On May 16, 2023, a dedicated group of Association for Women in Science (AWIS) members went to Capitol Hill to engage with congressional staff members. This was our first in-person advocacy day since 2018. Our leader, AWIS Senior Counsel Advocacy and Government Relations, Miriam Erickson, had scheduled meetings with key leaders of STEM caucuses and committees who understand the importance of investing in STEM to drive the economy and retain US competitiveness.
As we worked to develop relationships with these leaders, we wanted to ensure that they also understand the barriers that women face and the importance of equity in STEM. Fortunately, we found sympathetic listeners because several of the staff members were women scientists! They needed no convincing about our issues, so we discussed the relevance of the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) and Science Act and of appropriation priorities. We focused on the following key points as we shared stories from our own members at AWIS:
Establishing Equal Rights and Equal Pay
The members of our group emphasized the importance of equal rights and equal pay for all individuals in STEM fields. This advocacy point is of utmost significance and aligns with Section 104 of the CHIPS and Science Act, which recognizes the criticalness of fostering diversity and inclusivity within STEM. Women in STEM fields often find themselves burdened with “housekeeping tasks” that are not equally valued and which don’t contribute to their career advancement. We advocated for policies and incentives to fairly compensate individuals based on their skills and contributions.
Funding Scientific Research
We stressed the need for increased funding for scientific research, not only to propel scientific advancements in knowledge but also to generate opportunities for recognition and career growth for women. Notably, Section 10113 of the CHIPS and Science Act specifically centers on the establishment of programs aimed at fostering competitive research. These programs can be specifically tailored to allocate appropriations for grants that support early-career women faculty members in academia, who are often overlooked and who face challenges in obtaining necessary support, due to juggling various household responsibilities. The staffers we engaged with acknowledged the bipartisan complexity involved in these appropriations. They encouraged advocacy support from AWIS, saying it could help them make the case for this funding during the appropriations process.
Promoting Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Accessibility
Our members also underscored the need for policies that promote diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility, a focus that aligns with Section 10313 of the CHIPS and Science Act. We proposed such solutions as incentivizing institutional reform. Institution-driven diversity initiatives can alleviate the burden faced by STEM trainees who often experience challenges associated with low income and a lack of health-care benefits. One congressional office that we visited mentioned their current legislative efforts to support postdoctoral students, and AWIS plans to endorse these efforts.
Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Toxic Environments
We highlighted the urgent need to address and eliminate sexual harassment and toxic environments within the STEM community, and we focused on the fact that women who raise concerns about sexual harassment in male-dominated STEM fields often fear retaliation and isolation. Our team suggested a comprehensive reevaluation of Title IX to ensure that it considers the overall circumstances and compromises that may occur behind closed doors. The current policies, as they stand, often lack the necessary enforcement and fail to protect victims.
The CHIPS and Science Act included several provisions to prevent and mitigate sexual harassment in the academic STEM workforce: including the establishment of an interagency working group by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, updated guidance from the National Science Foundation and the National Academies, and assessment of these policies by the Government Accountability Office.
Protecting Women’s Reproductive Rights
Our team stressed the importance of allowing women to have control over their own childbearing decisions. Pregnancy can impact a person’s career trajectory, finances, and their physical and mental health. Childbearing decisions, therefore, should be personal. However, policies related to reproductive rights also impact organizations and local economies. One of our members highlighted a recent example, in which an international conference had to be relocated due to restrictions on women’s reproductive rights in the proposed hosting state. This case not only raised concerns within the scientific community regarding narrowed options for networking events, but it also highlighted the adverse impact on small business owners who otherwise would have benefited from the event.
Expanding Science Education
We also fervently advocated for the expansion of science education, particularly for girls and other underrepresented populations, emphasized the importance of early exposure to STEM subjects, and stressed the need for inclusive and accessible education programs. Section 10111 of the Science Act aims to enhance collaboration between teachers and scientists, to empower individuals from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue higher degrees, to foster innovation in pre-K-12 STEM education, and to extend educational outreach to rural areas. Additionally, we recognized the value of translating scientific knowledge into tangible assets, such as intellectual properties or scientific capital. Our team advocated for the implementation of policies that provide mentoring opportunities and other resources to effectively support women trainees.
Lastly, we called for the implementation of policies that support parents and other caregivers in STEM fields. We emphasized the necessity of offering flexible work arrangements, affordable childcare options, and family friendly policies to enable individuals to effectively balance their caregiving responsibilities with their pursuit of a fulfilling STEM career. Caregiving responsibilities still fall disproportionately on women. This unfair burden does not just impact parents; it also impacts adults caring for their elderly parents.
Additionally, international scholars who become parents often leave the United States to return to their extended families to receive the caregiving assistance they need. If the United States offered international scholars proper support in balancing their caregiving responsibilities, they might remain here. This perspective is directly relevant to Section 10114 of the Science Act, which pertains to retaining international scholars for research security purposes.
Thank you to everyone who took the time to join us in DC, especially those that flew in from Boston, Dallas, Raleigh, and Seattle! AWIS looks forward to working with these congressional offices and to furthering our advocacy work in the months ahead. Most of all, AWIS is here to listen to more personal stories from our own members and convey the concern to staff members on the next Capitol Hill Day!
Veronica Hong is a current graduate student in Dr. Benedict Kolber’s lab and Center for Advanced Pain Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. She is currently working on discovering a novel therapeutic target and developing a non-opioid drug to treat chronic pain.