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Women Use Science, Engineering, to Pierce Vitreous Ceiling

Rick Weiss of the Office of Science and Technology Policy reports on how the Obama administration is working to ensure that women continue to join the ranks of top scientists.

Cross-posted from the Office of Science and Technology Policy's OSTP blog.

It was a record-breaking year for women in science, as anyone who tracked the Nobel Prizes knows. But the struggle to attract and retain more girls and women to careers in science, math, and engineering is far from over. That’s why the Obama administration is pursuing a number of strategies aimed at getting ever more women to join the scientific ranks in the years and decades ahead.

The statistics this year were remarkable: For the first time ever, three women won scientific Nobels—Carol W. Greider and Elizabeth H. Blackburn, in physiology or medicine, and Ada E. Yonath in chemistry. Before this year only twelve women had won science Nobels in the more than century-long history of the prizes, compared to 523 men. That means this year’s female surge instantly raised the grand total of female science Nobel Prize winners by a whopping 25 percent. Talk about bending the curve!

It’s worth noting that women broke barriers outside the traditional sciences, too: A total of five women were honored with Nobel prizes this year, including Elinor Ostrom in economic sciences and Herta Muller in literature. Until now, the highest number of women to be honored in a single year was three, in 2004.

But the record-breaking achievements made by women in the sci-tech arena is especially gratifying to those of us who work in this domain, and a number of policies and programs supported by the Administration aim to ensure that these records do not stand for long. Consider, for example, the range of initiatives at the National Institutes of Health, which has found that although women fare well with regard to winning training grants and fellowships, they do poorly compared to men when it comes to making the transition from student/postdoc to career scientist—in many cases because of time constraints imposed by child-rearing:

  • NIH has doubled the time allowed for parental leave on the certain training fellowship awards.
  • NIH has provided guidance to research institutions on allowable ways to include child-care reimbursement and parental leave for scientists getting NIH grants, making it easier for grantees to remain in the scientific workforce while they build their families.
  • NIH has provided supplements to postdocs who have left the scientific workforce for family reasons, to help them re-enter the scientific professional community.
  • In the intramural program, NIH has "extended the clock" on the tenure-track process, to accommodate family leave. This helps women who are balancing their scientific and family responsibilities to achieve their tenure-track goals and transition to career scientists.

These policies are available to men, as well, but are sure to be especially helpful to women given the realities of how household duties are segregated in American culture. A splendid and representative example: Carol Greider was not awakened by the 5 a.m. call that announced she had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She was awake and up already—folding laundry!

The Obama Administration is committed to developing even more creative strategies to attract and retain women in the sciences. At a recent meeting of the White House Council on Women and Girls, which was created by President Obama in March to ensure that all Cabinet-level agencies consider how their policies and programs impact women and families, discussion focused in large part on how to draw more girls and young women into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) educational programs.

As Senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett put it on Meet the Press this past weekend: "One of our investments in the Obama Administration is trying to get more women into science, technology, engineering and math, so that they can go into fields and really compete on a level playing field with men."

STEM education is also a major focus of this week’s upcoming meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (Catch Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s presentation on the topic, which will be live-streamed on Friday.)

A final advance worth noting along these lines is President Obama’s recent nomination of Sara Manzano-Diaz to lead the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor. For almost 90 years, the Women’s Bureau has worked to improve the status of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, and advance their opportunities for profitable employment. The Bureau is the only federal agency mandated to represent the needs of wage-earning women.

Manzano-Diaz previously served as Deputy General Counsel for Civil Rights and Litigation at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where she enforced fair housing, civil rights, and anti-discrimination laws.

Taken together, these initiatives demonstrate this Administration’s commitment to advancing the role of women and girls in today’s world, including area such as the sciences in which women have long been underrepresented.

Rick Weiss is Director of Strategic Communications and Senior Science and Technology Policy Analyst at the Office of Science and Technology Policy