s family goals. Early career advancements that are crucial for later success often take place when scientists are in their late 20s and early 30s, a time when many women are seeking to start their families. Generally, women’s disproportionate role in family caregiving puts them at a disadvantage compared to their male colleagues. As we noted in an earlier post, this leads to “smaller salaries and lab spaces on average, scanter resources, and stunted advancement through the STEM career pipeline.”

While women in STEM fields earn 33 percent more than their female counterparts in non-STEM careers, the lack of workplace flexibility remains a major barrier to women’s entrance and advancement in the field. To build upon their support of STEM women and ensure America’s continued global competitiveness in science and technology, the Obama administration must advocate for policies that allow women to balance their career goals with their family lives.

The emerging clean energy economy market is an excellent place for the Obama administration to push for flexible, family-friendly policies. As the Center for American Progress reported earlier, the Clean Energy Education and Empowerment initiative—of which the United States, Australia, Denmark, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom are members—seeks to “encourage women to join clean energy disciplines” through a variety of means. This past week the initiative announced a new partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which will delve into the details of how the partnership would work. The joint MIT-Clean Energy Education and Empowerment program will sponsor senior female energy ambassadors, create awards to recognize female leadership and innovation in clean energy, and host a symposium at MIT in September. Hopefully, this initiative can be a model for ways to support and advance women’s careers in STEM professions and help keep the United States on the cutting edge of the global innovation economy.

Alexandra Scheeler is the Special Assistant for K-12 Education Policy at American Progress.

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