Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Alice Award Luncheon of the National Women’s Party
Thursday, September 14, 2017
Thank you, Lucy, for those kind remarks.
Let me acknowledge the two other awardees today--Senator Lisa Murkowski and Senator Tammy Baldwin, as well as the other members of Congress who are here today.
I am so pleased to accept this award today, not for myself, but for someone who is very special to me: my mother—Ruth Mulan Chu Chao. She was the foundation of everything my family has achieved. Without her sacrifice, love and devotion, I would not be standing here today. My own efforts to help women access education and opportunity started early in life, in my own family, and were inspired by her example.
My mother, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, was among the very few women of her generation in war-torn China to gain an education. She came from a progressive family that believed in the education for their daughters. Because of her education, my mother was so much better prepared to face the turmoil and challenges of her later life. She went to the Lord on August 2, 2007, but her spirit and her good works continue to inspire me every day.
As you know, I am an immigrant to this country. I came to America when I was eight years old not speaking any English. Not only did we not speak English, but we struggled to adapt in so many ways. We had difficulty with American cuisine, and we didn’t understand the culture.
Like many other newcomers, my parents were so brave. They were incredibly hard working and determined to build a better life for their family. The fact that all of their six children were girls was never an issue. They taught each one of us to work hard to fulfill our potential and contribute to society. They believed that with hard work, a positive attitude and perseverance, we could achieve anything. That was their recipe for empowerment.
One of the most important attributes my parents taught their daughters was to help others, and to appreciate the value of financial independence for women. So whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I have tried to launch programs that empower women and help them achieve this important goal. As Director of the Peace Corps, I launched the first entrepreneurship training programs in the emerging democracies, with an emphasis on empowering women. As Secretary of Labor, the Department achieved parity—half of all high level non-career appointees were women. At my direction, the Department held many conferences to help women—and other underserved communities—access opportunity in the career federal service, and as small business contractors. These conferences were free and open to the public. And we launched campaigns to help educate women about the value of financial independence, and investing wisely for retirement. In addition, I was so pleased that the Department was able to assist First Lady Laura Bush in her campaign to educate Afghan girls.
That’s so important because-- broadly speaking—we know that education is the key to success, regardless of country of origin.
The advancement of women in our society correlates closely with access to education. In 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, high school graduation rates for women and men were roughly the same—about 90 percent. But beginning in 1995, women began to access higher education in greater numbers than men. In 2015, 60 percent of women age 25 and older had completed some college or more, compared with about 58 percent for men. And roughly a third of women in this age group had a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s a tremendous achievement, considering that in 1967, only 8 percent of women held a bachelor’s degree or higher.
And as soon as the doors of opportunity opened wider, women moved into the professions with astonishing speed. In 2015, women earned approximately half of all medical degrees in this country, compared with only 8.4 percent in 1970. Women today earn approximately half all degrees in dentistry, compared with less than one percent in 1970. And in 2015 women earned approximately 48% of all law degrees, compared with just 5.4 percent in 1970. And in a discipline with which I am very familiar—business school-- women today earn 46% of all MBAs. That number was a miniscule 3.6 percent back in 1970!
While much progress has been made, however, there is much more to be done. Women today are still under represented in the STEM disciplines, which tend to have the highest incomes. The STEM disciplines are engineering, math and computer science, as well as the physical sciences. As Secretary of Transportation, I am especially aware of the need for women in these science-related professions, especially engineering. We must do more to spread the word about these wonderful opportunities to young women.
Let me share one more interesting fact about women in the labor market. Today, a fair amount of married women are earning more than their husbands! In 2015, for example, 29 percent of married women in this country had a higher income than their husbands, an increase of 81 percent since 1981. That’s something that would make Alice Paul, the first leader of the National Women’s Party, not only astonished, but very proud!
So with that, let me thank you once again for this award. The advancement of women is very important to me. With events like this, we not only celebrate the achievements of the past. We lift up the leaders of tomorrow, who will stand on the shoulders of those who came before them to create new opportunities for the next generation of women leaders.