Keeping STEM fields inclusive in a post-Dobbs world (opinion)



Engineering research and development depends on a large and diverse workforce to sustain innovation and train the next generation of engineers. But the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and newly enacted state laws will compromise our continued ability to educate, recruit, and retain women in engineering and STEM disciplines in which they are already underrepresented and historically marginalized. This will impact engineering prospects nationwide, so we as a profession need to understand how these decisions and laws will affect women, and we need to expand our inclusive practices with intentionality.

On campuses and in the workplace, women who experience complications during pregnancy, including ectopic pregnancies, miscarriages, and the consequences of concurrent treatment for cancer or chronic illnesses, have lost or will lose soon access to health services. In some places, these services have included the availability and payment for certain contraceptives such as intrauterine devices, morning-after pills, and hormonal supplements, including implants. The health consequences for women are likely to be dire, especially black women, who are already three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.

Biomedical engineering is a discipline that has seen extraordinary growth in the number of women in the classroom and in the profession over the past 50 years. Today, approximately 50% of undergraduate graduate students in biomedical engineering are women. As senior women in the academy, we have decades of experience with trainees, staff and peers, especially women, who look to us for personal and professional advice and support. People suffering from difficulties encountered during pregnancy and in managing the use of contraceptives have often asked us for advice and arrangements. Follow-up medical care for miscarriage, occurring in more than one in five pregnancies, involves days of patience, pain and personal suffering, and it was readily available in pre-Dobbs times. But in the post-Dobbs world, our ability to support these interns, staff, and peers will be drastically reduced.

We also need to understand the history of the criminalization of women and health care providers in the United States. Since 2000, more than 60 patients or healthcare providers have reportedly been criminally investigated or arrested for playing a role in the medical management of pregnancy termination. This happened in 26 states, during a period when termination of pregnancy was protected by law under the US Constitution. Today, constitutional protection no longer exists.

Thus, criminal prosecutions against patients and providers are likely to increase following Dobbs v. Jackson. In many places, women now live with tangible fear and shame about their sexuality and medical care. In this culture of uncertainty, faculty members and interns will make choices to support safe and secure lives for themselves, their children, and their partners.

Campus leaders and STEM faculty can take steps to recognize these challenges and rethink our approach to recruiting and retaining women and all marginalized groups in our disciplines. We need to educate ourselves to speak knowledgeably about changes in healthcare access in our local communities when communicating with recruits in our departments and labs. Engineers are not trained or often prepared to have such conversations with their colleagues and interns, but we must make the effort to self-educate and communicate our support for women in STEM.

Women may no longer feel comfortable discussing these topics with counsellors, mentors and employers. Therefore, we must strive to feel comfortable discussing reproductive health with women and their caregivers. This means openly sharing information about contraceptive care on our campus and in the local area, associated costs and insurance coverage provided by the facility, and the availability of broad and comprehensive reproductive health services at select local hospitals and urgent care centers. And we need to be knowledgeable about racial disparities in health and health care access that may be front and center in the minds of our underrepresented minority and other colleagues.

We must also recognize that success in engineering research and teaching generally requires travel and collaboration with others across the country. Visiting a new institution or attending a conference can create a whole new set of questions and challenges for women, as is the case for many marginalized groups today. Locally imposed laws and barriers are likely to impact the opportunities and career paths of even more engineers in our post-Dobbs world.

Professors and academic leaders should have ready-made answers to questions about the local climate for criminal prosecutions of women and their providers. Without the protection of Roe v. Wade, long-standing legal rulings regarding abortion are enacted in a pattern that varies by state. We must lean on faculty colleagues in every state for advocacy, knowledge sharing, and collaborative decision-making to support all women in our engineering communities. Learning strategies that support women in response to the Dobbs decision may become even more relevant due to threats of action against other marginalized groups who also face challenges in some states, such as same-sex couples, transgender people and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Any loss of talent and diversity in the next generation of engineers and those engaged in STEM research and development will weaken innovation and slow progress in solving the grand challenges we face in this country. The nascent engineering research to advance women’s reproductive health will once again be delayed. Researchers and innovators seeking to study the reproductive health of women, many of whom are women themselves, need protections and support to continue their important work.

We have come a long way in attracting women to a discipline that has been and still is dominated by men. Throughout our careers, our leaders have rarely resembled us or shared our life experiences. The SCOTUS decision in Dobbs v. Jackson further divides people with different life experiences in our discipline and threatens our 50 years of progress in engineering diversity. Because the same threat exists in all STEM disciplines, we encourage all of our colleagues, in all engineering disciplines, to actively invest in understanding the challenges facing women so they can speak out with knowledge. of these problems. And we urge them to work with us in ways that demonstrate our shared responsibility to support and strengthen inclusion in engineering.

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