Why do we even need women in the workforce? Of course, we need women in the workforce! Women bring unique perspectives and solutions, women bring unique talents and life experiences, women bring unique emotional connections that are all valuable and should be revered. Asking why we need women in the workforce, comes as an absurd question in my realm of thinking. However, all great research points to evidence of why the research is valuable enough to investigate, and so it is easy to point to countless research reports that tout how more diverse companies have above-average financial returns1, make better decisions2, and attract and retain more women3, among just a few of the reasons. With women accounting for nearly half of the workforce in the United States, they are the largest pool of untapped talent and will be instrumental in filling the management and leadership roles that the baby boomer generation will be vacating in the near future.
Why research this topic? I know how it feels to be an outcast in a group, and it is not a comfortable situation. As I looked around my engineering undergraduate classes, it was the first time that it was blatantly obvious that not as many girls chose engineering as boys. If I had paid attention a little closer along the way, I would have realized that the great divide starts earlier than college.4 Now that I am a bit more cognizant of tendencies, I think back, and many, if not all, of my math-league friends, were boys. I still see this lack of gender diversity in my son’s elementary school with more boys than girls interested in math and science. I can’t help but ask myself why, and since I am focused on actionable research, I also ask myself what can I do to make a difference?
Given we are humans, it is of our nature to want to feel comfortable and to avoid circumstances in which we know we will feel uncomfortable. I was in a meeting not too long ago, and as the only woman at the table, one of the men told me that he would never go to a certain meeting because he might be the only man in the meeting. Without missing a beat, I smiled and said, “aren’t you glad we don’t all feel that way.” This just reinforces the importance of women being in leadership roles, as we are more confident to pursue a leadership role if we have previously seen someone who looks like us in that position.
We talk about how important it is to have diverse opinions and voices heard when solving problems. However, if that diverse voice is one person with a muted or stifled voice or no voting rights, is that really improving the problem-solving abilities of a team? If only one woman is at the table, it is more likely than not that she will not speak up if she disagrees with most men around the table with her.5 However, women hear time and time again to get an ally.6 To find someone that is willing to at least echo what you said if others did not listen. Allies are good. However, having more women around the table, more than just a token diversity spot will allow the true opportunity for the women in the organization to have input in the solutions. 7, 8
How can we make a difference? There are many things that we can do, as individuals in the transportation industry, to attract more girls and women to our industry.9 We can all connect with young people to promote the industry as a desirable career option. We can become mentors to girls and women and encourage them to speak up and pursue leadership opportunities themselves. There are many benefits to sharing success stories and providing advice and guidance to help improve others’ sense of belonging. We should all participate in professional organizations like the Institute of Transportation Engineers and WTS and should run for leadership positions within those organizations. Participating in extracurricular activities provides opportunities for improved visibility, and improved personal confidence, proving to be a mutually beneficial opportunity for advancement for women and their mentees. We can support and advertise minority-focused scholarships, internships, and awards to increase the recruiting talent pool to afford minorities opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable. Finally, we can intentionally promote the desired perceptions of our organizations rather than allowing outsiders to define our public perception. We should promote the ways in which we improve our communities and the diverse teams that are responsible for implementing the improvements.
In the beginning, I asked why we even need women in the workplace, and the answer is simple: why wouldn’t we?! If you want the best possible solution, make sure that you have a diverse team solving your problem. Most of all, remember that you can make a difference, no matter how small it may feel. If we all make a small difference, together we can make worldwide improvements.
Jodi Godfrey is a senior research associate at the Center for Urban Transportation Research, University of South Florida