The House easily cleared legislation sponsored by Rep. Barbara Comstock that would call on NASA to continue three initiatives supporting women’s involvement in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and aerospace, and develop a plan to leverage NASA’s workforce to inspire girls to enter these fields.
On March 22, by a vote of 380 to 3, the House agreed without controversy to Rep. Barbara Comstock’s (R-VA) “Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act,” sending the legislation to the Senate for consideration by that chamber. The bill would call on NASA to continue three of its ongoing initiatives focused on stimulating young girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and to develop a plan to leverage the space agency’s current and former personnel to inspire girls to enter STEM fields, especially aerospace.
The three initiatives highlighted in the legislation are: NASA GIRLS and NASA BOYS, a virtual mentoring program that matches NASA employees with young students anywhere in the country for video chats; Aspire to Inspire, in which early career women at NASA engage young girls in discussion about STEM study and career opportunities; and the Summer Institute in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Research at which middle school girls interact with women employees at Goddard Space Flight Center.
The bill also would direct NASA to submit a plan to Congress explaining how it would call on both current and retired astronauts, scientists, engineers, and innovators to “inspire the next generation of women” to consider participating in STEM fields and pursuing careers in aerospace.
Before coming to the House floor on Tuesday, the legislation had already received the backing of House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). Smith spoke briefly on the House floor, saying that women are underrepresented in STEM careers and that supporting women’s involvement in aerospace and space exploration should be a part of NASA’s mission.
“Space can be a catalyst for inspiring young girls to enter the STEM fields,” said Smith.
In her floor speech, Comstock explained that employees are in high demand in STEM fields even as women pursue these positions in fewer numbers: “Unfortunately, current statistics show that women are less likely to focus on STEM-related studies in college and, of the women who pursue these areas of study, only 26 percent will ultimately work in STEM-related fields.”
According to the National Science Board’s 2016 Science & Engineering Indicators report, about 39 percent of scientists and engineers who have achieved the highest degree in their respective fields are women. Although this is a move toward gender parity from 1993, when 31 percent of scientists and engineers with the highest degrees in their fields were women, women continue to be underrepresented and receive significantly lower pay than men once in STEM careers.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) concurred with the importance of promoting diversity at NASA and in STEM and emphasized that both women and minorities, including blacks and Latinos, are underrepresented.
Lee noted that in some fields such as the social sciences and biological sciences, women are more fairly represented or even predominate. According to the Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 report, women comprise 62 percent of the social sciences workforce and 48 percent of the biological, agricultural, and environmental life sciences workforce. In the physical sciences, women comprise 31 percent of the workforce. Among physicists and astronomers specifically, women comprise a mere 11 percent.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) spoke for the bill on the floor, describing her first-hand experience witnessing young girls’ excitement about NASA science on the International Space Station:
It is almost impossible to overstate the value of exposing young students to STEM role models who look like them.
She added that research has shown that middle school is a crucial time to engage girls in pursuing careers in science.
With the House having cleared the “INSPIRE Women Act,” the ball is now in the Senate’s court to act.