PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards has a quote she likes to recite from former First Lady Michelle Obama: "If you are sitting in a decision room and everyone looks like you and thinks like you, you will come up with a less-than-good answer."
And with just 15 percent of the more than 9.1 million people working in transportation and material-moving occupations being women*, it's important to Richards that PennDOT work toward increasing its own diverse workforce.
PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richard, left, and Courtney Ehrlichman, deputy executive director of the CMU Traffic21 Institute, speak about women in transportation during a forum at Carnegie Mellon University.
Earlier this week, Richards spoke to more than 100 college and graduate students, faculty, and regional professionals on the importance of women in public service and transportation during a forum at Carnegie Mellon University. It was the fourth in a continuing series of discussions on this topic being held at Pennsylvania universities and colleges.
"It is one of my priorities to improve diversity and inclusion within PennDOT as well as those who we do business with at PennDOT," Richards said at the forum.
She says her focus on women's roles in public service came about after a conversation with a fellow cabinet member of the Wolf Administration.
"I was having dinner with a fellow cabinet member and he casually said, 'So Leslie, how did you get here?'," she explains. "And I said, well, really, I was a stay-at-home mom for eight years and I worked part-time until I was appointed in this position for the majority my career. But I don't like to talk about it too much because I don't want people to think I'm a slacker. And he looked at me and said, 'You know what, Leslie, that is such a girl thing. If you were a guy, you would be bragging, you would be putting billboards out bragging about that. That you were able to take eight years out of the professional workforce and work mostly part-time and now you are leading the largest agency in your industry and setting policy for the entire state.' And I said, well, when you put it that way, I probably should be talking about it more."
Richards was joined by Courtney Ehrlichman, deputy executive director of the CMU Traffic21 Institute and Mobility21. She also is co-founder of RoadBotics, a spin-off of CMU's Robotics Institute, and a founding board member of WTS Pittsburgh. She launched a podcast last month called Amplify, which focuses on women working in the smart transportation field.
Watch a video of the entire forum on the CMU Facebook page.
Amanda Johnson, left, and Ngani Ndimbie, center, students at Carnegie Mellon University, discuss women's roles in transportation with PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards.
After the forum, Richards interviewed Amanda Johnson and Ngani Ndimbie, CMU graduate students who interned in the PennDOT policy office over the summer. They spoke about why they want to pursue careers in public service, what they learned from their internships, and their own experiences as women in a male-dominated industry.
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 percent of women were engineers in the early 1980s. Now, about 18 to 20 percent of engineering students are female.
Members of the public who are interested in commonwealth employment can visit www.employment.pa.gov for more information. Information on student programs as well as professional opportunities at PennDOT is available at www.penndot.gov/jobs.
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*According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics