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Women in STEM: Representation Matters

By Laurie Locascio, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) 

Growing up as a scientist, I did not see role models who looked like me. I grew up in a small town where my father was a physicist — and my role model.  He nurtured me to be a scientist just like him. I am so grateful he did not have different expectations for me and my brothers. He always told me that I could be anything that I wanted to be. Today, I am a Ph.D. scientist, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). All of these are professional roles that fulfill me and in which I am incredibly honored to serve.

During my career, I have seen that many women in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM), have had similar experiences as they advanced in education and at work: A paucity of women in STEM has meant that some of our most impactful advocates and mentors have been people different from us.

This is changing as women increasingly enter STEM fields. According to the National Science Foundation, the STEM workforce increased by 20% in the decade ending in 2021. While women have not yet achieved parity with men in STEM fields, the number of women entering STEM fields increased faster — by 31% — than the number of men entering STEM (up 15%). Today, more than ever, women can look around their labs and offices and see younger versions of themselves conducting experiments, analyzing data and designs, writing code and equations, and running algorithms.

While the data is encouraging, America needs still more diversity in STEM fields. As a scientist and leader of technical organizations, I’ve seen the positive impact that diversity and representation have on science. Work groups with more diversity are more creative. Their solutions to technical and other problems are more innovative.

Further, if we don’t recruit more people who have been underrepresented in STEM, some fields will face a potentially devastating shortfall in degree holders. For example, when you map the projected growth of the U.S. semiconductor sector with the current rate at which technical degrees are granted, the industry may have roughly 67,000 unfilled jobs at the end of the decade.

Georgetown School of Foreign Service

To fill this gap, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo has called for the nation to triple the number of graduates in semiconductor-related fields, including engineering. To do that, we must bring more women and people of color into the workforce. Currently, women represent just 10% to 25% of the semiconductor industry, and historically underrepresented groups make up only 20%.

CHIPS for America, which is being implemented by NIST, is encouraging workforce strategies to ensure a highly skilled, diverse workforce to meet the program’s goal of establishing a semiconductor manufacturing and research and development base in the United States. And women are a big part of this equation.

Representation matters. When people learn about the achievements of people with whom they identify, they believe they can achieve them, too. Role models and mentors also can help people from underrepresented groups with the skills and support they need to overcome barriers to becoming a STEM professional.  

In response to Secretary Raimondo’s call for more women in the semiconductor workforce, women who are STEM professionals within the Department of Commerce have committed to act.

On March 18, 2024, I participated in the launch of the Women in STEM Ambassador Program. These ambassadors will participate in programs at schools, colleges, and conferences to raise awareness about opportunities for women in the semiconductor industry and inspire interest in engineering and related STEM fields. As an ambassador, I am proud to be a part of this group and will continue to use my role as NIST Director to encourage women to pursue careers in STEM.

The Women in STEM Ambassador Program, along with CHIPS for America workforce programs, are about much more than addressing a shortage of skilled professionals. Programs like this help make our economy work for all our citizens by expanding access to good jobs that include women, people of color, veterans, persons with disabilities, and rural populations.

This year’s Women’s History Month is theme, “Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.” Will you join me as an advocate for change?

By mentoring, showing, and encouraging representation, you can advocate for equity, diversity, and inclusion. A study by the University of Massachusetts showed that just four meetings between female mentors and female engineering students increased students’ feelings of belonging, confidence, and motivation, and increased their ambitions to pursue a post-graduate engineering degree.

You can also contribute to safe, inclusive spaces with your empathy and leadership. Use your position in your community and at your job to help other voices be heard. Stand up to inequalities when you see them. Inspire change, inspire others to change, and be part of creating a more diverse and equitable future for all.