Op-Ed: What’s the big deal about celebrating Women’s History Month in the transportation industry?

Thankfully, the transportation industry does recognize women’s achievements and contributions through organizations like the Airport Minority Advisory Council (AMAC), the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), Federally Employed Women-Women on the Move, WTS, etc. So, what’s the big deal? The big deal is that women can and want to do even more, if given the chance. Women’s History month is not only about Celebration, it’s also about Awareness, and Action.

Even though women are being recognized for their achievements, challenges are still present in the transportation industry — the same challenges faced by women across all industries: glass ceilings, lack of opportunity, lack of diversity, safety issues, unequal pay, and sexual harassment. These challenges hurt the industry as they waste time, money, and human resources, which affect critical mission achievement. There must be attention and intention to remove these barriers.

So what do we know? According to the Federal Highway Administration, more than 60 million women are in the labor force today, but make up only 8% of engineers and 18% of engineering technicians.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017 data, shows that women are still underrepresented in transportation. Of the 8,159,000 employed in the transportation and utility industry, only 24% are women.

The Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor shows that female-dominated occupations have been found to pay less than male-dominated occupations with the same skill levels, and women have relatively low shares of employment in high-paying jobs such as those in transportation, construction, and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

We still have a long way to go to get greater representation, particularly for Women of Color (WOC) in the top level (CEO) positions. Now more than ever, WOC must focus on WOC issues, particularly in light of the many different movements that are taking place, and the climate where some folks feel emboldened to act with hate towards people who do not look like them. The transportation community can and should be the model of equity, inclusion, and support.

I would be remiss if I did not address the “Me Too” issue. Unfortunately, there have been such incidences, particularly in the trucking industry. The American Trucking Association reports that the trucking industry consists of about 5% women truck drivers. In this male-dominated industry, female truck drivers are usually the primary target of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Now that there is awareness, action is the key. Organizations must have formal policies with zero tolerance for sexual harassment, and ensure this is communicated to every employee through training. In addition, any instances must be taken seriously and addressed immediately.

It’s not all bad news. While overall percentages of women in engineering-related fields are relatively low, the number of women studying engineering is increasing. According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, only 5.8% of women were engineers in the early 1980s. Now, about 18% to 20% of engineering students are female.

Opportunities do exist. Employment of transportation and material moving occupations is projected to grow 6% from 2016 to 2026, adding 634,300 new jobs.   Clearly, if this industry is to thrive, women must be intentionally included in all aspects of planning, setting priorities, and getting the work done.

Transportation faces serious and new challenges with automated vehicles, drones for package deliveries, increasing freight and passenger congestion, and our aging transportation infrastructure.  To help address these issues, there’s a compelling need for involvement and engagement on multiple fronts. Action must be taken to help ensure a pipeline of qualified women with the leadership and technical skills to institute change, who are included in fulfilling Transportation’s important mission and preparing the next generation of transportation leaders.

Several programs are helping to develop future Transportation professionals. The U.S Department of Transportation’s University Transportation Centers (UTC) Program is one. I am proud to say, my undergraduate alma mater, Morgan State University is part of this program. Once these professionals, including women are in the work environment, it will be up to the federal, state and local government, as well as private organizations, to develop and retain this talent.

Recently, one transportation professional shared with me that she likes to look at Transportation from a human perspective. But as women, we are often victims of omission. Transportation organizations MUST inject a human/female element into the thinking, planning, priority setting, and evaluation of every aspect of their enterprise.  Here are my tips (none of which are earth shaking) but rather reminders:

1) Leaders should take personal responsibility-holding themselves and others accountable of ensuring equity with specific strategic goals.

2) Once women are in place, truly support them; listen to them and make a conscious effort to be collaborative.

3) It is our responsibility as women to support and promote other women, and sometimes that’s means giving tough love.

4) There are best practices out there; share them.

Our industry stands to benefit greatly from engaging more women. Women bring a diversity of thought, ideas, and experiences which most would agree is very valuable and greatly needed to address present and future Transportation challenges. Women can MOVE transportation into the future …. Now, that should be a Big Deal!


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