Women Account for 15 Percent of Transportation Workforce

New study looks at why women are not nearly at parity in transportation--and how to fix it

BART director Grace Crunican at the lectern during a ribbon cutting for a new station canopy. Although they've made great strides, women still represent a minority of transportation professionals. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
BART director Grace Crunican at the lectern during a ribbon cutting for a new station canopy. Although they've made great strides, women still represent a minority of transportation professionals. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

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Women represent only 15 percent of the transportation work force, according to a new study from the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University.

Jodi Godfrey and Robert Bertini, the authors of the study, entitled Attracting and Retaining Women in the Transportation Industry, cited a lack of female role models and mentors as a significant deterrent to women joining the transportation industry.

Here in the Bay Area, there are, of course, women in positions of leadership in transportation, such as BART’s General Manager Grace Cunican, as seen in the lead image. And Therese W. McMillan starts as the head of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission next month. But even with women leaders at the top of some agencies, there’s still a lot of work to do to improve diversity throughout the ranks.

“I definitely feel like I see women in leadership positions, but not at parity,” said Liz Brisson, a transportation advocate and a planner at SFMTA. She added that she sees more parity among planners who entered the transportation industry in the last decade but “…if you look at other types of transportation positions: from engineering to construction management to operations to maintenance–those seem to be the parts of agencies that are less represented by women.”

Obviously, disparities in the workforce are a problem in and of themselves. But related to it: do disparities inside an agency automatically lead to transit that doesn’t serve all riders?

Women we spoke to believe the answer to that is a definitive yes. As reported by Streetsblog USA, women are roughly half as likely as men to take advantage of new transit lines, in large part because of a concern for personal safety. Some transit agencies address this issue thought “night stops,” which allow bus drivers to drop patrons off closer to home rather than at a designated stops during off hours. But, of course, without women bus drivers, planners, and managers, this kind of simple solution may be overlooked.

Another example: “A lot of office bike parking is for lightweight road bikes that you can lift and hang vertically. Many women’s bikes, and especially those designed to carry children, don’t fit that mold,” said Alexandra Sweet, Senior Associate with Nelson\Nygaard consulting.

Meanwhile, Brisson told Streetsblog she’s concerned about a lack of diversity that goes beyond gender imbalance. She said agencies are hamstrung when a homogeneous slate of planners enters a historically African-American or another minority neighborhood to discuss new transit lines or street changes. “You can build trust with a community even if you look different, but it’s harder, especially in communities that have been shat on by government for so long.”

“Culture really matters and it’s hard to understand other people’s cultural experiences unless you’ve walked in their shoes. That’s super important for transportation. It’s a blind spot,” said Ratna Amin, SPUR’s long time transit expert who is currently transitioning to Deutsche Bahn Engineering and Consulting, in an interview last month with Streetsblog.

Tam Tran, a planner at the City of San Francisco and president of the Bay Area Chapter of Women in Transportation Seminar, a group dedicated to bringing more women into the field, added that it’s important to keep the needs of disabled people and women with strollers in mind. “When you put together a transit plan you have to consider women more than men; you have women who are shopping, have children, have babies…women are very important as a part of the range of users.”

“Although we’ve made great strides in egalitarian parenting, women still do the majority of child rearing,” said Sweet. “When we don’t plan for women, we don’t plan for children.”

She added that the purpose of transit is to serve everybody–but “how can we serve everybody if the decision makers aren’t representative of the public? To get women to those positions of leadership, we have to create a working environment and culture that not only supports women but champions them.”

Meanwhile, the study has recommendations for improving diversity. From a summary of the results:

  • Diversify the perception of the industry to better publicize the presence of women in the industry
  • Connect with women early, and not just early in their careers but early in their school years
  • Have a flexible and encouraging work culture to remove the stigmas of a male-dominated field
  • Attract a diverse talent pool that focuses on how organizations foster both communal and agentic goals

According to Bertini, “gender equality and gender diversity in the workforce are key to the economic growth required for companies to win the talent war. It is more important than ever to ensure that the talent pool encompasses all qualified candidates, and women are the largest pools of untapped labor globally.”

You can read the full study here.

Do you work at one of the Bay Area’s transportation agencies? Do you think management is adequately promoting, recruiting, and retaining women and minorities? And how are disparities inside an agency reflected in its decisions about planning and operations?

Post your thoughts below.

  • p_chazz

    Maybe women just don’t want to work in transportation. Wonky jobs tend not to attract them. And if women aren’t attracted to a certain job, then any number of recommendations to hire more women can be adopted but it’s not going to change. I think the whole idea that every profession needs to be at parity is mistaken.

  • datbeezy

    This is an insane segue:

    “do disparities inside an agency automatically lead to transit that doesn’t serve all riders?”

    “Women we spoke to believe the answer to that is a definitive yes. As reported by Streetsblog USA, women are roughly half as likely as men to take advantage of new transit lines, in large part because of a concern for personal safety.”

    I don’t see how gender representation within the agencies has anything to do with women’s feelings of personal safety on a new transit line.

    I work in transportation, and I really wonder what these numbers look like if you separate operations (drivers, maintenance, etc) from the professional planning and policy staff. Where I work, I’d probably peg the number of women on the high-professional side at somewhere around 40-55% of staff. Traffic Engineers still skew heavily male however

  • datbeezy

    Sweet’s anecdotes also deserve hefty inspection:
    “A lot of office bike parking is for lightweight road bikes that you can lift and hang vertically. Many women’s bikes, and especially those designed to carry children, don’t fit that mold,”

    1 – I’ve never once seen vertical hanging bike storage in an office, and an overwhelming percentage of bicycle commuters have no in-office storage whatsoever; and of those that do, they’re overwhelmingly traditional “staple” style bike racks.

    2 – I’ve seen very, very few bikes “designed to carry children” – more typically you’ll see regular bikes with a detachable child seat, and to the extant that women who ride are using child-carrying-specific bikes, they’re an extremely small minority.

    I can only imagine that the number of women who would ride but don’t because they are unable to store their bicycle at their office bike storage facility due to their fixed child-towing accessories is very small, probably less than 1,000 individuals nationwide.

  • Liz Brisson

    As a wonk, I’m very offended by the statement that wonky jobs don’t attract women. There’s tons of research that shows that more diverse groups make better decisions. There’s also a lot of ways society has “tracked” girls into certain areas of studies and not others. Recent programs that encourage girls to consider the STEM fields (Science Technology Engineering Math) are successful and important.

  • Cole the Happy

    I’m a woman, I would love to work in transportation, and I’m actively looking for jobs with the city right now. The process is long for any government job, but the hurdles to get into the SFMTA’s door are arduous. It’s not that I’m not “wonky” enough – I’m up on the issues, live the public transit lifestyle, have had internships regarding streets, civic engagement, and policy, I have a B.A. in urban planning; I’m as wonky as an entry-level worker comes – but there aren’t entry level positions with the SFMTA.
    There’s a very clear guideline for getting an internship, or for getting promoted once you get into the agency, but how do you get your first SFMTA job? All the positions I’ve seen in the few months I’ve been looking require at least a little engineering background, and engineering is very heavily male-dominated. I want to do policy, communication, facilitation, and research. The Planning Department is much more likely to hire me because it’s just a little less reliant on knowing CAD right out of the gate.
    The problem definitely starts well before it shows up in the SFMTA or other transit agencies. (Why wasn’t I taught CAD alongside ArcGIS?) But rigid silos and job descriptions keep agencies from cross-pollinating at the entry level, and transit agencies lose women & minority candidates because of it.

  • Cole the Happy

    Your anecdotes are not a better barometer. Bike parking arrangements, childcare, street harassment, and office dress codes all play a role in women’s decisions to ride.
    We have no idea how many women would ride a bike to work with or without “their fixed child-towing accessories” because we’ve never ever tried to systemically support them doing so.

  • p_chazz

    Relax. I did not say “wonky jobs don’t attract women.” I said “wonky jobs TEND NOT TO attract women.” That is, more men tend to be attracted to wonky jobs than women. While I agree that women should not be tracked into certain areas and not others, I don’t think that every job or profession can or should be at absolute gender parity.

  • Liz Brisson

    I hope you find a job in transportation and feel free to email me at liz.brisson@sfmta.com if you want to get a coffee and brainstorm!

  • Liz Brisson

    it’s clear to me that there are societal and cultural factors that have created the disparity we see today and are not exclusively about the difference in women’s inherent preferences

  • datbeezy

    My anecdotes are a better barometer, since they’re based on something that’s routinely observed. Even if women’s desire to cycle was double that of men, the number who couldn’t because they’re unable to fit their bike in the storage facility is vanishingly small.

  • Cole the Happy

    Why do you, random internet dude, think your anecdotes are based on more or better observations than the observations of a Senior Associate at Nelson/Nygaard? I have a guess.

  • acsweet

    Ditto what Liz said. Happy to talk! Send me an email: ASweet at Nelsonnygaard dot com.

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