I Saw a Woman Today

"I fear that we’ll settle for small visions: Convincing women in STEM fields not to leave within the year. Doubling the proportion of female engineers—to 26%. Being satisfied that there is one more woman CEO."

Thank you, Peggy [Chabrian].

What a legacy your conference has created — supporting not only astronauts and pilots, but also maintenance technicians, air traffic controllers, business owners, airport managers, and, as in my case, aviation safety officials.

The Conference theme — “Today’s Vision, Tomorrow’s Reality” — should be etched into the mind of everyone here. I know it’s foremost on mine.

I’d like to start by recognizing three groups in the audience – my NTSB colleagues, the individuals who serve in the military, and the men!

At the NTSB we investigate accidents in transportation. In every investigation we look for ways to prevent the next accident. Our guiding vision, constant as the northern star, is to one day prevent all of them. Today’s vision. Tomorrow’s reality.

In addition to this 25th conference, there are some other “birthdays” we’ll celebrate this year. 2014 also marks the 100th anniversary of commercial flight.

Years ago, flying became the safest way to travel. Now our vision is getting closer to reality: many countries have reached the point where years go by without a fatality in commercial aviation – even here in the US, with millions of flights per year.

What was yesterday’s vision, that brought us to today’s reality?

And, there’s another anniversary some of the pilots here might celebrate: The 85th birthday of The Ninety-Nines, the international organization of women pilots — of which Amelia Earhart was a charter member.

I would like to have met Amelia Earhart. She was a woman of action, but also an endless source of inspirational quotes. Long before Nike, she said:

“The most effective way to do it, is to do it.”

She took the most direct route between today’s vision and tomorrow’s reality: She just did it.

I might also like to have met Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Yes, she was the wife of Charles Lindbergh. But she was also an aviator in her own right, America’s first woman glider pilot, and a notable 20th century poet and author.

Mrs. Lindbergh tells us that

“Yesterday's fairy tale is today's fact.”

Today’s vision, tomorrow’s reality.

We know that they met each other, and stayed together, a number of times. We know that they corresponded.

We know that Amelia apologized profusely to Anne that the press had labelled her “Lady Lindy” for her interest in aviation and her resemblance to Charles Lindbergh.

In 1929 — the same year that Amelia helped start the ninety-nines — Anne and Amelia also discussed Virginia Woolf’s latest book, A Room of One’s Own.

A Room of One’s Own came from a lecture series about “Women and Fiction” that Woolf was asked to give to the women’s colleges at Cambridge.  Her lectures were expanded to a book.

She covers much more than women’s fiction, including the historical barriers against women, the comparative poverty of women’s colleges, and the importance of financial independence and personal space.

She urges her all-woman audience, similar to the one here today, to make their own money and create the conditions in which a female Shakespeare might one day appear — and thrive.

So why were two aviators talking about an essay about women and fiction? Amelia and Anne, like so many others, realized that Woolf’s ideas did not only apply to literature.

The vision of 85 years ago led to today’s reality: according to the latest census, among young adults age 25-29, 58% of those with advanced degrees are women.

But women graduates in STEM fields are another story.

A recent study found that in the U.S., Brazil, China, and India, roughly one-third of women graduates in science, engineering, and technology feel “stalled.” They say that within a year, they are likely to leave not only their jobs, but their whole field. In the U.S., 86% of women in those fields say they lack mentors.

So I was gratified to see today’s vision at work recently — pointing to tomorrow’s reality.

Female students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University have been given a one-year membership in Women In Aviation — let me hear from any of you here today.

This week I visited Embry-Riddle, and I learned more about their STEM Academy, designed to nurture women and minorities in technical fields even before the undergraduate level.

I was also excited to see the activities planned for the “Bring Your Daughter to the Conference”   program here tomorrow.

That’s exactly the kind of inheritance that Woolf talked about in 1929. But she limited her vision to literature. It took others to apply it to aviation and other STEM fields.

If you have any doubt that visions can be too limited, just listen to Woolf’s words, from A Room of One’s Own. Remember, these are the words of a feminist — in 1929:

[I]n a hundred years…women… will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them. The nursemaid will heave coal. The shopwoman will drive an engine.

…[E]xpose them to the same exertions and activities, make them soldiers and sailors and engine-drivers and dock labourers, and will not women die off so much younger, so much quicker, than men, that one will say ‘I saw a woman today’, as one used to say ‘I saw an aeroplane’.

Well, that didn’t happen — we survived.

But she was half-right: Women are indeed soldiers and sailors — aviators and mechanics — in today’s military. To those of you who are, thank you for your service. And thank you to the WASPs here today — that band of sisters who flew missions for the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.

And women are in every other occupation Woolf mentions, and it’s not killing us. In the U.S., since 1929, life expectancy has increased by more than 20 years — and even more for women.

So how could she be so right in some ways, and so wrong in others?

She underestimated us and she underestimated technology.  Heaving coal no longer depends on human exertion. Technology has advanced women. It’s time for us to advance technology.

As women in aviation, it’s also striking to read that only 85 years ago, airplanes were still a recent invention. People still remembered saying “I saw an airplane.”

Today, there are millions of passenger flights every year.

If Virginia Woolf were alive today, she would see a lot more airplanes and a lot more women. And she would not just say “I saw a woman today.”

She’d say

I saw a woman today who graduated from Embry-Riddle, got her PhD, and rose to become NTSB’s Senior Human Performance Investigator, and her name is Katherine Wilson.

I saw a woman today who is a senior aircraft maintenance technician with Whirlpool Corporation, and her name is Lisa Pelate.

I saw a woman today who is president of Massachusetts-based Cape Air, and her name is Linda Markham.

I saw women today who are pushing beyond the air and into space, and their names are Joy Bryant and Barbara Barrett and Eileen Collins and Nagin Cox.

So who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? I have to admit that in some ways I am.

I’m afraid that just like aviation in 1929, we only seem to be at our full potential, and we’ll settle for that.  And I fear that we’ll settle for small visions: Convincing women in STEM fields not to leave within the year. Doubling the proportion of female engineers — to 26%. Being satisfied that there is one more woman CEO.

Today’s vision is tomorrow’s reality. Make the vision as ambitious as you can.

Today, as in Woolf’s day, you don’t say “I saw an airplane,” because airplanes are everywhere. You don’t say “I saw a woman today” – we’re over half the population!

Tomorrow, I don’t want to hear anybody say “I saw a woman mechanic!”

Or “I saw an all-woman flight crew!”

Or “I saw a woman engineer!”

Or “I saw a woman CEO!”

Or “I saw a woman in space exploration!”

Not because there are none of us there, but because there are so many of us there!

Many of you are flying so high that you shatter glass ceilings. Now leave an inheritance — whether by funding scholarships, mentoring, or formal diversity programs in your workplace — so that other women cruise comfortably at that altitude tomorrow.

Or as Amelia said,

“Some of us have great runways already built for us. If you have one, take off. But if you don't have one, realize it is your responsibility to grab a shovel and build one for yourself and for those who will follow after you.”

Make today’s vision as broad as you want tomorrow’s reality to be. Then find a way to pass that vision on.

Leave a Reply

Download Whitepaper

Thank you for your interest. Please enter your email address to view the report.