It’s official: the quality of America’s infrastructure is devastatingly average. The American Society of Civil Engineers – which issues a report card for the systems of water, transportation, energy, and public facilities throughout the U.S. – bestowed a cumulative average of ‘D+’ upon our country last year. Granted, that’s a slight improvement from the ‘D’ we earned four years prior. While America’s infrastructure is poised for development, the gas explosion that leveled two Harlem apartment buildings in March illustrated that many of the pillars we rely on are living on borrowed time.
In the national conversation about our infrastructure crisis, it’s a widely accepted argument that America fails to adequately invest in energy-efficient buildings, structurally sound water systems, and 21st-century schools. Another widespread failure of American infrastructure that is routinely overlooked is the under-investment in women. Representing half of the U.S. population, women undoubtedly access and utilize the already-built infrastructure, yet have played a minimal role in its creation. Women only account for 14 percent of the engineers, 21 percent of registered architects, and a measly 2.6 percent of the construction workforce in America.
Gender inequities are unsustainable and inefficient in our increasingly globalized world. From medicine to marketing, U.S. industries are simultaneously strengthened and reinforced through the empowerment of women. Considering what’s at stake for our economy and safety, American infrastructure must practice the same approach to gender inclusion that it applies to other facets of modernization. To put it simply: to build strong roads and bridges, we must invest in strong girls and women.
If you don’t want to take it from me, then take it from Bill Clinton. When he was in office, he appointed me as the deputy director of the Federal Highway Administrator. And when President Clinton was elected for a second term, he brought me in as the first female Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Fortunately, I was in good company. President Clinton recruited other women in transportation roles including, Jolene M. Molitoris, former Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Administrator, and Linda H. Daschle, former Deputy Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Before I was the first FAA Administrator, I was the first female director of Logan International Airport. And before that, I was Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Works. My tenure at Logan prepared me for my role as FAA administrator, but I must admit that the challenges ahead of me were extraordinary. When I joined the FAA, the federal government was still reeling from high-profile airplane crashes and worrying whether air traffic controllers would be equipped to navigate the buzzing confusion associated with Y2K. Upon leaving the White House, I, with the support from a highly capable and diverse team, implemented a risk management system to improve the safety of the aviation community and successfully navigated America through the Y2K transition. Hopefully, my experience at the FAA can serve as at least a smidgen of proof that women can help American infrastructure overcome significant obstacles.
After leaving the Clinton Administration, I served in a variety of capacities, including my current position as chairman of Meridiam North America. At Meridiam, I lead or am part of teams that build North American infrastructure. Recent projects include the Miami Tunnel, the Long Beach Courthouse, roads in Texas and the Presidio Parkway. These projects and others make a difference in the communities they serve.
I recognize that my time in the infrastructure sector has provided me with a unique perspective. More than a decade after my time in the White House, it pains me to see that women are still underrepresented in infrastructure and related disciplines. And while generalizations are dangerous, my own experience suggests that it is often women who define infrastructure in the broadest terms. Moreover, women are asking the basic questions: what exactly are we building and why? Have we taken into account the concerns and views of the community?
The lack of women in infrastructure isn’t a problem that impacts women alone. From America’s deteriorating roads – which former Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood called “one big pothole” – to our fatally leaky natural gas pipes, the consequences of an infrastructure crisis don’t discriminate by gender. Women make up half of the victims of the crisis but also half of the potential talent pool, so it makes sense to bring more of them to the table.
Now that women comprise 40 percent of the country’s breadwinners, infrastructure’s gender disparity has serious consequences for the social and economic mobility of American families. We know that women represent nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers, who often toil without paid sick days and other benefits. We also know that jobs in infrastructure are likely to pay more equitably and, in many cases, more generously than jobs in other industries. Thus, when we neglect to include women in infrastructure, we neglect to deal with post-recession wage stagnation and persistent income inequality.
I’m pleased to see that President Clinton and his family are still taking this approach to gender inclusion through the Clinton Foundation years after their time in government. Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton’s No Ceilings initiative is doing great work to examine and expand the participation of girls and women in society.
I am especially enthusiastic about Clinton GIobal Initiative America, whose Infrastructure Working Group convened leaders, including influential women, from around the country last week to address the most pressing challenges facing the U.S. economy.
Such efforts remind us that America can’t afford the opportunity costs that come with gender disparities. We can’t risk overlooking the next Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Under her co-leadership, the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions encouraged their pension funds to allocate more than $10 billion in workers’ capital to jumpstart a substantial and sustainable reconstruction of U.S. infrastructure. Randi and other union leaders have motivated pension funds to make smart investments in the nation’s sustainability and workforce, an effort that has already created more than 33,500 jobs.
In addition, America desperately needs the next Jacqueline Hinman, president and CEO of the global engineering firm CH2M HILL, as well as the next Marcia L. Hale, president of Building America’s Future. We also need the next Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Mayor of Baltimore, who is working to demolish or renovate thousands of the vacant buildings that contribute to her city’s urban blight. These are but a few of the women who are making invaluable contributions to U.S. infrastructure, and in return, our society.
Infrastructure is central to most societal issues, forming the basis of social stability, human rights, freedom and equality. It is not simply about building or creating something – infrastructure development can fundamentally advance a society, often closing the gap between rich and poor and incorporating the latest thinking in an environmentally-sustaining way. Infrastructure development presents an extraordinary opportunity to build stronger communities, secure long-term stability and serve as a platform to integrate and connect our country.
Just as men didn’t build the United States alone, it will take gender equity to keep it from falling apart. From Y2K to climate change, a more gender inclusive approach to infrastructure is required to face our greatest fears head on.
This post is part of a series featuring members of the Clinton Global Initiative community. This week, President Bill Clinton, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Chelsea Clinton convened CGI America 2014 in Denver, where leaders from every sector advanced strategies to boost America’s economic recovery and long-term competitiveness in the world. In addition to participating in cross-cutting discussions about gender, attendees explored what solutions are working for girls and women in America.