Senators launch bipartisan Women in STEM Caucus

Senators launch bipartisan Women in STEM Caucus
© Greg Nash

Sens. Jacky RosenJacklyn (Jacky) Sheryl RosenFirst openly transgender Miss USA contestant eliminated before round of 16 Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall America's clean energy future cannot stop at state lines MORE (D-Nev.) and Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoGOP ramps up attacks on SALT deduction provision Republicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall White House looks to rein in gas prices ahead of busy travel season MORE (R-W.Va.) are launching a bipartisan caucus focused on creating more access and pathways for women and girls to participate in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. 

The caucus will offer a platform for lawmakers and industry leaders to discuss solutions to address the lack of diversity in STEM, the senators said. 

“We have to change the narrative for young girls, and maybe even for educators, because we want to have them be sure young girls see themselves doing these jobs and these jobs feel accessible,” Rosen told The Hill. 

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For Rosen, the issue is personal. She came to the Senate with a background in computer programming, and although she said the gender gap has shrunk since she started working in the industry in the 1980s, the progress has not gone far enough. 

According to the U.S. Census as of 2019, women made up half of the workforce but only accounted for 27 percent of workers in STEM fields. 

The divide remains even more apparent in computer and engineering occupations, which made up 80 percent of the STEM workforce. Women represented only about a quarter of computer workers and 15 percent of those in engineering occupations, according to the Census report. 

“I think many people believe that the kind of gender issue is fixed, because we have made incredible strides,” said Kathryn Leonard, president of the Association for Women in Mathematics.

“We've made great strides, but we definitely have a long way still to go. And particularly with the challenges that are facing the world at the moment, many of them require us to have the strongest possible STEM solutions that we can, and in order to get those we really need to strengthen the diversity in STEM fields. We need all voices and sources of creativity to expand the economy and spur innovation. And frankly, to make sure that we continue to be the leader that we have been in science and technology,” Leonard added. 

Karen Horting, executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, said it is a “pivotal time” for senators to be focusing on the lack of diversity in STEM. 

“COVID has only made the situation worse for women, even in the STEM fields where there's great demand. And the numbers for women of color are also really low. So across the board I think there's a lot of work we can do in terms of strengthening diversity in the STEM fields. You know, this is where the jobs are,” Horting said. 

The caucus will prioritize discussing ways to aid women returning to the workforce, including both those with a background in STEM fields and those interested in switching jobs.

“I think this is a really good time to highlight — as people are going into new careers or having to go into new careers — the kinds of opportunities that are out there in STEM. We are trying to meet this moment right now, that we’re in, changing the narrative and moving forward,” Rosen said. 

Earlier this year Rosen, along with Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) and Mark KellyMark KellyConservative group targeting Kelly, Hassan, Cortez Masto in multi-million-dollar ad blitz No deal in sight as Congress nears debt limit deadline Five Senate Democrats reportedly opposed to Biden banking nominee MORE (D-Ariz.), introduced a bill aimed at providing funding for STEM businesses to offer internships, known as “returnships,” for mid-career workers seeking to return or transition into the STEM workforce. 

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Capito said it’s important to put a focus on bridging the gender gap in STEM fields nationwide, especially given that jobs in the field tend to pay higher salaries.

For example, the average salary in her home state of West Virginia is around $40,000, but the average salary of a STEM worker coming right out of school may be around $75,000. 

“I think this is the perfect time to do this. I think that especially since we've seen women leaving the workforce trying to get them back into the workforce and careers that they’ll be able to raise their families on,” Capito said. 

The lawmakers are planning to invite additional senators to join after the caucus launch on Monday. Both Rosen and Capito said they expect broad bipartisan support for the caucus’s efforts and for discussing solutions to bring diversity to STEM careers. 

“This is something that everyone agrees on. We know the challenges, the problems we are going to need to solve for the remainder of this century, require a STEM education,” Rosen said. “And if we don't invest starting from the lowest grades down, from pre-K even, and all the way up, then we're not going to be prepared to be competitive.”