Earlier this summer, AWIS and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) submitted a list of questions to both the Obama and McCain campaigns regarding the candidates' positions on issues which affect women in STEM.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have long since decided who I'm going to vote for, and my choice will soon become clear. Still, I'm curious to see what the candidates have to say in response to the questions, to determine which candidate might be more friendly to science & technology in general, and to women in STEM fields in particular. The answers from the campaigns of McCain and Obama are located here, and my take on the responses are below. (Note: I've abridged the questions for length.)
(1) As President of the United States, how do you plan to address the need for more women in STEM?
Obama: Lists specific measures: requiring minority & female representation on government panels, establishing mentoring programs, enforcement of Title IX, funding for COMPETES and NIH. But what about funding for NSF and NASA, for those of us in physical sciences?
McCain: Discrimination is abhorrent. duh. Mentions an overhaul of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but what does that have to do with encouraging girls in math and science?
Obama wins hands down here for actually answering the question, even if I might quibble about some of his ideas.
(2) What is your position on H.R. 6314, the “Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering” ?
Obama: "Joe Biden and I endorse these efforts." Oh good.
McCain: "I will closely examine any legislation addressing this issue that reaches my desk." Well, I would hope you'd closely examine any piece of legislation.
Obama wins, for actually expressing support.
(3) As President, how would you seek to ensure that Title IX is evenly applied to all sectors of academia, including STEM departments, rather than just athletics?
Obama: "Joe Biden and I will fight to make sure women have equal opportunities and access from pre-kindergarten through graduate school." No specifics beyond that vague promise.
McCain: Actually, it looks like McCain doesn't like Title IX at all. So I guess he thinks discrimination is abhorrent, but not so abhorrent that any laws should actually be put in place to fight it.
Obama wins. I sense a theme.
(4) What is your position on anti-affirmative action initiatives on ballots in Nebraska and Colorado?
Obama: Opposes the initiatives, but notes that affirmative action is "a useful, if limited, tool" and thinks that increasing opportunities for everyone is more effective. Talks about investment in education and supporting college students from low-income backgrounds.
McCain: "I support the initiatives." Thinks that problems would be solved by fixing poorly performing schools, which smacks of NCLB. Also, casting a wide net for recruitment.
Personally, I have mixed feelings on affirmative action, but ultimately share Obama's point of view, that it's a useful but limited tool. I also think that McCain's solutions are too limited. Casting a wide net for recruitment is a good thing, but changing the numbers of women and minorities means addressing more than just the schools that are performing poorly. So I'll have to give this one to Obama.
(5) As President, how do you plan to maintain and/or strengthen existing NSF programs targeted to increasing diversity in STEM education?
Obama: "The ADVANCE program, which aims at institutional transformation, has been hugely successful in creating academic environments that work for everyone." Kudos to Obama for recognizing this! Many programs that seek to help women to succeed help everybody, actually. He also notes that the "broader impact" criteria imposed on NSF grants are good for engaging minority groups.
McCain: "I will support programs that increase the representation of women in science fields in a cost-effective manner without resort to preferences on the basis of sex." That's pretty non-committal. In fact, I would go so far as to read between the lines here and interpret this to mean that McCain does not favor programs that refer to women and minorities at all for fear that they might somehow favor them.
Again, Obama wins.
(6) What do you believe is the responsibility of the federal government with regard to paid family leave?
Obama: He doesn't seem to support efforts by the federal government, but would like to see paid-leave programs instituted by the states. But, he'll provide $1.5 billion to help states implement these programs.
McCain: He's such a maverick, he actually voted for FMLA! Boasts that he "co-sponsored the Family Friendly Workplace Act, which would permit employees to receive paid time off in lieu of overtime wages if they so choose." Which doesn't sound like much of a maternity/paternity leave plan to me. He's in favor of flexible workplace policies including telecommuting.
This is actually a bit of a draw. Obama makes no commitment at the federal level, except for helping fund state initiatives. McCain favors flexible work options, which do help working parents. Neither of them addresses the issue that family leave policies in the US are pathetic compared to most industrialized nations.
(7) To date, appropriations for the America COMPETES programs have not been consistent with the levels authorized by this bill. As President, how will you seek to ensure that this law is followed and that these funding levels are realized?
Obama: "I co-sponsored the America COMPETES Act and added several amendments that help to improve the diversity of our STEM workforce." Obama wins big points here. Notes that's he's strongly committed to increasing funding levels at NSF, DoE, NIST, and NIH. (But you left out NASA!)
McCain: "I will fully fund the America COMPETES Act." Yay.
I give Obama the win here, for co-sponsoring COMPETES, and noting that diversity is a part of it.
As if there were any doubt, I am an Obama supporter. His support of science and diversity in science only bolsters my opinion of him. While I like that he expresses support for federal funding agencies, I'm a bit befuddled that he specifically brings up NIH in addition to NSF and NIST, but not NASA, for instance. I mean, yes, there are lots of women in biological sciences, and they should be fully supported and not have to face discrimination. (And yes, they still do, even as PhDs in bio-sciences reach or even surpass gender parity.) However, not all women scientists are biologists. In fact, some of us women scientists (and engineers) are supported by agencies like NASA, which is conspicuous by its omission in any of the discussion.