Engineering research and development depend on a large and diverse workforce to support innovation and to educate the next generation of engineers. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and newly enacted state laws will jeopardize our continued ability to educate, recruit and retain women in engineering and STEM disciplines in which they already are underrepresented and historically marginalized. That will impact engineering prospects nationwide, so we as a profession need to understand how these rulings and laws will affect women, and we need to expand our inclusive practices with intentionality.
Across campuses and workplaces, women who experience complications during pregnancy—including ectopic pregnancies, miscarriages and the consequences of simultaneous cancer treatment or chronic health conditions—have lost or will soon lose access to health-care services. In some places, those services have included the availability of—and payments 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 one discipline that has witnessed extraordinary growth in numbers of women in the classroom and the profession over the last 50 years—now around 50 percent of graduating undergraduate students in biomedical engineering are women. As senior women in the academy, we have had decades of experience with trainees, staff members and peers—especially women—turning to us for both personal and professional guidance and support. Those suffering through challenges encountered during pregnancy and in managing the use of contraceptives have often asked us for advice and accommodations. Follow-on medical care for a miscarriage, occurring in more than one of every five pregnancies, involves days of patience, pain and personal suffering, and it was readily accessible in the pre-Dobbs era. But in the post-Dobbs world, our ability to support those trainees, staff members and peers will be radically curtailed.
We also need to understand the history of criminalization of women and health-care providers in the United States. Since 2000, more than 60 patients or health-care providers have reportedly been criminally investigated or arrested for playing a role in medication management of pregnancy termination. That occurred in 26 states, during a period when pregnancy termination was protected by law under the U.S. Constitution. Today, constitutional protection no longer exists.
Thus, criminal action against patients and providers is likely to increase following the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling. In many places, women now live with tangible fear and shame around their sexuality and their medical care. In this culture of uncertainty, faculty members and trainees will be making choices to support safe and harm-free living for themselves, their children and their partners.
Campus leaders and STEM faculty can take steps to recognize those challenges and rethink how we approach recruiting and retaining women and all marginalized groups in our disciplines. We must educate ourselves to speak knowledgeably about changes to health-care access in our local communities when communicating with recruits to our departments and laboratories. Engineers are not taught or often prepared to have such conversations with their colleagues and trainees, yet we must make the effort to self-educate and communicate our support of women in STEM.
Women may no longer feel comfortable raising these topics with advisers, mentors and employers. Therefore, we must work to become comfortable discussing reproductive health with women and those who care about them. That means openly sharing information about contraceptive care on our campus and in the local region, associated costs and institution-provided insurance coverage, and the availability of broad and comprehensive reproductive health services in select local hospitals and urgent care centers. And we must be knowledgeable about race-based health and health-care access disparities that may be forefront in the minds of our underrepresented minority and other colleagues.
We must also recognize that success in engineering research and education typically requires travel and collaborating with others around the country. Visiting a new institution or attending a conference may create a whole new set of questions and challenges for women, as is currently the situation for many marginalized groups. Locally imposed laws and barriers are likely to impact opportunity and the professional pathways of even more engineers and engineering women in our post-Dobbs world.
Faculty and leaders in academe should have ready answers to questions about the local climate for criminal prosecution of women and their providers. Without the protection of Roe v. Wade, long-standing legal rulings around abortion are being enacted in a pattern that varies by state. We need to lean on faculty colleagues across state lines for advocacy, shared knowledge and collaborative decision-making to support all women in our engineering communities. Learning from strategies that support women in response to the Dobbs decision may become even more broadly relevant because of threatened actions against other marginalized groups who also face challenges in some states—such as same-sex couples, transgender persons and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Any loss of talent and diversity in the next generation of engineers and in those engaged in STEM research and development will weaken innovation and slow progress in solving the grand challenges we face in this country. Nascent engineering research to advance women’s reproductive health will be set back yet again. Researchers and innovators who seek to study women’s reproductive health, a large number of whom are women themselves, need protections and support to continue their important work.
We have come far in attracting women to a discipline that has been, and still is, dominated by men. Throughout our careers, our leaders have rarely looked like us or shared our life experiences. The SCOTUS ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson further divides people with different life experiences in our discipline and threatens our 50 years of progress in diversifying engineering. Because the same threat exists in all STEM disciplines, we encourage all our colleagues, in all engineering disciplines, to actively invest in understanding the challenges facing women so they can speak knowledgeably about those issues. And we urge them work together with us to in ways that demonstrate our shared responsibility to support and strengthen inclusion in engineering.