In Our View: STEM Must Welcome All

To be competitive globally, employers need to ensure women get to contribute

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First the good, uplifting, inspiring news: Four local high school students were honored this week as Southwest Washington winners in the first Congressional Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Academic Competition. Led by first-place winner Mason Bruce of Vancouver's St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic College Preparatory, the students were honored for software applications — or apps — they invented. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, was on hand to laud the students for their creative work, which reflects a push to boost STEM education across the country. And on Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new grant that will add to the state's efforts.

The need for such a push has been well-documented. A Georgetown University study last year indicated that employment in STEM fields is growing at the second-fastest rate of any economic sector, behind only health care. The growth is such that 8.6 million STEM-related positions are expected to be available by 2018, but the National Math and Science Initiative warns that as many as 3 million of those will go unfilled because of a lack of qualified employees.

Which brings us to the bad, deflating, uninspiring news: The same week that local students were honored for their innovations, a report from the National Science Foundation revealed that many women are leaving — or not entering — engineering fields because of a workplace culture of incivility toward them. "I wouldn't call it a hostile environment, but it's definitely chilly," said Nadya Fouad, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, who presented the report.

To be sure, inhospitable workplaces are not exclusive to engineering or other STEM fields. Incivility can be found in any profession, depending upon the existing culture and the type of leadership that is provided. But the situation is particularly disconcerting in male-centric engineering fields. According to The Washington Post, women have accounted for about 20 percent of all engineering degrees over the past two decades, yet fewer than 11 percent of all engineers are female.

Improving STEM education and attracting employees will be essential to the future economic security of the nation and to re-establishing a strong middle class. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 16 of the 25 highest-paying jobs in 2010 required STEM training; and according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM workers earn 26 percent more than their non-STEM peers. Those jobs will be crucial to rebuilding the economy in the wake of the Great Recession — if employers can find enough qualified workers. Women will need to play a role in that, and supervisors and company owners will need to create an appropriate workplace culture.

Fouad said: "We found that even women who are staying consider leaving because they don't have supervisor support. They don't have training and development opportunities. And their colleagues are incivil to them, belittle them, talk behind their backs and undermine them."

That is unacceptable in any workplace, and it is particularly critical in professions that compete in a worldwide marketplace. As Maria Cardona wrote last year for Huffington Post: "Our national response should be a sharper focus on and investment in STEM education to ensure we have the future innovators and entrepreneurs America will need to match its global competitors."

For the United States to reach its potential, women must be welcomed for their ability to become those future innovators and entrepreneurs.