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Remarks at the International Aviation Womens Association 22nd Annual Conference, Boston, MA
Deborah A. P. Hersman
International Aviation Womens Association 22nd Annual Conference, Boston, MA

Thank you, Susan Walsh, for the kind introduction and invitation to be with you today.

I really enjoy coming to Boston.  Boston is a great city, and it reminds me of the classic story book by Robert McCloskey, Make Way for Ducklings.  This story has been a favorite at family reading time for generations and happens to be the state children’s book of Massachusetts.  If you have a chance to walk through the Boston Public Garden right across the street, you’ll find a bronze statue of Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings.  In 1991, Barbara Bush gave a duplicate of this sculpture to Raisa Gorbachev as part of the START Treaty, and the work is displayed in a Moscow park.

If you remember the story, after searching for just the right home, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard settle into the Charles River.  After the ducklings are born, Mr. Mallard decides to take a trip up the river to see what the rest of it is like.  Mr. and Mrs. Mallard agree to meet at the Public Garden in one week.  In the meantime, Mrs. Mallard teaches the eight ducklings all they need to know about being ducks.

One week later, Mrs. Mallard takes the ducklings ashore in hopes of reaching the Garden, but she has trouble crossing the streets as the cars will not yield to her.  With the help of some policemen that stop traffic for Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings, she promptly leads them from the Charles River to the Public Garden to make their new home – causing quite a commotion in traffic along the way. 
It is interesting to note that Make Way for Ducklings was published in 1941, and many books of the time portrayed a male dominated society; however McCloskey presented Mrs. Mallard as an independent and nonsubmissive female character.
Some critics noted that when Mr. Mallard left on questionable purpose (some have speculated that he had an assignation with Jemima Puddleduck), Mrs. Mallard is charged with raising their ducklings alone. She is portrayed as a capable woman who does not need the support of a male character.

But I tend to think that one of the sub-plots of the story is that women are natural born leaders – and nothing will get in our way when it comes to the tasks that we are asked to take on or the people we are responsible for – whether they are our children or our employees.

I just returned from Montreal this week as part of the U.S. delegation to the 37th General Assembly of ICAO.  What impressed me about our delegation – and quite frankly, what made me very proud to be an American – was that we were led by many women.  Our delegation included Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano; Susan Kurland, the Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs with the DOT – who is speaking tomorrow; Julie Oettinger, the FAA’s Assistant Administrator for International Aviation, Policy, Planning and Environment; and Peggy Gilligan, the FAA’s Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety; just to name a few.  And there were countless other women from countries and companies around the world participating in the General Assembly. 

It is due to organizations like IAWA that have helped promote these very opportunities for women.  The good news is that according to the US Census figures released earlier this year, statistics show that among young adults age 25-29, 58% of those with advanced degrees are women.  This was the last education barrier for women.  In the U.S. today we have more women who are receiving degrees as doctors, lawyer, and professors.

For adults beyond the age of 25, more women than men had high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees.  So as was mentioned this morning, we really ought to be seeing more women with the “C” (as in CFO or CEO) in front of their title.
When I was in Canada last week, I read an article about a study that looked at collective intelligence and found that the key to “smart” groups has less to do with the individual intelligence of the members of the group and more to do with the composition of the groups.  Researchers divided 700 people into groups and measured their ability to perform tasks like brain-storming, solving puzzles, and making moral judgments.  And do you know what they found out?  The groups that worked better were the groups that included women; in fact the more women, the better. 

We saw a great video from Airbus this morning about the strength of a diverse team.  This has also been my experience at the NTSB where our investigations are conducted by teams, many of which have women on them, and with respect to project management and report production, those positions are mainly held by women.

But of our 400 employees, only 158 are women and of those, only 36 are working in the technical positions that are at the heart of the work of the agency, and even fewer are in Senior Executive positions.  As Chairman of the NTSB, I can tell you that diversity within our workforce is a major concern for me – as it is for the Obama Administration and throughout the Federal government. 

That is why one of the my first tasks as Chairman was to appoint a task force on diversity to help set forth a series of recommendations that we could implement that would help us in recruitment, career development, and overall cultural awareness of the importance of diversity within the workforce – not just to benefit women but to improve the presence of all minority groups in our workforce.

So as we gather here in Boston to look at the state of the aviation industry, we should all take pride in the role that we as women, like Mrs. Mallard, are taking on as we lead the way to improve aviation safety at home and abroad. 

After lunch, you are going to hear a panel discussion on the global perspective on aviation safety.  So I guess I can set the stage for that discussion from our perspective at the National Transportation Safety Board. 

For those of you who may not be familiar with what we do, the Safety Board is an independent agency charged with investigating accidents and recommending ways to prevent them from occurring in the future.

Over the last several decades, transportation has become significantly safer.  The statistics show that there were only 538 aviation fatalities in the US in 2009 (of those 90% were in general aviation).  Likewise, international aviation is getting safer too, even in rapidly growing areas like Africa and China. 

But it’s not the Safety Board’s job to ever leave well enough alone.  There are still far too many avoidable accidents on our roads, rails, waterways, and in our skies.  And as much as technology has helped move the industry forward, we’re now seeing new risks to safety as a byproduct of that technology.

The Safety Board is deeply troubled by the problem of distractions in the operating environment.  While distractions from cellphones, texting, and entertainment systems in automobiles are the most prevalent areas of concern, we’re seeing dangerous examples of distracted operations across all modes.

Many of you are familiar with Northwest Airlines flight #188 incident last October, where the pilots overflew their destination of Minneapolis by more than 100 miles before a flight attendant alerted them to the problem.  Why did they forget to land the plane? They were engaged in a conversation on a subject unrelated to the flight operations, and each was operating a laptop computer in violation of airline policy.

Fortunately, in that case the pilots were able to correct their mistake, and all passengers arrived safely.  But that wasn’t the case with another accident the Safety Board investigated – the tragic September, 2008 crash of a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, California.  In this instance, the train’s engineer failed to observe a red signal, which resulted in a head-on collision that killed 25 people and injured 100 more.  The cause of his failure? He was text messaging when he passed the stop signal.

It seems clear that these kinds of threats are here to stay and are only going to get worse.  In my view, it’s imperative that states and industries develop clear laws and regulations banning distractive practices – but those requirements are meaningless if they’re not understood, observe, and enforced.

So, I ask you as leaders of your organizations, do you have a policy to protect your employees, the passengers, or the cargo that they transport?  Is a policy enough?

I would also like to ask you to critically consider another hot topic in our industry – the use of Safety Management Systems, or SMS.  Now I, of course, strongly support any technique that will make our transportation systems safer.  And clearly, SMS holds real promise.  But with that promise comes the risk of being lulled into a false sense of security.

But having an SMS isn’t going to prevent accidents or incidents.  It is people doing the hard work of adhering to procedures every day, making tough decisions about the data, investments or training – these are the things we face today and will continue to grapple with tomorrow even with mature SMSs.

I’m reminded of the Cosco Busan maritime investigation.  When this container ship crashed into the San Francisco Bay Bridge, releasing 53,000 gallons of fuel into the water, I was among the Safety Board team responding to the accident scene.  We discovered that the ship’s bridge and the company binders were crammed full of SMS material – in fact, there was a bookshelf on the bridge lined with binder upon binder of SMS information.  But the binders were untouched, sitting there collecting dust, and the crew had not complied with many of their own procedures.

So let’s make sure that as we embrace new ideas like SMS, we remember that safety will always start and end with well-trained professionals who are focused on doing their job the right way.  And let’s not forget that ultimately the success of any data-driven management tool won’t be measured by the amount of data it collects but by how much we reduce risk and how many lives we save.

In closing, perhaps former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was channeling Mrs. Mallard when she said, “If you want something said, ask a man.  But if you want something done, ask a woman.”  And I know some of the women on the next panels – Capt Orlady, KC Yanamura, Lisa Piccione – these are the ladies who get it done.

All of us in the industry bear a burden for making transportation safer.  Whether we are on the front lines, in factories, or in the Board Room.  The safety of millions of travelers rests on our shoulders.  That can be a burden, but it is also an incredibly important responsibility.  I want to thank you for all the work you do – for being Mrs. Mallard and for leading – and I urge you to continue to take those who follow to new places.