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“All I could visualize, to be perfectly honest, was being a teacher, a social worker and a secretary,” said Rep. Susan A. Davis, D-Calif.
The women of Congress are working to change that dynamic and empower young women to see themselves in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — careers.
The congresswomen joined leaders from businesses, nonprofits and global corporations for a luncheon Wednesday hosted by the nonpartisan Million Women Mentors. The almost 150 people in attendance dined together to celebrate MWM’s efforts to promote mentoring young women in STEM fields.
STEM careers are the fastest-growing jobs in the United States, yet women make up only a quarter of STEM workers.
“There is a disconnect between positions America’s workforce needs and the fields young women are pursuing,” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y.
To bridge the gender gap and bolster the U.S. labor force, female leaders say young girls need to see STEM careers as an option through mentorships and exciting hands-on education.
“When you give a girl a chance to build a robot when she’s 5 or build a rocket when she’s 10, she will have the inspiration and the know-how to become interested in those fields and see her future in those fields,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and Kay Granger, R-Texas, are trying to do just that. The day after the luncheon, the lawmakers introduced HR 4161, the 21st Century STEM for Underrepresented Students Act.
The legislation would use grants from the National Science Foundation to fund research on STEM programs that work to engage elementary- and middle-school students who are typically underrepresented in STEM fields.
“High school and college are often too late to expose students to STEM. That effort must start earlier, and target underrepresented students such as girls, people of color, and those who have historically faced economic or other barriers to STEM achievement,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.
Edie Fraser, CEO of STEMconnector and co-founder of Million Women Mentors, said members of Congress are also working outside their chambers to boost women in STEM fields.
“What we’re seeing is that it’s not only legislation, but it’s the commitment to really build in their districts,” Fraser told CQ Roll Call. “They’re calling on corporations in their districts to make pledges to really find a million women mentors.”
The speakers praised Fraser, a spunky woman with short white hair and a Southern twang, as a persistent force behind the movement. “You don’t say ‘no’ to Edie Fraser,” said Wasserman Schultz. “It’s just that simple.”
The Florida Democrat was one of 13 congresswomen who addressed the MWM luncheon. Although only two Republicans spoke at the event, Fraser said, “We have received a tremendous amount of support across party lines.”
The senators and representatives were in and out of the luncheon, running back to their respective chambers to cast votes. “If there were more women in the Senate, we would not be conducting votes during meal time like we are right now,” joked Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Murkowski was introduced by representatives from the Girl Scouts of the United States of America, one of MWM’s partners. More than 50 national organizations have also joined MWM’s efforts, including Wal-Mart, General Motors, the National 4-H Council and the National Women’s Political Caucus.
While a handful of men represented these organizations, the focus was clearly on women’s role in STEM fields and what women can bring to the table. With women underrepresented in STEM careers, “we’re missing this huge brain trust and power,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said.
The representatives praised their fellow women, saying they can bring different skills to STEM careers compared with their male counterparts. “Women work twice as hard,” said Rep. Grace F. Napolitano, D-Calif. And Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq War veteran, elicited applause from the audience when she said, “If you need someone who can multitask in an aircraft . . . you need a woman to do that.”
The luncheon ended on an energetic note, as three representatives from the Science Cheerleaders brought everyone to their feet. “2-4-6-8! What do we appreciate? Girls! In! STEM!” chanted the attendees.
Following the luncheon, the leaders met with female ambassadors to the United States in an effort to expand their mentoring program worldwide.