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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 77 · No. 5 > Making Inroads for Women in Transportation

March/April 2014
Vol. 77 · No. 5

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-14-003

Making Inroads for Women in Transportation

by Susan L. Kurland and Heather Fernuik

By leading a new initiative for the 21 APEC economies, USDOT is taking on a crucial role in advancing opportunities for women in transportation professions.

Increasing women’s participation in occupations in all modes of transportation is one of the goals of a new USDOT-led initiative with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Here, highway worker Brunilda Perez is applying a bond-breaker agent to the dowels and transverse vertical face of a precast pavement panel during reconstruction of the I–66 ramp to U.S. Route 50 in Fairfax, VA.
Increasing women’s participation in occupations in all modes of transportation is one of the goals of a new USDOT-led initiative with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Here, highway worker Brunilda Perez is applying a bond-breaker agent to the dowels and transverse vertical face of a precast pavement panel during reconstruction of the I–66 ramp to U.S. Route 50 in Fairfax, VA.

Facing continuing economic downturns, many leaders around the world are turning their attention to engaging more women in the workforce--what some have called “the great untapped resource.” Numerous studies cite the increased participation of women in the labor market as a significant stimulant of economic growth for countries, industries, and organizations alike.

In addition, looming labor shortfalls make the issue of strategically leveraging all available human talent even more relevant. This concern is particularly the case in industries critical to the global economy, such as transportation, where women are significantly underrepresented. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau estimates that in the United States alone, women comprise only 15 percent of transportation and material moving occupations. In addition, only 4.6 percent of commercial truck drivers are women.

Both this economic imperative and the workforce demand produced by next-generation transportation systems underscore the relevance of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) efforts to develop forward-thinking strategies to attract more women to these professions. In effect, USDOT is helping to advance opportunities for women at all levels of the transportation industry.

In light of the increasing global connectivity of economic markets and transportation systems, USDOT convened a special session on women September 14, 2011, at the 7th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Transportation Ministerial Meeting in San Francisco. At the APEC meeting, policymakers and private sector leaders advocated the need for a cohesive, public-private strategy to advance opportunities for women in transportation occupations.

As a result, transportation ministers from the 21 APEC economies directed the launch of an ongoing effort focused on this issue. Led by USDOT, the APEC Women in Transportation initiative builds on the department’s domestic efforts to expand workforce diversity and opportunities available to women.

The first purpose of the initiative is collaboration across APEC economies to promote improved data gathering on women’s participation in transportation occupations. A second objective is the exchange of best practices, tools, and resources for increasing education, recruitment, retention, and advancement to leadership of women in transportation fields. The final goal is an ongoing dialogue at the highest levels of the transportation industry.

Over time, the initiative seeks to develop and implement measurable strategies that advance opportunities for women in transportation throughout APEC and enhance the Asia-Pacific transportation sector’s economic growth and sustainability.

Harnessing the Research

The first step beyond demonstrating significant industry interest in the topic was to frame the APEC Women in Transportation initiative in a way that captivates the interest of CEOs, policymakers, academicians, and association leaders. One approach would be to examine the issue of advancing opportunities for women in the transportation sector through a traditional gender-diversity lens. Instead of that strategy, however, under the leadership of USDOT, the APEC Transportation Working Group seeks to build an economically compelling case by drawing attention to the need to plan now for future labor needs across the industry by leveraging a growing body of research that outlines bottom-line benefits to organizations with greater numbers of women.

Labor Shortage. First, regardless of the transportation mode, experts project a shortage of workers across the APEC region over the next 20 years. For example:

In a report in The Wall Street Journal, land logistics organizations cite Thailand’s desperate need for 140,000 new truck drivers. That number represents drivers for 15 to 20 percent of some 900,000 trucks registered to transport goods in Thailand.

A Japanese study on future global supply and demand of seafarers predicts that by 2020, the shipping industry will need to recruit an additional 32,000 officers and 47,000 crew members above 2010 levels to meet the industry’s growing needs.

Boeing estimates that by 2032, airlines will need more than 498,000 new commercial pilots and 556,000 new technicians to service the worldwide fleet.

ARTBA Women Leaders Council

Created in 1902, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) is a federation with the primary goal of aggressively growing and protecting investment in transportation infrastructure to meet the public and business demand for safe and efficient travel.

In 2010, ARTBA created its Women Leaders Council. Led by inaugural Council Chair Melissa Tooley of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the council promotes leadership and career advancement for professional women in the transportation design and construction industry through networking, mentoring, recognition, and educational activities in partnership with ARTBA and other stakeholders.

Although the council aims to increase awareness of women’s contributions, the focus is on issues of general concern to the transportation design and construction industry and not on gender-specific issues. However, the council recognizes that barriers still remain for women in the industry, and it seeks to mitigate those barriers by providing support and recognition for women within ARTBA.

In 2013, the council adopted a strategic plan detailing the following activities and goals: (1) raising the profile of professional women in transportation design and construction within ARTBA, (2) supporting professional women in transportation design and construction, and (3) attracting more women and girls to transportation design and construction careers.

The plan includes various activities such as the continuation of an awards program for women leaders, creation of a mentoring program for new members, and participation in ARTBA’s webinar series by providing female subject matter experts in areas of general interest. The council has sponsored five of these webinars to date on topics that include Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, mileage-based user fees, and a State department of transportation’s response to Hurricane Sandy.

In particular, the council’s awards program has recognized outstanding women leaders from around the country for lifetime achievements and also promising female students. In addition, the council created the Glass Hammer award, which recognizes organizations in transportation design and construction that have innovative programs and activities directed at successfully promoting women leaders. It is hoped that the Glass Hammer award will inspire individual companies to provide similar opportunities.

Council membership is open to all ARTBA members.

“While it is true that women are underrepresented in the construction industry, we are making very real contributions,” says Tooley. “The Women Leaders Council is helping to spotlight those contributions and to create a community for women in the industry.”

For more information on the Women Leaders Council or ARTBA, please contact Allison Klein at 202–289–4434 or aklein@artba.org.

Chile’s labor ministry identified a crucial deficit of transportation workers, especially those in the skilled trades, particularly given that 7 of the world’s 10 largest developers of transport and infrastructure projects are based in Chile. Furthermore, the Chilean labor ministry also highlighted the objective of increasing women’s participation in the workforce as critical to filling the labor gap in vital industries.

Speakers at the White House Women in Transportation Forum. Left to right, top row: The Honorable Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the President and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls; The Honorable Susan Kurland, assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs, USDOT; and Rebecca Blumenstein, deputy editor in chief, The Wall Street Journal and WSJ Women in the Economy executive task force member. Middle row: Flora Castillo, chair, American Public Transportation Association and New Jersey Transit Board of Directors; former Secretary Ray LaHood, USDOT; and The Honorable Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Bottom row: Jeanine Prime, vice president, Research, Catalyst and WSJ Women in the Economy executive task force member; Sondra Barbour, executive vice president, Information Systems and Global Services, Lockheed Martin; and Jane Garvey, North American chairman, Meridiam Infrastructure.

Economic Benefits. Research suggests that increasing women’s participation in the workforce would unlock new levels of economic growth and prosperity for APEC economies. For instance:

The United Nations estimates that the Asia-Pacific economies would grow by an additional $89 billion annually if women were to be employed at similar levels as their male counterparts.

A Goldman Sachs report shows how a reduction in barriers to female participation in the labor force would increase America’s gross domestic product by 9 percent. Other APEC economies, such as China, Indonesia, Korea, the Philippines, Russia, and Vietnam, would see up to a 14 percent rise in per capita incomes by the year 2020 from greater access to employment for women.

The World Bank estimates that if female employees in the eastern Asia region had equal access to the same sectors, activities, and jobs as men, then the output per worker could increase from 7 percent to 18 percent.

Also, studies show that having more women in top-level positions increases an individual company’s financial performance. In 2007, Catalyst (a nonprofit that focuses on expanding opportunities for women and businesses) found that companies with more women on their boards of directors outperformed on three financial measures: 53 percent higher return on equity, 42 percent higher return on sales, and 66 percent higher return on invested capital.

Engaging Stakeholders In Finding Solutions

To ground the issue in research, USDOT worked with U.S. and international transportation stakeholders to identify barriers to expanding opportunities for women across the Asia-Pacific region. These barriers can range from widespread perceptions of transportation careers as “men’s work” (reinforced in many countries by job vacancy announcements that use only the masculine form of the job) to a lack of awareness of diverse transportation career opportunities or stringent shift requirements that can make it difficult to balance a job with family responsibilities.

Over the past year, USDOT convened a number of special “listening sessions” to gather the input of senior representatives from government, private industry, associations, and academia. The stakeholders began sharing promising practices and developing actionable strategies. Promising practices include things like personal commitments to raise the issue and associated research in conference presentations and executive-level discussions, as well as offering free bond financing workshops for women construction entrepreneurs. Other practices highlighted include building onsite childcare facilities, developing flexible schedules and job-sharing, and meeting quota targets for the percentage of females in executive leadership and on boards.

In addition to numerous smaller meetings with industry associations, USDOT convened larger stakeholder gatherings, as did the White House, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), and APEC. The following descriptions highlight the outcomes of those meetings. Presentations, key findings, and stakeholder input from various events also can be found on USDOT’s “APEC Women in Transportation” Web site at www.dot.gov/APECWomen.

USDOT Forum

On December 14, 2012, USDOT brought together 65 senior representatives of the transportation industry in Washington, DC, to share the results of a study the department commissioned to baseline women’s participation in transportation occupations in the APEC economies. As might be expected, the baseline research revealed that little disaggregated data are available on women’s involvement in all modes of transportation across the APEC economies. These results emphasize the need for systematic collection of data, as well as tracking mechanisms to measure progress over time.

In addition, USDOT gathered stakeholder input at the meeting as a way to begin to understand the broader situation facing U.S. women in transportation. The goal was to help shape U.S. input into the broader APEC initiative.

White House Forum

On April 4, 2013, USDOT convened 85 executives from across the transportation industry at a special session at the White House on the APEC Women in Transportation initiative. Demonstrating the Obama Administration’s commitment to advancing economic opportunities for women, Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, as well as Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and then U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, joined experts from The Wall Street Journal, Catalyst, and industry leaders in emphasizing the business case for women in transportation.

In small groups, participants worked to evolve strategies to remove barriers to women’s participation and advancement in transportation professions and to increase opportunities for them in transportation education, recruitment, retention, and leadership. Before departing, participants were asked individually to make a personal commitment to further the initiative’s objectives as a result of their attendance at the White House Forum. Stakeholder input from this session shaped the agenda for the September 2013 APEC women’s forum in Tokyo, Japan.

Caltrans Roundtable

On May 22, 2013, at the Caltrans district office in San Diego, USDOT convened a roundtable of leaders and midcareer professionals primarily from the highway, construction, and design industries. Whereas the stakeholder discussions at both the USDOT and White House forums centered on advancing leadership opportunities for women, stakeholders in the San Diego area focused on strategies for educating more women and girls about the career opportunities available in transportation and the practices that foster retention of women already in the industry.

APEC Transportation Ministerial Meeting

On September 4, 2013, in Tokyo, more than 170 representatives from all 21 APEC economies gathered for the first APEC Women in Transportation Forum as part of the 8th APEC Transportation Ministerial Meeting. The half-day event centered on ways to increase women’s participation in the transportation sector, both as an economic imperative and as a forward-thinking strategy to meet the critical workforce demands of next-generation transportation systems.

Participants from Japan at the APEC Women in Transportation Forum in Tokyo.
Participants from Japan at the APEC Women in Transportation Forum in Tokyo.

Nineteen leading researchers, policymakers, and private sector executives delivered compelling cases for the organizational and economic benefits to advancing opportunities for women, as well as practical and innovative best practices. Men comprised more than 40 percent of the audience, helping to demonstrate the issue’s relevance to the transportation industry. Research indicates the need for men--who currently comprise roughly 80 percent of top decisionmakers in the global economy--to be involved in conversations about advancing opportunities for women.

The APEC transportation ministers were impressed with the forum’s outcomes and directed the continuation of this initiative.

Immediate next steps will center on the development of enhanced mechanisms for data collection and platforms for facilitating increased exchanges of best practices, tools, and resources.

“With the ongoing leadership of the United States, and with close support of all APEC economies and the private sector, I am confident that we will make a significant contribution to increasing the participation of women in transportation,” says Arlene Turner, head of the APEC Transportation Working Group.

Getting Involved

Stakeholder participation does not stop with these special listening sessions. Readers have several ways to become involved with the APEC Women in Transportation effort and make a difference.

Familiarize yourself with the leading research. The USDOT “APEC Women in Transportation” Web site, available at www.dot.gov/APECWomen, has a “Resources” section with a number of studies that address core issues and key findings useful in industry discussions. Expand the reference base with additional articles, reports, and links by sending suggestions to APECWomen@dot.gov.

An audience member from Malaysia at the forum.
An audience member from Malaysia at the forum.

Become a local advocate. Advocates at every level of the transportation sector are needed. This issue should be a frequent part of industry dialogues. Include talking points from the research and reports on stakeholder engagement in speaking events, meetings with other transportation leaders, conference agendas, and other venues.

Join a network of advocates. Affiliate yourself with larger networks of transportation colleagues within your organization or within the industry who are working to advance opportunities for women. National associations include WTS International (formerly Women’s Transportation Seminar International), the American Road and Transportation Builders Association Women Leaders Council, the Federal Aviation Administration Technical Women’s Organization, and many others. Membership in these organizations is open to both men and women.

Members of the Mexican delegation.
Members of the Mexican delegation.

Contribute to online educational resources. As part of an effort to create broader awareness of the multitude of career opportunities and diverse career pathways open to women in the transportation field, USDOT created a series of expandable online resources. They include an interactive mural depicting women’s contributions and achievements in transportation over time (www.dot.gov/womenandgirls/collage); an interactive timeline highlighting people, policies, and practices that paved the way for expanded opportunities for women in transportation occupations (www.dot.gov/womenandgirls/timeline); a YouTube series featuring both individual and organizational stories that demonstrate exciting opportunities open to women in transportation occupations (www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLE0JbKk9QnJ3RXjJ5AJikY1mLrpqs2frL). Send your submissions for any of these tools to APECWomen@dot.gov.

Share your best practices. USDOT is in the process of building an online, searchable compendium of best practices, practical tools, and strategies that organizations can reference in looking for additional ways to educate, recruit, retain, and promote more women in transportation occupations. Help facilitate the exchange of best practices by sharing your organization’s best practices. Email APECWomen@dot.gov for a submission template.

The APEC Women in Transportation initiative developed this mural for the forum in Tokyo. The images are representative of women in transportation professions and “firsts” by women from the 21 APEC economies.
The APEC Women in Transportation initiative developed this mural for the forum in Tokyo. The images are representative of women in transportation professions and “firsts” by women from the 21 APEC economies.

“By actively collaborating across the transportation sector to remove structural barriers to women’s participation and to create more pathways for women’s advancement in transportation careers,” says Joseph C. Traini, U.S. head of delegation to the APEC Transportation Working Group, “the transportation industry in the United States and across the APEC region will see enhanced opportunities, innovation, economic growth, and sustainability over time.”


Susan L. Kurland was appointed by President Barack Obama and Senate-confirmed in 2009 as USDOT’s assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs. Kurland launched and leads the effort to advance opportunities for women in transportation in the Asia-Pacific region. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and the Boston University School of Law.

Heather Fernuik serves as a senior advisor to Assistant Secretary Kurland and manages the USDOT-led APEC Women in Transportation initiative. She holds degrees from both Brigham Young University and the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

For additional information on the APEC Women in Transportation initiative, please visit the “APEC Women in Transportation” Web site at www.dot.gov/APECWomen or contact the program team at APECWomen@dot.gov.

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Photo. Valerie Jarrett. Photo. Susan Kurland. Photo. Rebecca Blumenstein. Photo. Flora Castillo. Photo. Ray LaHood. Photo. Kathleen Sebelius. Photo. Jeanine Prime. Photo. Sondra Barbour. Photo. Jane Garvey.