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CHANGE AGENT: Ray LaHood, Breaking the Status Quo to Build the Future of Transportation

Ray_LaHood
The Honorable Ray LaHood

By Victor Greto

 

When Ray LaHood began his four-year reign as Secretary of the Department of Transportation in 2009, he brought two people with him, his chief of staff and deputy chief of staff.  Both were women.  This was the beginning of a successful term, one that LaHood credits to the gender-diverse leadership of his team. “Frankly, I think women are more sensitive to trying to foster teamwork and foster teambuilding, so when I came to the department, I knew they could help me build a team,” said LaHood, who recently left his role as Transportation Secretary under President Barack Obama.

LaHood, a former Congressman who had been one of only two Republicans in the administration, has received WTS International’s first Navigator Award, officially recognizing his extraordinary efforts to attract, retain, and advance women in the transportation industry. WTS sat down with the former Secretary to learn more about his personal mission to advance women in the industry.

Reflecting on the beginning of his term, LaHood said his chief of staff, Joan DeBoer, “ran tDOT_WTS_LaHood_plus_Summit_Group_CROPPEDhe department, in a sense,” and her first duty, along with her deputy, Marlise Streitmatter, was to wade through a White House list of more than 100 political appointees to see who was qualified to work with them.

“Women possess strong leadership skills and are sensitive to personal issues,” LaHood said. “The way to build a good team is making sure the people you put in positions of authority know that they’re not just workers, but that they’re part of a team and a family.”

LaHood said he is enthusiastic about the work WTS International does to help advance women in the industry—he hopped on board as soon as he learned of the organization. “When I heard about WTS, I went to them and said ‘I want to sign a memorandum of understanding so you can help me find more women to be involved in transportation, and I will use your organization to help me get women involved.’ ”

The resulting MOU was the initiation of WTS International’s Transportation YOU program.

“I worked with WTS early on and helped establish Transportation YOU to get younger people involved—middle school and high school-aged girls—in activities to help foster their interest in all the things we do in transportation.”

The program bore fruit very quickly. A majority of WTS International’s US chapters have a formal Transportation YOU program set  up for girls of this age group, including hands-on challenges, behind the-scenes tours of projects in their local regions, as well as mentorship programs and internships. The flagship program at the Washington level is the annual Summit. Just this past June LaHood, during his last week as secretary, spoke to14 young women and their mentors at USDOT in Washington.

LaHood says there has been an entrenched cultural bias against women in transportation, as well as engineering and architecture.  “I think there’s been a blind spot regarding women’s abilities in construction, transportation, and engineering,” he said. “There’s been a long tradition in this country that they are men’s jobs. My vision is for more women to be put in charge of a transportation issue; because, in most cases, they have a higher success rate than men.”

LaHood said he is proud of the percentage of women in the federal Department of Transportation and pointed to several important positions that women still fill even since his departure.

These women include Polly Trottenberg, Under Secretary for Policy—“the No. 3 position in the department,” LaHood said—as well as his recommendation to President Obama to hire Kathryn Thomson, who is now acting general counsel.

Other women in the DOT include Sylvia Garcia, Acting Chief Financial Officer and Assistant Secretary for Budget and Programs; Susan Kurland, Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs; Camille Hazeur, who directs the Office of Civil Rights; Cynthia Quarterman, Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Saftey Administration; and Ann Ferro, Administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

 “What they bring to the table is not just the skill to run these organizations, but a mindset that we need to encourage more women, and, when we do, we enhance transportation,” he said. “We need to set the example at the federal level so governors can take the cues from us. It’s not just a man’s job.”

LaHood said women in transportation will be on the cutting edge of the great changes he sees coming during the next two decades, from increased mass transit to the ubiquity of hybrid cars, which will help make Congress’ mandate to car companies that, by 2025, they must produce cars that get 54.4 miles per gallon.

The rise of women in transportation is part of an American social trend.

“People are thinking about a woman president,” LaHood said. “As we continue to move in that direction, we’re not going back, we’re going forward, and we need to do so at all levels, including high school and college.”

That means more scholarships and internships.

“All of these steps are good steps, forward-leaning,” LaHood said. “We’re headed in the right direction. We have to keep the momentum going.”

 

For information about the WTS Navigator Award Dinner on September 17, 2013, click HERE.

 

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