Management & Operations

Women in Transit: Doors Now Opening

Posted on July 1, 2003 by Caroline Casey, freelancer

Women only account for 21.2% of management and professional employees in transit, according to a March 2001 diversity study conducted by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Compare that to their representation in all occupations (42.8% nationally), and it becomes apparent that the industry still has a way to go in incorporating women into its upper echelons. A close look at public transportation will also tell you something else: that women are becoming increasingly visible, that progress is being made and that there are some female transit managers who exemplify what’s best about the industry and its leadership. Sandy Draggoo, executive director of the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) in Lansing, Mich.; Dorothy Dugger, deputy general manager at the Bay Area Rapid Transit District in San Francisco; Joni Earl, executive director at Seattle’s Sound Transit; and Linda Watson, general manager of the Corpus Christi (Texas) Regional Transportation Authority, are devoted to the idea that an inclusive management strategy, hard work and a commitment to public service are essential qualities in a leader, no matter the gender. What distinguishes these women is how hard they worked for all of their achievements, not just their accomplishments in transit. An unwillingness to be intimidated by circumstances, precedent or others’ expectations of them has bred success, as well as an empathy that’s reflected in their determination to remember where they’ve come from, and make every employee feel like an invaluable member of the enterprise. They also all realize the importance of mentoring. Watson’s first job, at the Fort Worth (Texas) Transportation Authority, also brought with it a mentor in her boss, who encouraged her to think of transit as a career. Draggoo had a similar experience when she started at CATA as an executive secretary almost 30 years ago. But Dugger notes the importance of visibility and networking on an institutional scale as well, especially professional and advocacy organizations like the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS), and the APTA chairmanships of Shirley DeLibero and Celia Kupersmith (both featured in METRO’s 2002 Women in Transit article). “Having models to look to, to consult, to seek advice from, can be very helpful to women who might otherwise feel isolated or reluctant to ask for help,” says Dugger. Earl agrees, “I would think that one of the biggest challenges for women new to the profession is that they don’t have a lot of role models. I’m constantly amazed by how many of our women employees will come up to me and thank me for being a role model.” At the end of the day, however, all four can agree that the formula for success relies more on hard work, honesty and humility than anything else. Says Dugger, “It goes without saying that a reputation gained the old fashioned way is a huge asset in virtually any undertaking, so it’s a pretty straightforward recipe of hard work, some passion and a recognition that the best results are the product of a diverse team. Knowing that I don’t have all the answers and being not only willing to listen but able to hear and create room for the talents and capabilities of others to shine.” Leveling the playing field A recent article published by the WTS Los Angeles chapter examined the role that women play in the transportation industry. Many of those interviewed for the article agree that, while women have come a long way, there is still a lot of room for growth. “Since 1977, women in transportation have accomplished many firsts,” says Mary Jane O’Meara, president of WTS National and director of the Tobin Bridge for Massport. “Some of those include running the U.S. Department of Transportation, running state DOTs and heading up such agencies as the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration. “We are presidents of large and small firms, executive directors of agencies and authorities, commissioners and members of boards of directors. So I think that women have ‘arrived,’ but not completely. Even though we’ve made tremendous strides, a woman heading up an agency still elicits notice and discussion.” O’Meara notes that when she started in transportation, she experienced “anything but a level playing field.” Often she would be the only woman in a boardroom filled with dozens of men. “Things finally started to change, but it was a slow process,” she says. Much of the growth of women in the transit industry can be attributed to the level of service provided and the opportunities provided to small businesses at the federal level. “If you provide high-quality service with qualified professionals, and you market those services aggressively, you can definitely thrive,” says Laura Grant, founder and owner of Project Control Consulting Inc. “Certainly, the government’s focus on promoting small businesses, especially women-owned businesses, facilitates access to those opportunities. From my perspective, it’s becoming less and less a male-female issue. Ultimately, it really does come down to a matter of quality, customer focus and many traditional, necessary practices that define good business.” And while the transportation industry encompasses everything from highways to surface transportation, it’s the transit segment that seems to be embracing women at a quicker pace. “For some reason, I’ve seen more women in the transit industry than in highways,” says Nancy C. Smith, a lawyer and partner at Nossaman Guthner Knox & Elliott LLP. “It may just be the nature of the organizations; maybe transit agencies are doing more to smooth the path. I think that transportation departments are trying to advance women, but transit agencies are trying harder.” That doesn’t necessarily hold true in all areas of transit. “If you think highways are male-dominated, it’s my understanding that the rail industry is even more so,” Smith says. Despite the challenges put up against them, women are succeeding. And it’s not just women who have a transit career path. “Women who have made it to the top of agencies have had very diverse backgrounds and a variety of transportation roles, from finance to operations to planning to construction,” says Linda Bohlinger, director of management consulting at architecture, planning and engineering firm HNTB. Bohlinger is also the former executive director of South Florida’s Tri-Rail and the former deputy CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “That makes sense. Today’s agencies are not just dealing with the challenge of running a bus company or a rail system; they have the added role of dealing with full-funding grant agreements from the federal government and multi-jurisdictional planning issues. Women who want to move up in organization should get the most diversified backgrounds they can muster.” Click here to see profiles of four of the women in transit.

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