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On the Commercialization Path—New NWBC Research on Women in STEM

Immediately before members of Congress went into their late February recess, the House of Representatives and Senate passed two bills explicitly designed to promote women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics professions, and presented them to the White House.  Tuesday, February 28, President Trump signed these two bills—The INSPIRE Women Act, and The Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act—into law.  The National Women’s Business Council’s latest research supports the need for solutions such as these that seek to address the disparity between men and women’s STEM workforce participation and commercialization efforts.

While women make up more than half of all college students and now surpass men in attaining undergraduate degrees, the National Women’s Business Council’s new report, On the Commercialization Path: Entrepreneurship and Intellectual Property Outputs among Women in Stem, reveals that women are underrepresented among students pursuing STEM education.  Moreover, the report demonstrates that this gender gap persists among STEM business owners, of which women comprise less than one-third.  These disproportions in education and business entrepreneurship are particularly pronounced in the areas of technology and engineering, in which the men business owners outnumber women business owners 4 to one and 6 to one, respectively.

NWBC’s report specifically emphasizes the importance of funding programs that encourage female and minority students’ pursuit of STEM careers, and suggests the need for federal and local support of such programs.  The bills signed into law on Tuesday represent strong strides in this direction; let’s examine what they aim to do.

The INSPIRE Women Act

Immediately after the New Year, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10) introduced H.R. 321: Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Act in the House.  A similar version of the bill had passed the House of Representatives in the 114th Congress; this time, the bill passed both chambers.  As described in its formal summary, “[t]his bill directs the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to encourage women and girls to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), pursue careers in aerospace, and further advance the nation's space science and exploration efforts” through the support of several existing NASA programs.

The bill also requires NASA to share a detailed plan for how it will coordinate engagement between STEM professionals and K-12 female STEM students.

After its passage in the House, Rep. Comstock referenced the recent film, Hidden Figures, saying, “The INSPIRE Women Act will afford opportunities to a future generation of women leaders who will have a similar impact on our nation’s history and maybe, one day, put a woman on Mars.”  Her statement touched on themes of leadership, innovation, and young women’s empowerment, as did that of her colleague, Senator Dean Heller (R-NV), who shepherded the bill through the Senate.

The Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act

H.R. 255: The Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act, introduced in prior sessions of Congress, sponsored by Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT-5), makes an explicit connection between STEM training and commercialization.  This bill “amends the Science and Engineering Equal Opportunities Act to authorize the National Science Foundation to encourage its entrepreneurial programs to recruit and support women to extend their focus beyond the laboratory and into the commercial world” (source).

Commercialization is the act of bringing research to market in the form of products or processes.   Think of it as the art of turning innovation into an innovation.  While not unique to STEM fields, research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics often points the way to cutting edge goods or methods.  Consider the potential pathway to innovation highlighted by the U.S. Department of Energy here; learn more about the government’s initiative to support and fund commercialization efforts here.

Although commercialization is broader than just the patent process, Hunt, et al. found in 2012 that if the rate of females commercializing science and engineering were raised so as to eliminate male-female patenting rate gap in these fields, “this would increase the number of commercialized patents by 23.6%”.  Other recent research conducted by the SBA Office of Advocacy demonstrates that even within specific STEM fields, male PhDs are more likely that female PhDs to be small business owners or employed by start-ups.  These disparities raise questions about the challenges faced by women on the path to commercialization, and further underscore the benefit of legislation promoting entrepreneurial and STEM training and support for women.

Today, the National Women’s Business Council enters this conversation and seeks to answer these questions with its latest report, On the Commercialization Path: Entrepreneurship and Intellectual Property Outputs among Women in STEM.  Read more here.


Author: Annie Rorem, Senior Research Manager at the National Women’s Business Council.

This piece originally appeared in The Hill on March 4, 2017.