Advancing Women in Transportation

Board Spotlight: Foundation Board Director, Karen Philbrick


Karen Philbrick, Executive Director for Mineta Transportation Institute, has been a valued member of WTS for more than nine years and is in her first term as a member of the WTS Foundation Board of Directors. She also serves on the WTS Scholarship Committee as well as the Bylaws committee. WTS sat down with Karen to learn more how she got her start in the industry and her perspectives on the advancement of women.        

WTS: Let’s start with your role at Mineta Transportation Institute. Can you tell us a little about the organization, and what you do?

KP: The Mineta Transportation Institute is a university research center located at San José State University. Our mission is to increase mobility for all by improving the safety, efficiency, accessibility, and convenience of the nation’s transportation system. As Executive Director, my role is to provide strategic direction for the Institute and oversee the four key areas of MTI’s work – research, education, workforce development, and technology transfer.

WTS: Where did you get your start in the industry?

KP: I have spent nearly fifteen years in the transportation industry, starting with my doctoral program where my research focused on rail safety, with a particular emphasis on the impact of fatigue and post-traumatic stress on operator behavior. Shortly thereafter, I joined the National Center for Intermodal Transportation at the University of Denver as Research Psychologist, and later as Assistant Director.

By way of background, I was working on a PhD in Counseling Psychology when I received an opportunity to travel to the east coast to collect data on fatigue in locomotive engineers and conductors. After spending a week in steel toed boots in a yard office working with the operators, I realized my true calling was transportation and that I had the ability to affect change on a larger scale through transportation research, as compared to treating patients.

WTS: You are particularly passionate about attracting young women to the industry. What drives that passion?

KP: The nation’s transportation system drives our economy. Transportation provides access to opportunities and can provide the key to reducing poverty and promoting equality. By actively working to improve gender equality within the ranks of the transportation industry, my hope is that we will realize a society where mobility is improved for all.

 It is well documented that women comprise more than fifty percent of college graduates and the general population, hold the dominant share of purchasing power, and according to several recent studies, significantly improve the performance of organizations. As such, creating opportunities for young women is imperative, they are the leaders of the future and understand that where human beings are concerned, the difference between having and lacking mobility is no less than the difference between having and lacking opportunity.

WTS: What has been your experience as it pertains to women in leadership roles and career development? What have you witnessed during the course of your career?

KP: I have been privileged to have several outstanding mentors, both male and female, who have provided advice and guidance throughout my career. As someone who benefitted from the time my mentors invested, I feel it is not only my responsibility, but also my honor to reach out to young women and provide mentorship, networking opportunities, and do whatever I can to ensure that they can achieve their goals related to career development and pursuit of leadership roles in this industry.

WTS: What do you think is the best path forward to making change in the gender makeup of the transportation industry?

KP: A key advantage within the transportation industry is the incredible diversity of career. One area I would like to see a greater emphasis placed in terms of recruiting women is through apprenticeship programs aimed at increasing the number of women in engineering and technical careers. Often these positions tend to be male-dominated, yet as I work with young women in MTI’s Summer Transportation Institute program for high school students, I encounter many who are excited and interested in these careers, but haven’t found the right foot in the door yet – apprenticeship programs can make a world of difference.

WTS: Why did you feel it was important to join the Board of WTS Foundation?

KP: One of the key factors behind my decision to join the Board was the alignment between the Board’s mission and my own desire to support and encourage the next generation of transportation professionals. One of the best aspects of my position at the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) is the opportunity to support students. Each year, we award over $40,000 in student scholarships and engage over 50 students as paid research assistants on MTI-funded projects. I want to expand that reach, and serving on the Foundation Board provides that opportunity.

WTS: Where are the opportunities for the next generation of leaders in this industry?

KP: We are at a critical junction as the transportation system that enabled the economic growth and development for the U.S. in the 20th century is in dire need of repair, while at the same time, innovation in technology is rapidly changing how we move people and goods. The transportation system of tomorrow will look very unlike the transportation system of today. The next generation of transportation leaders will face significant challenges as they transition us from a 20th century system into a 21st, or even 22nd century system. Former Secretary of Transportation Anthony Fox described the coming transportation as “akin to the introduction of the steam engine or the automobile” in Beyond Traffic 2045. The opportunities the next generation face are exciting – imagine a transportation system where automation leads to fewer accidents and reduced congestion, or a system based entirely on clean energy?

Career prospects in our industry are endless and multidisciplinary in nature. As a Psychologist who never intended to join the transportation industry – I am but one example of someone who heard the siren call.

WTS: What strategies do you feel will help bring WTS closer to achieving its mission?

KP: I’m particularly excited about Transportation YOU and the opportunity it provides to young women to discover transportation careers. It would be outstanding to see this program enhanced through a coordinated effort with industry and higher education – both 2-year and 4-year colleges – to develop career pathways, including apprenticeship, internship, and co-op programs to help reduce the gender imbalance in the industry. By increasing the number of women in entry-level positions, we build a natural pathway for them to transition into other WTS professional development programs such as the Mid-Career Leadership Program and the Executive Leader Program.




©2011 WTS International. All Rights Reserved.