By Barbara Hulit
At a meeting of my peers, I often wonder why there are so few female business leaders, especially in the STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — industries so vital to our state’s economic prosperity and national security.
The stats are grim: Women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, a number that has been stagnant throughout the past decade, even as college-educated women have grown their share in the overall workforce.
While there is definitely a gender issue at play, STEM is saddled with a bigger PR problem as evidenced by the fact that 61 percent of middle school students would rather take out the garbage than do their math homework.
As a daughter of a public school teacher, I’m a passionate education advocate. I believe that providing a quality education is the single most important thing we can do to support the next generation. But I also know that the building blocks of education need to look different today than when my mom started teaching back in the 1950s.
Today, a solid foundation in science, technology, engineering, and math is no longer the purview of rocket scientists. In the next decade alone, almost all of the fastest-growing jobs will require STEM skills.
At Fluke Corporation, where I was fortunate to serve as president for seven years, being STEM literate is a prerequisite for success no matter the position — from our design team and manufacturers to our sales force. This isn’t unique to STEM businesses like ours. STEM skills are a key currency in the modern workplace and everyday life; they should be at the heart of how we define basic education in the 21st century.
This is especially critical in Washington state, which is a national STEM leader. From the Olympic Peninsula to Puget Sound to Spokane Valley, Washington is a STEM-fueled economy. Our state’s strong rebound from the recession was in large part due to our strength in science, new technologies, and engineering — from titans like Microsoft, Boeing, and Amazon to startups like Big Fish, Zulily, and DreamBox Learning.
Washington can only maintain its number-one state ranking in the concentration of STEM jobs if we ensure a high-quality and homegrown work force. Unfortunately, this is not currently the case. Our state has the second-fastest growing gap between the STEM jobs our economy is generating and the skills our students are learning. You don’t have to be a math major to know this isn’t sustainable.
Despite these depressing statistics, now, for the first time, I’m hopeful that we Washingtonians are going to lead the charge in giving our students the robust STEM education they need and that our economy requires.
The movement afoot is coming from many directions. Washington STEM, a STEM education nonprofit, is leading the charge by seeding STEM Networks in regions across the state with the goal to support student success in STEM in alignment with local economic development. The timing couldn’t be better. This growing statewide system will accelerate the spread of best practices supporting teachers as they implement the new Common Core standards in mathematics that are rolling out this school year.
Momentum is also being spurred by leadership from Gov. Jay Inslee and strong bipartisan support that rallied around and recently signed into law Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1872. This bold, comprehensive law will bring about greater coordination, innovation, and accountability of STEM education efforts statewide. Specifically, it aligns state agencies and resources around a comprehensive PK-20 STEM education strategy and evidence-based framework for accountability. It also sets up a pathway for the state to invest alongside Washington STEM to ensure we are preparing all Washington students for success in today’s STEM-rich world.
ESSHB 1872 is a big win for our students and our state. Its passage also demonstrates that STEM is a bipartisan issue in Washington.
Let’s continue to work together, across party lines, and build upon this momentum to make Washington not just a STEM industry leader, but the STEM education leader that our students need and deserve.
Barbara Hulit is the former president of the Fluke Corporation, based in Everett, and current senior vice president of Danaher Corporation, the parent company of Fluke Corporation. She serves on the boards of Washington STEM, the Pacific Science Center, Washington Roundtable, and Partnership for Learning.