When Alexandria Noble was an undergraduate student, there were no women faculty members in her transportation engineering program. That was only six years ago.

“I believe there were two women in the whole department at West Virginia University at that time and they both worked in environmental engineering,” explained Noble, who is now a graduate student researcher at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI). “Of course, I am grateful for all of my mentors. I would not have had the opportunity to be at Virginia Tech today were it not for the male faculty at my alma mater who supported me. But the reality was that I couldn’t find a mentor at that time who was the same gender as me.” 

Noble’s experience is not uncommon. Even in 2018, the average female engineer often still finds herself being one of a handful of women in the room … or the only one. Just 15 percent of engineers in the United States are women, according to a 2016 report from the National Science Foundation.

To acknowledge both the road ahead and women’s gains to date, VTTI and the Virginia Tech Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) chapter are co-hosting a free career development event with the U.S. Department of Transportation on March 13. The event, called Celebrating Women in Transportation – Land, Air, and Sea, will take place at the transportation department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., and is open to students of all genders who are pursuing a career in transportation.

Students will gain an inside perspective on the transportation industry from top executives in the transportation department, including U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. They will also have the opportunity to network with prominent leaders, researchers, and practitioners during one-on-one speed mentoring sessions. The idea is to pair students with executives based on profession. For instance, an aspiring aerospace engineer might meet with an agent from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Our goal both with this event and the Women’s Transportation Seminar program as a whole is to provide career and mentorship opportunities for students. We really want to ensure that we energize young people to love this profession and to feel supported throughout their career development process,” said Myra Blanco, director of VTTI’s Center for Public Policy, Partnerships, and Outreach and organizer of the event.

Blanco serves as the faculty advisor for the Virginia Tech chapter, which she and a group of students founded in 2015. The idea came to Blanco while she was preparing a panel for the Society of Automotive Engineers about leadership. Her research indicated that only a small portion of women who enter engineering programs pursue careers in the field.

“It made me think: How can we ensure that students feel supported in this environment? I later saw a panel of WTS members discussing the career challenges that women face and thought that this program could be a great way to serve students,” she recalled.

There are more female leaders in transportation now than when Blanco began her career. Nonetheless, she said that more work still lies ahead.

“Even in this day and age, when other people see a woman in this industry, they sometimes assume that this person does not look or seem like who they would typically expect to be an engineer. I have received that comment in the past — ‘You are not a real engineer’ — even though I have three engineering degrees,” Blanco said laughingly.

In addition to combatting stereotypes, women can offer a fresh perspective on transportation problems. Charlie Klauer, group leader for VTTI’s Center for Vulnerable Road User Safety, is excited about educating and inspiring young female professionals to enhance the field of transportation. Klauer serves as the faculty co-advisor for the Virginia Tech chapter of WTS.

“The field of transportation is undergoing dramatic and drastic changes as we move from conventional to automated vehicle systems.  To maintain safety, security, and top technological solutions in this transition, we will need the best and brightest from all fields. It is an exciting time in all modes of transportation, and events like this help to encourage and inspire students to pursue careers in this field,” said Klauer.

The Women’s Transportation Seminar is not just for women, however. Noble stressed that the organization promotes an inclusive environment and welcomes all students, regardless of gender, to join and take advantage of the career programs available to them as members.

“One thing that I love about WTS is its spirit of community, inclusiveness, and mutual support for both women and men,” said Noble. “We believe that it takes the growth and awareness of all voices in transportation to achieve our mission.”

Visit the event website and contact wts.vt.2018@gmail.com for more information.
Learn more about WTS International:
Get involved with the WTS chapter at Virginia Tech: https://www.wtsinternational.org/Virginia_Tech/


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