Senators Launch Women in STEM Caucus

February 24, 2022 

Senators Jacky Rosen (D – NV) and Shelley Moore Capito (R – WV) launched the Women in STEM Caucus on November 8, National STEM Day, to discuss how to expand access to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and training for women. The Senators had previously worked on the Building Blocks of STEM Act, a bill which provided grants through the National Science Foundation (NSF) to increase the participation of underrepresented populations in STEM fields.  

The bipartisan caucus hosted its first meeting on February 16; the senators were joined by two professionals in STEM – Dr. Aster Sigel, Lab Manager of the undergraduate research laboratory at INBRE Lab, Nevada, and Dr. Rolanda Wilkerson, Principal Scientist and Senior Manager of Scientific Communications at Procter and Gamble. The meeting was moderated by the Executive Director and President for the Society of Women Engineers, Karen Horting. 

Horting cited that in 2018, women made up 49.6 percent of science and engineering (S&E) degree recipients at the bachelor’s degree level; yet in 2019, women made up 29.4 percent of the S&E workforce. Furthermore, women of color comprise 17.8 percent of degree recipients at the bachelor’s degree level in 2018 and, a year later in the S&E workforce, they comprise 10.8 percent. With the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in 2020, Horting invited the panelists to share how COVID has impacted the STEM workforce and what federal policies could help in this time after.  

Dr. Wilkerson remarked that, as with many other career fields, the lack of access to affordable, quality childcare has hindered female professionals. Dr. Sigel also later noted that a large portion of women who have left the fields were ultimately forced to make the decision between their careers or their families. 

Regarding federal policies, Dr. Wilkerson shared that she had gained undergraduate research experience through the Timbuktu Academy at Southern University, which receives state and federal funding. “This academy receives support from federal programs like the NSF and exposed students to academia and various STEM professions. I am still connected to these mentors and professionals to this day. It’s important to fund programs so these continue to grow and increase research capabilities so women are attracted to STEM fields and there will be a network of women who can mentor and encourage others to stay.” She added that it is important to focus on funding and research for universities that may be underfunded – especially historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). 

Dr. Aster Sigel also shared that the INBRE program receives federal funding through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – enabling students to pursue undergraduate research opportunities. “[The program allows us] to engage students, help retention and graduation, and confirms that they belong in the field.” She mentioned cohort-building and activities, such as mentor-mentee interactions, which greatly impact students. “[However,] we don’t have sustainability. We need more of this funding to be able to attract and retain students that are vulnerable…[It is] especially important to build the skill set on the abstract concepts of this field.” 

Horting also asked the panelists about the factors contributing to the trend before the pandemic, whereby 50 percent of women leave in the first five years of working in the STEM fields. The panelists cited factors including the lack of senior female leadership, visibility, and representation of women in STEM professions. 

Senator Capito agreed that it was important to drive interest levels in students that are in lower grades. Waiting until junior high or high school risks losing interest from young women, which is partially why they introduced the Building Blocks of STEM Act. She also noted that private sector involvement plays a critical role in diversifying the workforce today. 

Senator Rosen emphasized that the Building Blocks of STEM Act was important in getting young girls (grades K-12) to feel creative and get excited about STEM careers. She also mentioned that she is currently working on a bill for returnships – a back-to-work program where people can return to their careers without having to start from the bottom of the career ladder – so women who have stepped away from these fields can retrain relevant skills to the profession or acquire updated skills.