On the commercialization path: New research supports women in STEM
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Recently, Congress passed two bills designed to promote women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics professions, and presented them to the White House.  This past Tuesday, President Trump signed these two bills—The INSPIRE Women Act, and The Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act—into law.  The National Women’s Business Council’s latest research supports the need for solutions such as these that seek to address the disparity between men and women’s STEM workforce participation and commercialization efforts.

While women make up more than half of all college students and now surpass men in attaining undergraduate degrees, the National Women’s Business Council’s new report, On the Commercialization Path: Entrepreneurship and Intellectual Property Outputs among Women in Stem, reveals that women are underrepresented among students pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.  Moreover, the report demonstrates that this gender gap persists among STEM business owners, of which women comprise less than one-third. These disproportions in education and business entrepreneurship are particularly pronounced in the areas of technology and engineering, in which the men business owners outnumber women business owners 4-to-1 and 6-to-1, respectively.

This latest research specifically emphasizes the importance of funding programs that encourage female and minority students’ pursuit of STEM careers, and suggests the need for federal and local support of such programs.  The bills signed into law on Tuesday represent strong strides in this direction; let’s examine what they aim to do.

The INSPIRE Women Act

Introduced by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) H.R. 321: Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Act, directs the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to encourage women and girls to study STEM subjects in school, pursue careers in aerospace, and further advance the nation's space science and exploration efforts” through the support of several existing NASA programs. The law also requires NASA to share a detailed plan for how it will coordinate engagement between STEM professionals and K-12 female STEM students – keys to encouraging more to work in these fields.

After its passage in the House, Comstock referenced the recent film, Hidden Figures, saying, “The INSPIRE Women Act will afford opportunities to a future generation of women leaders who will have a similar impact on our nation’s history and maybe, one day, put a woman on Mars.” Her statement touched on themes of leadership, innovation, and young women’s empowerment, as did that of her colleague, Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerRepublicans want Trump’s VA nominee to withdraw Heller leads Dem Senate challenger by 1 point: poll Senate GOP wary of new tax cut sequel MORE (R-Nev.), who shepherded the bill through the Senate.

The Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act

H.R. 255: The Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act, introduced in prior sessions of Congress, sponsored by Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), makes an explicit connection between STEM training and commercialization. This bill “amends the Science and Engineering Equal Opportunities Act to authorize the National Science Foundation to encourage its entrepreneurial programs to recruit and support women to extend their focus beyond the laboratory and into the commercial world.”

Commercialization is the act of bringing research to market in the form of products or processes. Think of it as the art of turning innovation into an innovation. While not unique to STEM fields, research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics often points the way to cutting edge goods or methods. Consider the potential pathway to innovation highlighted by the U.S. Department of Energy here; learn more about the government’s initiative to support and fund commercialization efforts here.

Although commercialization is broader than just the patent process, Hunt, et al. found in 2012 that if the rate of females commercializing science and engineering were raised so as to eliminate male-female patenting rate gap in these fields, “this would increase the number of commercialized patents by 23.6%”.  Other recent research conducted by the SBA Office of Advocacy demonstrates that even within specific STEM fields, male PhDs are more likely that female PhDs to be small business owners or employed by start-ups. These disparities raise questions about the challenges faced by women on the path to commercialization, and further underscore the benefit of legislation promoting entrepreneurial and STEM training and support for women.

Annie Rorem is the Senior Research Manager for the National Women’s Business Council, a non-partisan federal advisory council created to serve as an independent source of advice and counsel to the president, Congress, and the U.S. Small Business Administration on economic issues of importance to women business owners.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.