Leadership in Transportation Research

In 1995, Lillian Borrone became the first woman to Chair the Executive Committee of the Transportation Research Board (TRB).  The Executive Committee is the senior policy body of TRB and its members are selected so as to provide a balanced representation of the transportation industry.  Today, in TRB’s 103rd year, Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti is serving as Executive Committee Chair, the 11th women to do so.  While it took seventy-five years for the first woman to be selected to lead this distinguished body, in the subsequent twenty-eight years, eleven women have assumed the role. This shift has been significant for TRB, and it really reflects how far the transportation industry itself has come – as well as how much work is still ahead to increase gender diversity in the transportation sector. 

One of the TRB Executive Committee’s many important functions in helping set the table for transportation research is regularly producing the Critical Issues in Transportation report. In the 2019 edition, “providing a capable and diverse workforce” was identified as a foundational element in addressing all the challenges facing the transportation industry.  While many transportation organizations have goals for increasing diversity, TRB’s work in this space has highlighted that success can only be achieved when the sector succeeds at both recruiting and retaining diverse talent. As early as 2003, a TRB report titled The Workforce Challenge: Recruiting, Training, and Retaining Qualified Workers for Transportation and Transit Agencies emphasized the importance of creating a work environment that is safe and welcoming to all. There must be equal opportunities for advancement, as well as consistent and attractive compensation/benefit packages.  

TRB’s mission is divided into three primary roles: to research, to convene, and to advise. Guidance in TRB’s Cooperative Research Programs reports such as Transportation Workforce Planning and Development Strategies, a Resource Guide for Improving Diversity and Inclusion Programs for the Public Transportation Industry, and Guidance for Diversity in Airport Business Contracting and Workforce Programs, may have been intended for a particular modal audience, but can be leveraged by the entire transportation workforce. As progress is made, guidance continues to evolve.   

Similarly, TRB’s Standing Technical Committees on Women and Gender in Transportation, Contracting Equity, as well as Workforce Development and Organizational Guidance, have convened to address issues that are unique to specific areas of the transportation industry, as well as topics that are common across the sector. Open committee meetings and other events encourage advancements as participants share research and hold active discussions. 

Lessons can also be learned for other STEMM fields.  TRB is one of 7 major programs within the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM).  A 2020 NASEM report entitled Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, makes actionable recommendations to leverage change and drive swift, coordinated improvements to the systems of education, research, and employment in order to improve both the representation and leadership of women.  Policy makers as well as institutions will find a four-step process to implement change. 

The work of TRB is advanced by a diverse group of volunteers. Thank you to the women who support transportation research. Lending your voice to the conversation at every level helps ensure a transportation system that benefits all individuals, society, and the environment. With your help, progress can be tracked, best practices can be highlighted, and the industry can be challenged to continue to evolve.  Progress is being made, but goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion cannot be static.

Victoria Sheehan is the executive director of the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Sheehan came to the National Academies from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (DOT), where she was commissioner for seven years.

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