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Author: Rodney E. Slater
As we begin a new century and a new millennium, attracting women to the U.S. engineering enterprise is part of the larger global concern with diversity and opportunity.
On behalf of President Clinton and the Department of Transportation, I am delighted to have this opportunity to address the Summit on Women in Engineering. There is no question in my mind that the action plans you have developed are of strategic importance to the future of this nation. What we need are not merely new choices for women, but new choices for engineering.
The livable communities of the twenty-first century that the president and vice president have championed will be designed and built by talented engineers -- men as well as women. As we begin a new century and a new millennium, attracting women to the U.S. engineering enterprise is part of the larger global concern with diversity and opportunity. There are still places on this planet where women are not allowed to learn to read or write.
As an African-American, I am acutely sensitive to the connection between education and freedom. As the Greek poet and philosopher Epictetus wisely said more than 21 centuries ago, "Only the educated are free."
Who should we cut off from full participation in the future? There are some six billion people living on Earth with ideas and talent to share: they speak more than 4,000 languages; they are members of more than 255 nationalities, each with different perspectives and goals; they practice more than 20 major religions. And half of them are women. Each one of these unique human beings has something to offer.
As the president has said, we must ensure that the twenty-first century is "a world in which people are working together and cherishing both their diversity and their interdependence."
Transportation System Needs More Engineers
I can think of no more appropriate time to hold this summit than during National Transportation Week, which the president has designated as a time to give "due recognition to the individuals and organizations that build, operate, and maintain this country’s transportation system." A substantial number of these individuals need an engineering education in order to do their job.
Transportation is easily the most engineering-intensive sector of America’s economy, and it accounts for 11 percent of our gross domestic product. About one out of five dollars spent by the average American household goes for transportation, and one in every nine jobs is a transportation job.
As Secretary of Transportation, I can tell you that the declining number of students in the engineering pipeline over the past 15 years has already started to create shortages of trained engineers in many parts of the country. This is a source of serious concern. As the current generation of seasoned transportation engineers, trained in the 1960s, continues to retire, these shortages threaten to impede our continued economic success.
Between now and 2015, we will need to create the equivalent of 10 new airports the size of Chicago’s O’Hare to meet the projected capacity demand. To accomplish this we need engineers.
Right now, 59 percent of the nation’s major roads are in poor, mediocre, or fair condition. Thirty-one percent of America’s bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete. Thirty percent of America’s urban freeways are congested. Twenty-one percent of all rail tracks in the United States need to be improved, and of our 10 largest ports, only 5 are deep enough to accommodate the new supertankers. To repair our transportation infrastructure, to improve our rail and harbor systems, we need engineers.
We also need engineers to design, deploy, and operate the information and sensor technology we need to ensure that America’s twenty-first century transportation system can fully support our twenty-first century economy. We need engineers to help us improve the logistics and management of freight transportation, to automate terminal operations, and to develop and deploy intelligent vehicle technology -- a technology that could potentially reduce the number of accidents by one-sixth, or about 1.2 million incidents each year.
We need engineers to design and use smart materials in the repair and retrofit of bridges, docks, highways, and other structures. As engineers take advantage of the potential of high-performance concrete, fiber-reinforced polymers, and other new materials, the nation will benefit from reductions in traffic delays, downtime, and other costs associated with infrastructure repair.
In other words, the transportation industry needs engineers -- engineers of all kinds, in huge numbers. And, as we are hearing at this summit, to produce engineers in the numbers we need, we need more young women to enter the engineering profession.
As we see it at the Department of Transportation, this will require us to do three things: first, focus on intervening early in the education process to encourage young women to take more math and science; second, take direct action to support engineering programs that focus on minorities and women; and third, introduce young women to successful women engineers in action. We are attempting to do all three.
First, through the Garrett A. Morgan Transportation and Technology Futures Program, we are reaching out to both young women and young men, starting with kindergarten programs and extending through high school, to encourage them to take as much math and science as possible.
Our department is also encouraging other federal agencies, state transportation departments, the education community, and private-sector companies to work with us to ensure that students at all levels are literate in math, science, and technology.
Since establishing this program at the request of President Clinton during the 1997 Summit on America’s Future, the Department of Transportation alone has reached more than 650,000 young people.
Second, the Department of Transportation operates two institutions of higher education that award undergraduate degrees in engineering -- the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, one-third of whose graduates are women, and the Maritime Academy.
Third, through programs like "Groundhog Job Shadow Day," where students "shadow" an employee throughout the course of a normal workday, this department, along with other federal departments and private-sector organizations, provides half a million school-age students with a direct experience of how important math and science, as well as other skills, are to performing well on the job.
Women have always played a key role in transportation in America -- women such as Rebecca Lukens, whose company produced iron for ships, locomotives, and rails in the mid-nineteenth century; Mary Riggins, inventor of the first railway crossing gate; and Mary Anderson, who invented the windshield wiper to improve safety while driving in bad weather. By 1923, more than 175 transportation-related patents were granted to women inventors.
In the area of aviation, Bessie Coleman, an African-American, refused to let racism or sexism stand in her way. She went to Europe to earn her pilot’s license and came back to the United States to thrill crowds with her daring stunt-flying maneuvers. Women like Sally Ride (the first female astronaut), Mae Jemison (the first African-American female astronaut), and Shannon Lucid (the U.S. record-holder for continuous time in space) have changed the face of flights in space.
I would like to conclude my remarks by saying that my interest in this issue is not just institutional or even political -- it is personal. Last fall I went down to Cape Canaveral to watch John Glenn take off in the space shuttle. My five-year-old daughter, Bridgette, was with me at the launch.
We stood there together, feeling the ground shake. The shuttle was as big as the Statue of Liberty, with payload doors as large as a school bus. As the spacecraft lifted off and moved farther and farther away, it seemed to get smaller and smaller. Bridgette could hold her tiny hand out in front of her, blocking the shuttle from view, or shift her hand slightly, and watch it reach for the stars.
That tiny hand symbolizes my commitment, and your commitment, to the cause of women in engineering. Sometimes that which is big can appear very small. And just as the oak tree lives in the small acorn, there are big dreams yet to be fulfilled. If those dreams are to be fulfilled by this nation, then its people, all of its people, must be allowed to realize those dreams.
We need to create new possibilities for every American to participate in the exciting opportunities of the high-tech, twenty-first-century economy, with no one left out. You have done some great work here over the past two days. Congratulations, and on behalf of Bridgette and all the other future aerospace engineers, my heartfelt thanks for a job well done.