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VIEWPOINT: Comprehensive approach needed to diversify STEM

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I still remember my first day on the job as a clinical nurse. Nervous, excited, ready to put my years of education to work.

After some first day jitters, I soon realized I’d found a career that was rewarding and challenging. Not only did it give me the opportunity to use hard skills in math and science, but it also gave me the ability to support my family and use those skills to help my community.

Bethany Hall-Long | PHOTO COURTESY OF DELAWARE GOVERNMENT

That is the promise of careers in STEM. But too many women and girls are getting left behind.

In Delaware, “STEM” careers in science, technology, engineering and math are some of the fastest growing in our state. Delawareans in STEM fields earn competitive salaries, and industries like biotech and life sciences are growing, fueling tens of thousands of Delaware jobs. As Delaware’s sole representative for the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL), I’ve seen how these careers transform communities and spark further innovation. Initiatives like the Delaware Prosperity Partnership and the Delaware Innovation Space are partnering with industry leaders to capitalize on this moment, providing mentorship and support to startups and marketing our state’s assets to other prospective employers. Our main sell? Delaware’s high concentration of residents working in STEM fields.

Now is the time to double down on retaining and growing our STEM workforce, and attracting women into STEM careers must be a key part of that strategy.

The disparities for women in STEM have long been documented. Despite making up 57% of the nation’s bachelor’s degree recipients, women make up only 38% of STEM degree recipients and 27% of workers in STEM jobs. These disparities start early, with evidence suggesting that girls begin to lose confidence in math as early as third grade. As they age, women face a host of barriers, including gender stereotypes and a lack of other women mentors – barriers that are even more pronounced for women of color.

In response, Delaware women are leading to find solutions. Women leaders in Delaware’s STEM companies have energized efforts to recruit young women to their fields. To address the mentorship gap, I joined as Honorary National Co-Chair of Million Women Mentors, an organization that connects girls and women with mentors and STEM education programs across the country. Thought leaders like the Delaware Foundation for Science & Mathematics Education and the Delaware STEM Council are leading policy solutions to improve STEM education in our schools. Their efforts were the foundation of a proclamation I signed with Governor Carney last year marking the first Delaware Women and Girls in STEM Day, an initiative devised by one of our bright STEM students at the University of Delaware.

But it’s not enough to just encourage more women to enter STEM careers – we must create the conditions for them to stay. A recent study found that women in STEM careers are twice as likely to leave the workforce, citing stress, burnout, and a lack of recognition. These findings challenge us to think outside the box to find solutions that reflect women’s experiences in the workplace and beyond.

Delaware must pursue a comprehensive approach to growing women’s ranks in our STEM workforce. That means creating early opportunities for girls to spark an interest in math and science, incorporating the arts in STEM curricula as a conduit to new learning and connections. It means leading more partnerships with our private sector, such as Chemours’ and Barclays’ investment in EastSide Charter’s new STEM Hub, which will expose kids to coding, lab experiences, and multimedia technology. And it means ensuring that women in STEM careers have the support they need to stay, with strong early childhood education options, paid family and medical leave and other smart policies that make Delaware an attractive place to live, work and raise a family.

We can ensure the next generation of women in STEM is stronger than the last. And we must.

Bethany Hall-Long serves as lieutenant governor of Delaware.

 

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