Girls don’t work in transportation fields. Or at least that was an unspoken sentiment for decades in what had always been a male-dominated industry. Slowly but surely the landscape is changing to be more inclusive and several Iowa Department of Transportation employees are helping lead the change through Iowa’s award-winning WTS International (formerly known as Women’s Transportation Seminar) chapter.
That began to change in 2018 when then-DOT Director Mark Lowe attended a presentation on WTS at the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials fall meeting. Poole said, “Mark reached out to Tammy Nicholson, who was director of the Office of Location and Environment at that time. Tammy and I talked about it, then I gauged interest from a few other DOT employees. That core group took it from there to initiate and develop what is now the WTS Iowa Chapter.”
Being a data analyst, Poole put together data showing the percentage of female employees in all of Iowa’s state agencies. Not surprisingly, the DOT ranked near the bottom of the list. But the relatively low number of female employees didn’t mean there was a lack of support for the WTS effort. Poole said, “Since we started to explore this in 2018, we have always had Iowa DOT leadership support and an interest in increasing inclusiveness within the agency. Using data to show how far we needed to go just strengthened that support.”
Poole points out that having public sector employees in leadership positions in a WTS chapter isn’t the norm. She said, “While WTS has more than 8,500 members in 64 professional chapters, the majority of members and chapter leaders are from the private sector. In Iowa, I serve as the president of our chapter and several members of the board of directors are also Iowa DOT employees. Of the 63 members in our chapter, 20 of them are DOT employees, both male and female.”
Growing a new chapter to more than 60 members in less than two years is also unusual for a typical WTS chapter. Poole said, “There were initially five of us that started blasting the WTS story to everyone we knew. Information traveled by word-of-mouth at first, but now we have a website and social media presence on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram that helps tell our story.”
The story being told through WTS is that transportation is a challenging and exciting field that should be explored as a career option for all. Poole explained, “When it comes to talking to teens and young adults about career paths, it’s common that both males and females might strive to be doctors or lawyers. Of course, women have made significant progress in those fields. Unfortunately, we don’t find as much diversity in transportation career fields. We want to break out of the mold and make it commonplace--rather than extraordinary--when a woman succeeds in our industry.”
Iowa chapter activities garner “Gold” status
Recently the WTS Iowa Chapter received the 2021 Circle of Excellence “Gold” award, something that is rare among newer groups. Poole said the honor was bestowed on the Iowa group because of their rapid growth over two years, and the activities they held to bring value to members and the industry.
Even with the global pandemic, Poole and the WTS leadership were able to hold online events and build connections and mentorships. Now that organizations are moving back to more in-person activities, Poole says this year’s focus is to expand WTS membership throughout the transportation industry. She said, “Right now the group has a lot of representation from highway-related businesses and agencies, but we have big plans for 2021 and 2022 that include a ‘road show’ where employers allow us to present at their companies. This offers us a way to increase networking and explore mentoring options across all areas of the transportation industry.”
In addition to the roadshows and technical webinars, the group is planning networking events including a trivia night, a bike outing, and other in-person activities. They have started a book club that is currently reading Brene Brown’s “Dare to Lead” and the group presents chapter awards to “Woman of the Year,” “Employer of the Year,” and “Member of the Year.”
Reaching and encouraging the next generation
The WTS Iowa Chapter awarded two $500 undergraduate scholarships in the last year and plans to award a members-only continuing education scholarship in the future.
As part of the larger WTS organization, members can take advantage of a mentoring program developed to benefit both the mentor as well as the mentee. Benefits for the mentor include sharing career success stories with future women leaders, building long-term relationships, and giving back to an industry that needs to hear and remember these stories. Mentees gain the knowledge and wisdom of the women pioneers who blazed the path before them.
WTS International also offers leadership training, community forums, a career center, and access to other transportation professionals in a setting that allows for more intimate learning and conversation.
To find out more about the WTS Iowa Chapter, go to https://www.wtsinternational.org/chapters/iowa.