Increasing Diversity in STEM

We need successful diverse role models in STEM fields in order to demonstrate to diverse potential STEM-ers that success is possible. Those of us who are already somewhat established have the responsibility to “lift as we climb,” that is to advance our own careers while simultaneously mentoring and encouraging those a few steps behind us.

We also need STEM organizations to step up to support their diverse employees in these endeavors. This sometimes means adjusting a corporate culture, making accommodations for the needs of diverse employees, or rethinking the criteria truly necessary to scale the career ladder.

Bringing Down Gender Barriers in STEM

Thoughtless tradition can operate against the inclusion of women in STEM fields. For example, based on current estimates, only about 18 percent of those registered to prosecute patents before the USPTO are women.

Some women who have the technical ability to prosecute some types of patents are prevented from doing so because the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) qualifications for taking the patent bar do not include the type of degree they earned. For example, they did not earn an undergraduate degree in a traditional male-dominated field, such as electrical engineering. However, this would not prevent them from prosecuting patents in their own specific field of study. To its credit, the USPTO has recently issued a request for comments on proposed changes to requirements for admission to the patent bar to address this issue.

Moving Women Forward in STEM

The Highwomen have a song that identifies women as “a critical reason there’s a population.” The reality is that women disproportionately bear the burdens of reproduction, and if we want to retain and promote women in STEM, we must acknowledge this fact. In the short term, we must offer more generous paid maternity leave, provide opportunities to breast pump or breastfeed, and support paternity/ partner leave.

In the long term, that looks like reconsidering what a work day or career ladder needs to look like. When the pandemic hit, many companies were able to change to a remote-only environment with far fewer hiccups than expected. If that kind of massive change is possible practically overnight, I am convinced that far more flexibility could be granted to mothers who want to advance in their STEM careers.