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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the New Jersey Women of Distinction Awards, As Prepared

03/11/2012
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As prepared for delivery.

Thank you very much. It is wonderful to be back in New Jersey. Let me wish everyone a happy Women’s History Month. I’m glad to be here with women who are doing so much to redefine roles and open new pathways, which inspires new generations and keeps women’s history moving forward. I’m also glad to be here with Senator Robert Menendez, who has been a true champion of women’s issues. The creation of the Evangelina Menendez Trailblazer Award – named after his late mother – to honor New Jersey women like the remarkable ones we’re celebrating tonight is yet another example of the support Senator Menendez shows for the female community each and every day. Thank you, Senator, for the work you do.

Let me once again say congratulations to the women being honored here today. They’ve earned this recognition for excellence in teaching, for helping adults with Autism, for caring for our veterans. They are leading the way in health care, on the economy, and in citizen engagement that strengthens New Jersey and its communities. I’m glad to see such a wide range of fields represented here. They are breaking barriers and making changes in places where those things absolutely need to happen. It is something I’m happy to say I recognize from my own career and the women I have had the opportunity to learn from and work with over the years.

I am a scientist by training. I studied chemical engineering at Tulane and Princeton, and science has been central to my career in environmental protection. On my first day on the job as Administrator – and many times since – I have reinforced the notion that science is the backbone of everything we do at the EPA. It is the compass that guides every decision we make, every standard we set, every enforcement action and every emergency response. It is at the core of our mission to protect human health and the environment – which is why the EPA has the largest scientific staff of any federal agency besides NASA.

It is from my vantage point as a scientist that I would like to enter the discussion today. As a woman in a field traditionally filled with men – I have had the chance to think a great deal about the role women can play as our presence continues to grow in many different sectors. There are lessons that can apply in any place where women are gaining a foothold and moving into leadership roles. I suspect that some of my experiences as a woman in science have paralleled some of your experiences in your own fields.

Now – I enjoyed math and science from a very early age – and at the time it did not strike me as unique. I went to an all-girls school for elementary, middle and high school. They had science and math classes, and like all the young women around me, I did the best I could and didn’t think twice. It wasn’t until I began my study of chemical engineering at Tulane that I noticed something: I was, in most cases, one of the few women in my classes. You can imagine that after going to an all-girls school most of my life, this was something of a shock. At Princeton, when I received my master’s degree in 1986, I was again one of the few women in the chemical engineering program.

I started at the EPA as a staff-level scientist the year after graduation, and spent the next 15 years working my way up. In that time, I witnessed the changes that took place and the doors that began to open – not just for me but for all women. When I was a student, about 154,000 women were pursuing master’s degrees in science and engineering in America. By 2003, that number had jumped to 270,000. Fifty years ago, ten percent of the doctorates in science and engineering went to women. Today that number has grown to 40 percent. We can see the future taking shape in the winners of the first-ever Google Science Fair last year. Young women took top honors in all three age groups. The Grand Prize went to a 17-year old for her project to improve treatment of ovarian cancer.

These are just the first ripples in a wave. Each year our colleges and universities and business schools graduate another unprecedented generation of women who are eager to be biochemists or CEOs or educators. But there is still much more to do – especially for women like our honorees today. As leaders in your respective fields you have a unique opportunity to influence and inspire people to help keep this change moving.

The scientific world has seen a lot of progress, as I said. But we still have a long way to go. My oldest son is looking at schools right now. I am encouraging him to at least think about smaller technical schools. When we look at the numbers for the student population, most of them are 70 percent or 80 percent male. Why don’t we see technical schools that are 70 percent female? At least one reason is that any good young male scientist would likely recognize the favorable odds of seven women for every three men, and the admissions office would be flooded with applications from men.

I want to see those numbers go up. But I also know that in science – as in any field – making a real change is about more than numbers or quotas or any of the oversimplifications that these things often get reduced to. Bringing more women into fields like science or business has the potential to represent an important change in the culture of those fields.

Let me be very clear about something before I go any further: I am not talking here about any innate or genetic differences between men and women in their competence or aptitude. I’m happy to say that science has tried to quantify those differences for years – and has failed every time. What I’m talking about is an inevitable cultural dynamic that will be at work in the years to come as women’s roles expand.

The lesson I have taken from watching and working with so many strong women in my life is that, to be a strong woman, you don’t have to give up the things that define you as a woman. Empowering yourself doesn’t have to mean rejecting motherhood, or eliminating the feminine aspects of who you are. From my experience of breaking into a male-dominated field, I don’t believe the solution is for women to simply inhabit a man’s world. I believe we should make changes to that world. The real goal should be to make our own space in these fields, and open them up to the new possibilities. And the changes we make must be institutional as well as personal. We must continue to open doors at our universities and in the professional world for women to join in leadership. But we must also address the forces that prevent a 17-year old girl from wanting to study macro-economics or robotics. Whenever I meet with young female students – particularly minority students – I tell them that they should throw out their vision of what they think a scientist looks like. I want them to be able to see themselves filling these roles.

The qualities that have traditionally discouraged young women from pursuing science – that we are not interested in a cold and disconnected discipline – are a misrepresentation of both women and science. In fact, I believe that these are exactly the reasons why we should welcome more women into scientific fields. To make that happen, we must change the perception that science is a man’s field, and that to be a part of it, women will have to compromise their identities as women. And I believe that could change the direction of science in this country.

We may see more science aimed at protecting children’s health. We know far too little about what factors are affecting our children’s physical and emotional development. We could find greater intermarriage of so-called “hard” science and social science disciplines as women come together as their numbers increase. For years, women have been saying that we need more women’s voices in the discussions on women’s health. And it might just be that we will see greater balance in the science used to make policy decisions.

A living example of this is my own field of environmental protection. There is no doubt that environmental protection would not be where it is today without the extraordinary, groundbreaking scientific work of amazing women. Women like Sylvia Earle and Rachel Carson – whose book Silent Spring changed environmentalism forever. The EPA has had six women serve in its highest office over the course of its 40 year history. Today, many of our senior managers are women, just as many of the scientific staff I have met and worked with in my years with the agency have been women.

Let me close by saying that expanding opportunities, bringing more women into leadership roles, and welcoming those changes are essential to meeting the challenges we face today. President Obama has called on us to build an economy that lasts and works for every American – one where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. And as he has said, that is about our policies and our practices – but it is also about our values.

That is one of the reasons why the very first bill the President signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – to make sure that women get paid the same wage for the same work. It’s one of the reasons why we have worked hard to support women-owned small businesses. And it’s one of the reasons why this administration has worked to promote education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math for women and minorities.

First, we know that with more brilliant minds tackling any single challenge, we will advance further and faster. This has always been science’s greatest tool. But I also anticipate that adding more women to science is undoubtedly good news for our economy. It’s clear that much of our future prosperity rests on new innovations and advances in scientific and technical and medical fields. President Obama has made it a priority to invest in research and development – not only because American scientists and inventors are doing work critical to our health or our energy security, but also because we know that new ideas lead to new opportunities for American workers.

Think of how far we’ve already come. Think of how many “Next Big Things” we’ve already seen. And for most of history, half the team has been kept sitting on the sidelines. It is exciting to imagine what can happen once those talents are fully unleashed.

I hope that all of you, as leaders in your own communities, will take every opportunity to support this transformation. I hope you will encourage your daughters and your students to consider new fields and to explore them to the fullest. And in all of this, I urge you to remember that this is more than just a change in numbers and percentages. Making Women’s History is not only a matter of opening new possibilities for women in the professional world as it exists today. It is also about opening up those worlds to the new possibilities that women’s leadership can bring.

Thank you once again for asking me to be here. Congratulations again to everyone being recognized with this incredible honor. I’m very glad to be with you today.