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Equal Futures: Opening Doors to High-Quality Education and Career Opportunities for Women and Girls in STEM

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and 12 other international leaders officially launched the Equal Futures Partnership, a new multilateral initiative to break down barriers to women's political participation and economic opportunity.

Last week, at an event in New York City, 17-year-old Brittany Wenger joined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and 12 other international leaders for the official launch of the Equal Futures Partnership, a new multilateral initiative to break down barriers to women's political participation and economic opportunity. Brittany, Grand Prize winner of the Google Science Fair, was an honored guest at the launch of Equal Futures, which seeks to ensure that more young women like her have the chance to excel worldwide.

The US contribution to Equal Futures includes a renewed commitment to opening more doors to high-quality education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for women and girls, who currently hold only one-quarter of all US jobs in these fields despite making up nearly half of the total US workforce. These new efforts will build upon the President’s and First Lady's repeated calls for an “all-hands-on-deck” effort to break down barriers to attracting girls and retaining women in STEM fields. On average, STEM careers offer higher earning potential and job stability than non-STEM careers. Attracting more women to these careers benefits them and also allows society to reap their full human-capital potential.

Among the steps that Secretary Clinton and the White House announced in support of attracting and retaining women to STEM careers are improving data collection and dissemination on women in science and technology, bolstering the available pool of skilled STEM mentors, encouraging research-based STEM teaching, and helping to connect women to online and mobile STEM skills training.

In addition to the steps announced by Secretary Clinton and the White House last week, the following agencies will undertake new actions in support of the Equal Futures partnership:

  • Identifying women and girls as an underrepresented group in applicable STEM-education programs: Women account for more than half of students on US college campuses and represent a majority in certain STEM bachelor’s degree programs, including the biological sciences, yet they earn fewer than one in four engineering and computer science degrees. Recognizing this disparity, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) will pursue efforts to include women and girls in STEM-education programs that target underrepresented groups.
  • Encouraging research-based STEM teaching: Building on previous Administration efforts to support research and disseminate findings on whether and how STEM education resonates with students differently depending on gender, the National Science Foundation (NSF) intends to develop a Dear Colleague letter encouraging women- and girl-focused grant applications to existing research and workforce-development programs.

Additionally, a number of agencies are building upon existing efforts in support of the goals of Equal Futures:

  • Improving data collection and dissemination on the status of women and girls in STEM disciplines: NSF will encourage an expanded community of external researchers through existing funding opportunities related to large data sets known as "Big Data."
  • Helping academic STEM departments understand their responsibilities under Title IX: The Department of Education released a technical-assistance resource developed in partnership with the Department of Justice, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), DOE, NSF, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which will help academic STEM departments better understand their obligations regarding program access under Title IX.
  • Strengthening flexible-workplace policies: Certain science and technology (S&T) agencies will take additional steps to bolster existing workplace-flexibility policies for America's scientists and engineers. NASA will expand its new “Work from Anywhere” campaign and USDA will analyze workplace-flexibility policies at other S&T agencies to assess offering similar policies to grant recipients in agricultural sciences.

Taken together with the commitments of the private sector and partner countries, these new steps and the Equal Futures Partnership will help to improve not only the standing and leadership of women in the United States and abroad, but also the vitality of the world's economic and political institutions.

John P. Holdren is the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.