Michelle Obama annouces new NSF undertakings to improve work-life balance and STEM careers for women


Image credits: WhiteHouse.gov livestream
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This afternoon, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at a White House event about the importance of supporting and retaining women and girls in STEM careers. 

“If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for everyone,” said Obama.  “We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).”

Women currently earn 41% of PhDs in STEM fields but make up only 28% of tenure-track faculty in those fields. Women in STEM jobs earn 33% more than those in non-STEM occupations, and the wage gap between men and women in STEM jobs is smaller than in other fields. 

The webcast began with National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Subra Suresh introducing the agency's new undertaking, the NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative, a 10-year plan to provide greater work-related flexibility to women and men in research careers. The goal is to enhance the nation's ability to recruit and retain talented scientists and engineers.

“Jump-starting girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math—the so-called STEM subjects—and boosting the percentage of women employed in science and engineering is not just the right thing to do but is also the smart thing to do for America’s future and the economy,” said White House Council on Women and Girls Executive Director Tina Tchen.

The NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative will also:

  • Allow researchers to delay or suspend their grants for up to one year at no cost in order to care for a newborn or newly adopted child or fulfill other family obligations.
  • Provide supplements to cover research technicians with stipends to maintain labs while PIs are on family leave.
  • Offer greater opportunities to STEM researchers who review the grant proposals of their peers to conduct virtual reviews rather than travel, increasing flexibility and reducing dependent-care needs.
  • Support submission of proposals for research that would asses the effectiveness of policies aimed at keeping women in the STEM pipeline.
  • Leverage existing NSF relationships with academic institutions to encourage the extension of the tenure clock and allow for dual hiring opportunities.

Several independent organizations and academic associations also announced STEM-related initiatives today in coordination with NSF and the White House, including:

  • The White House Council on Women and Girls and Office of Science and Technology Policy are launching a “Women in STEM Speakers Bureau” to engage girls in grades 6-12 with women scientists.
  • The National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity is expanding its signature initiative, the STEM Equity Pipeline, to provide professional development training for high-school and community college faculty and staff in STEM fields.
  • The Association for Women in Science is launching a new initiative to improve STEM workplaces by bringing together representatives from government, industry, and academia to promote gender equality and retention, re-entry, and re-training for women. 
  • The National Girls Collaborative Project is launching the FabFems Project to promote career development for young female STEM students through an online networking platform that will include female educators and professionals in STEM fields.
  • The American Association of University Women is expanding successful regional programs aimed at engaging girls in STEM subjects to a national level.

The First Lady took the podium to speak to the importance of all of these initiatives in order for the US to be successful in science and economically.

"We need to educate the scientist who will make the next big discovery to fuel our economy," Obama said. "If we're going to out-innovate the rest of the world, we can't afford to leave anyone behind."

She continued to say that these changes have to begin at the elementary school level, "lighting the spark" in young girls. But then it will require keeping them engaged through high school and college and showing them that these careers are viable options for women.

For working women who struggle with their careers while taking care of children or elderly parents, the highest rungs of the career ladder can seem out of reach. In STEM fields, taking time for family sometimes means those rungs are out of reach entirely. These initiatives are meant to change that so that girls can see a future in STEM careers. Giving families these options reduces absenteeism and turnover and lets companies attract and retain the best workers.

"Some may think that during difficult economic times, flexible policies are the last thing we should be thinking about," Obama said. "But in this environment, flexible policies become more important. When folks are struggling to make ends meet, when every day is a high wire act, and the checkbook is balanced on the thinnest edge, no one should be forced to choose between caring for their family and losing their job. And no employer should have to lose an employee because life happens."

"We've got to do everything we can to keep fueling this country's engine of innovation and discovery," she concluded.

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