Reflections on International Women’s Day

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

Who will be speaking? The Chair? What’s his name?

That’s what I overheard a reporter asking an NTSB employee just a few weeks ago. We were in Pittsburgh, where I was on scene for the agency’s investigation into the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge.  

I couldn’t help myself and jumped in with: “He’s a she…and it’s me!”

The reporter was mortified and apologized profusely. We shared a laugh and went on to have a great press conference.

NTSB Chair Homendy at a press briefing on the NTSB investigation into the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Even though I responded with humor, that exchange was just one example of an unconscious bias that women encounter every day. Of course, unconscious biases can reflect one or more “-isms:” racism, ableism, heterosexism, ageism, classism, etc. 

In all fairness to the reporter, he responded appropriately. By that I mean he acknowledged his mistake and apologized sincerely. He wasn’t defensive and he didn’t invalidate my reaction. His response showed real humility, which is why we were able to move on so quickly.  

What You Can Do

I offer two suggestions for small but powerful ways you can recognize International Women’s Day and #BreakTheBias.

First, accept that no one is free from unconscious bias. Work to become aware of the ways you may show your own “-isms” and do what the reporter did: own the error and offer a genuinely sincere apology. Fight the urge to say I didn’t mean it like that. The only way to ensure you do better next time is to respond with humility.

You can also be intentional about using words that communicate a sense of belonging. When backed up by action, the language we use can change the culture from one of exclusion to one of inclusion.

Women in Transportation

Increasing the representation of women in all transportation modes will go a long way toward combatting unconscious bias. Consider the following statistics:

  • Aviation: Women hold only 8.5% of FAA pilot certificates. Female flight engineers, 4.3%; mechanics, 2.6%; parachute riggers, 10.1%; ground instructors, 7.8%; air traffic controllers, 16.8%; dispatchers, 19.7%.
  • Highway: While 49% of all workers nationally are women, only 18% of infrastructure workers are women. Moreover, in 20 of the largest infrastructure occupations, less than 5% of workers are women. And 7.9% of truck drivers are women.
  • Marine: Women make up just 1.2% of the global seafarer workforce. While this represents a nearly 46% jump from 2015, it’s not nearly enough.
  • Railroad: Women hold less than 8% of rail transportation jobs and the latest Federal Railroad Administration report acknowledges that “recruiting and retaining a diverse representation of employees remains a persistent issue.”
  • Pipeline & Hazardous Materials: Over 80% of hazardous materials removal workers are male — and just 15% of civil engineers are women. As for pipeline, women make up 10.8% of the pipeline transportation workforce and 21.8% in natural gas distribution. Unfortunately, these numbers drop even lower when it comes to higher-paying technical jobs in the oil and gas industry.

We have work to do, including here at NTSB. Our latest state of the agency report showed that our female workforce is 7% below the civilian labor force — something I think about every day. I’m only the fourth woman to serve as Chair since the agency was created in 1966. This is a message I’ll be sharing at the upcoming International Women in Aviation Conference.

When I was appointed to lead the NTSB, I made the decision to be addressed as Chair Homendy. I didn’t make this out of personal preference, but for the next woman to serve in the role. Perhaps, if we de-gender the office, the fifth female Chair will have one less bias to break.  

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