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PA transportation chiefs blaze a path for women in the field

In calling graduates to public service and exhorting them to challenge themselves, the speaker at Temple University's College of Engineering commencement Dec. 22 -- Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Leslie S. Richards -- also shared a personal detail.

"I was a stay-at-home mom for eight years and then worked part-time for the majority of my professional career," said Richards, the first woman to hold the post. "It is possible to go in and out of the workforce without compromising your professional growth."

The anecdote is important for Richards: It illustrates that a woman need not devote herself exclusively to her career to excel, and also is about a woman reaching the top of her profession in a field traditionally dominated by men.

"I'm often the only woman in the room," she said in a recent interview, "but for me, that's extremely irrelevant."

Richards is one of two women holding the top transportation-policy jobs in Pennsylvania. The other is Renee Sigel of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), division administrator for Pennsylvania since 2008. Sigel's office helps determine how federal funding, about $1.6 billion, is spent on transportation projects in Pennsylvania, and the state is one of only four with women leading both the Department of Transportation and the federal division.

Of the 60 million women in the American workforce, according to the FHWA, only 8 percent are engineers and 18 percent are engineering technicians. About 15 percent of the more than 9.1 million people working in transportation and material-moving occupations are women, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

Since Richards took over at PennDot in 2015, she has made a concerted effort to attract a more diverse workforce, including women, but women still make up only 18 percent of the department's nearly 12,000 employees.

"There is progress" attracting women to transportation jobs, said Diane Woodend Jones, chair of the Women's Transportation Seminar International  board. But, she added, "it's modest."

Sigel recalled experiencing through her father the attitude toward women in transportation-related work.

"He had his own business surveying," she said. "When he needed help, a lot of time he would take me along, but he often saw my role as the office help."

Sigel credited two of her supervisors at FHWA with mentoring her and showing that women could rise in the transportation world. As an administrator, she has prioritized hiring panels that always include at least one woman and has tried in turn to be a mentor to her own staffers, creating a workplace where gender disparities can be discussed.

That has not always been the case, she said. An experience with discrimination when she began at the FHWA still sticks with her, and though she declined to discuss the details she did recall a female coworker advised her that filing a grievance could hurt her career.

"I'm glad to see that has changed," Sigel said. "It's a lot more in getting women to speak up and say, `Hey, the way you've treated me makes me feel I don't have equal standing here.' "

Under the umbrella of "transportation" is a vast range of careers, from engineer to snowplow operator, and Sigel credited Richards with working to attract women not just to the white-collar jobs, but to every position at PennDot.

"When she travels, she looks for opportunities to engage women," Sigel said. "She asked for meetings to be set up to talk about diversity, to talk to women in the industry."

Few things are more universal than the need to get from Point A to Point B, and Richards says increasing diversity at PennDot gives the agency a better chance to represent the transportation needs of the state's population.

"All of the data, all of the studies, show that more diverse perspectives give you more alternatives to consider and better decisions are made," Richards said.

Groups like Women's Transportation Seminar help, Woodend Jones said, by providing networking, a way for women in the field to get to know one another and give one another opportunities. She advised women to be courageous, whether they are pursuing promotions or arguing for policy initiatives.

Richards agreed, but she said it was also important for a woman working in a male-dominated field to still be herself.

"What has always worked for me, and I think it's important for everybody, you find what feels good to be you, and to be authentic to your own management style, to your own communications style," she said. "The more you can trust that, the more effective you can be."