APEC Women in Transportation Forum
April 4, 2013
Good morning. Thank you, Secretary LaHood. I’m so pleased to be here today as you kick off this important forum. And it’s wonderful to be in the presence of so many great ‘female leaders’—or, as I like to call them, ‘leaders.’
When I got started in politics, everybody knew that there were ‘men’s issues’ and there were ‘women’s issues.’ Sure, a woman could handle something like education policy or social services. She could work on the quote-unquote ‘soft’ issues. But she couldn’t do anything that might get her hands dirty or ruffle her dress. When it came to serious business like budgets, or national security, or diplomacy, it was best to let the men handle it.
In 1986, when I was first elected to the Kansas House of Representatives, there was one woman in the President’s Cabinet. There were two in the entire Senate. No woman had ever been a four-star general, or the Attorney General, or the Surgeon General. And it was just as bad in the private sector.
So I couldn’t help but reflect on how far we’ve come when I was sworn in as Secretary of Health and Human Services. When I went to my first Cabinet meeting, I saw a woman in charge of our international diplomacy. I saw a woman in charge of our homeland security, our labor policy, our environmental protections, our Council of Economic Advisers, our Small Business Administration, our response to climate change, and our mission to the UN. Only one of our first 106 Supreme Court justices was a woman. But three of our last six have been women. And just last week, the President entrusted the security of himself and his family to the first woman to lead the Secret Service.
Women aren’t just filling these new roles—they’re excelling in them. That’s what we’re seeing across sectors and in every industry. When women are given the chance to take on new roles, they’re proving that they’re every bit as qualified—if not more so. And I’ve seen evidence of this firsthand in the transportation industry.
Back when I was Governor of Kansas, I had the opportunity to appoint the first female transportation secretary in the state’s history: Deb Miller. At the time, there was a great deal of skepticism—from a public that wasn’t used to seeing a woman in that role, from contractors and executives outside the department, and from engineers and officials within the agency as well. Everybody was asking whether a woman could really understand and lead on transportation issues.
I don’t need to tell you what the answer to that question was. Not only was Deb able to quiet the skeptics—she was so successful that the next two governors, a Democrat and a Republican, asked her to stay on. By the time she left the Kansas Department of Transportation in 2011, she was the longest-serving secretary in its history. And her track record earned rave reviews from those same men who had once doubted her ability to do the job.
Field by field, America is realizing some very simple math: that it’s a lot harder to reach your full potential when half of the talent pool is shut out from leadership opportunities. We have a long way to go, but the fact that all of you are here today is evidence of the great progress we’ve made.
And by continuing to lead, you’re creating even more opportunities for the women who will follow. Amelia Earhart—one of the great pioneers for women in transportation—once said that her ambition was to set an example “for the women who may want to fly tomorrow’s planes.” And in the same way, your leadership is paving the way for a new generation of women leaders in transportation.
So thank you for that leadership. And thank you for all you do to keep America moving.