July 11, 2014

Transportation proves effective vehicle for executive advancement in L.A.

Lynda Bybee, president of WTS Los Angeles, photographed at Los Angeles Union Station by John Livzey

Lynda Bybee, president of WTS Los Angeles, photographed at Los Angeles Union Station by John Livzey

By Arthur Schurr

“Legislation to apply the principle of equal pay for equal work without discrimination because of sex is a matter of simple justice,” said Republican President Dwight Eisenhower to Congress in his State of the Union address on January 5, 1956.

Though pay inequality and executive achievement are still issues today, there is one place where things are changing for the better.

Los Angeles is different. At the forefront of many social and political movements, Los Angeles is a bellwether city. And one of the most prominent areas where the city is the vanguard is the advancement of women at the executive level. Throughout the Southland, women have achieved notable status in the corporate and public sector worlds. But there is one particular area where that advancement is remarkable. And it couldn’t be in a more unlikely discipline, the traditionally male-dominated transportation industry.

“Los Angeles is exceptional when you look at the number of women in high-level executive positions in transportation,” explains WTS-LA president Lynda Bybee. Bybee presides over the Los Angeles area chapter of WTS (formerly Women's Transportation Seminar), an international organization dedicated to the advancement of women in the transportation industry.

“You’ve got Gina Marie Lindsey at LAWA (executive director at Los Angeles World Airports), Carrie Bowen at Caltrans (District 7 director), Samantha Bricker (chief operating officer, Exposition Construction Authority), and Dr. Geraldine Knatz at University of California (retired general manager of the Port of Los Angeles). Southern California Regional Director Michelle Boehm represents California High Speed Rail Authority here, and Gwynne Shotwell is president and COO of SPACEX. And at Metro there is Lindy Lee-Lovell (deputy chief executive officer), Martha Welborne (chief planning officer) and Stephanie Wiggins (executive director, vendor/contract management). This speaks directly to what has taken place in Los Angeles.

“The stated mission at WTS-LA is to advance women in transportation. While we can’t take credit completely for these advances, I’d like to think that we’ve contributed to an environment that recognizes women as leaders and chiefs in transportation. One reason I can say this is because of the unique composition of our chapter and the international organization. Though ostensibly a women’s organization, men comprise a significant portion of our chapter's membership, around 25 percent. Many of these men are senior executives as well. So they’ve had great opportunity to work with WTS-LA women and discover how exceptional they are as leaders. WTS-LA is an excellent place for everyone to discover that ability knows no gender.”

Bybee is right. And she is not alone in this belief. A recent Fast Company article (“Here Are All The Quantifiable Reasons You Should Hire More Women” 4/02/14) cites compelling evidence from a study by the Anita Borg Institute that having female senior executives is good for business. According to the study, “Fortune 500 companies with at least three female directors have seen their return on invested capital increase by at least 66%, return on sales increase by 42%, and return on equity increase by at least 53%.” Other data buttress the argument.

Though data demonstrate a host of significant advantages to having senior women executives, many cling tightly to older, more conventional perceptions about women, rank, and compensation. In a recent editorial in The Christian Post (“Facts and Fallacies About Paycheck Fairness” 4/15/14), social and political conservative Phyllis Schlafly wrote, “President Barack Obama and his feminist friends have been trotting out their tiresome slogan that women are paid only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. Every reputable scholar who has commented has proved that this is a notorious falsehood that anyone should be embarrassed to use.

“U.S. law calls for equal pay for equal work, but the feminist slogan is not based on equal work. Women work fewer hours per day, per week, per year. They spend fewer years as full-time workers outside the home, avoid jobs that require overtime, and choose jobs with flexibility to take time off for personal reasons.”

Bybee wonders exactly in what world Schlafly travels.

“There is no basis in fact for any of what she says. Even on an anecdotal level it doesn’t make any sense. These executive women in Los Angeles were not simply handed these jobs. They earned them by being the best at what they do, working tirelessly, and rising up through the ranks. They’ve been given nothing. And these women work hard. Working 60-plus hours a week is a rule rather than an exception.”

Taking a historical perspective as well. Bybee illustrates her point further.

“Women succeeding in male-dominated fields is not new. Emily Warren Roebling completed the engineering and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after her father-in-law died and her husband became bedridden with illness. Though never given the title of engineer, Roebling received credit and recognition for her work and expertise. In fact, she was the first woman to ever address the American Society of Civil Engineers. In a way, the success of female executives in Los Angeles today is modeled on Roebling. These women saw opportunity and took it. It’s as simple as that.”

Los Angeles is different. It always has been. For women in executive positions in transportation and beyond, that difference has proved advantageous, an advantage for the organizations they help run as well.

For more information about WTS Los Angeles, visit www.wtsinternational.org/losangeles.

Arthur Schurr is a New York-based freelance writer who reports on transportation infrastructure and trends.

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