Michelle Obama
Introduces Family-Friendly
NSF Initiative


First Lady Michelle Obama addresses the NSF Life-Balance Initiative at the White House. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.

In an impassioned speech before 140 VIPs from the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) arena, including ASME President Victoria Rockwell, First Lady Michelle Obama stressed the importance of retaining women in STEM careers and announced a new National Science Foundation initiative that aims to do just that.

“If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, then we have to open doors to everyone,” Obama said. “We need all hands on deck. And that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.”

Mrs. Obama’s remarks were part of an event held September 26 at the White House to unveil the NSF Life Balance Initiative, a new program the agency has developed to provide greater work-related flexibility to women and men receiving NSF grants and fellowships for their research work.

Although women currently earn 41% of all doctoral degrees in STEM fields, they comprise only 28% of tenure-track faculty in those fields, and a key reason for that dropoff is the difficulty women face when balancing a career with starting a family, the NSF said. Reducing the dropout rate of women in STEM careers is especially important because women in STEM jobs earn 33% more than those in non-STEM occupations and the wage gap between men and women in STEM jobs is smaller than in other fields, according to the agency.

(From left) NSF Director Subra Suresh; White House Council on Women and Girls Executive Director Tina Chen; Robert Birgeneau, chancellor, California Univ., Berkeley; Monica Cox, associate professor, Purdue Univ.; and Katherine T. Hunt, director of technology collaboration development, Dow Chemical.

The NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative offers researchers a clear set of family-friendly policies and practices intended to make it easier to balance career and family demands. The NSF, which is a leading source of federal grants for fields that lead to U.S. technology development and job creation, expects the initiative to apply to all of the organization’s grant and fellowship programs within the next 10 years. The agency is also optimistic that similar programs will be adopted in industry, academia, and other government agencies throughout the U.S., according to NSF Director Subra Suresh.

Referring to the new initiative, which includes provisions for grant recipients to postpone or suspend their grants for childbirth, adoption, and family leave for up to one year, Obama said, “The folks at the NSF understand that you shouldn’t be penalized or lose a chance to advance in your career because you are taking care of a new child or a mom or dad who's gotten sick. We all know that when you take steps to make life easier for working parents, it’s a win for everyone.”

The NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative, which Dr. Suresh outlined later in the press conference, will also provide funds for the hiring of research technicians to cover researchers who are on family leave and ensure that family-friendly work opportunities are publicized throughout the organization. Through the program, the NSF also hopes to promote greater flexibility for parents who are grant proposal reviewers by offering the option of conducting their reviews virtually, and seeks to encourage the submission of proposals that would lead to more effective policies for keeping women in the STEM pipeline. In addition, the plan is intended to help the agency foster partnerships with universities that encourage tenure-clock extension and couples-hiring opportunities that may encourage women to stay on the STEM career path.

Introducing the First Lady was a young woman currently navigating that path, Michelle Del Rio. A graduate student at the Foster School of Medicine at Texas Tech Health Science Center, El Paso, and president of the Association of Women in Science, El Paso chapter, Del Rio is the child of two working parents with limited resources, and is intimately familiar with the difficult decisions facing women pursuing science careers.

“As the oldest of three children, I was expected to get a job and dedicate my life to raising my siblings and helping my parents with housework,” she said. “But I wanted to go to college and study science. And though my family couldn’t support me, or fully understand why I wanted to go, I decided to do it.” Del Rio juggled two part-time jobs and took care of her younger brother and sister while she was enrolled full-time in college. Despite the obstacles, Del Rio graduated at 22 with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences with minors in chemistry, psychology, and Spanish.

Del Rio, whose plans include marrying her engineer boyfriend and starting a family in addition to pursuing a career in medicine, was optimistic that initiatives like the NSF’s would help other women reach their professional goals. “I know that my needs to manage many priorities will only continue,” she said. “But I’m excited to hear that people are working to make it easier for me and the girls I mentioned in my community who will one day follow in my footsteps. I look back now and see all of the obstacles I have had to overcome to even get this far. I hope that today we can remove a few more. “

In addition to ASME President Rockwell, the society was also represented at the invitation-only event by ASME member Dr. Mary Kasarda. Kasarda, an ASME Fellow and active volunteer with the society’s Center for Education, is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech.

We all know that when you take steps to make life easier for working parents, it’s a win for everyone.

Michelle Obama


October 2011

by Benedict Bahner, ASME.org