Fifty-five percent of US transit riders are women. But women make up just thirty-nine percent of the transit workforce. Of the nations twenty top agencies, just three CEO’s are women. Why is it so hard for women to rise to the top?
Over the past two years, TransitCenter’s Women Changing Transportation series has convened women leaders in the transportation sector to share their experiences and discuss how the field can support inclusion and advancement of women. These conversations confirmed that sexism still features prominently in transit workplaces, and that women have difficulty advancing. They are often characterized by colleagues as too shy, too bold, too loud, or assumed to have no authority when they do. They are far outnumbered in meetings, talked over, or dismissed. One panelist spoke heatedly on the topic, saying: “The field has a problem. We need to admit it’s a problem, talk about it openly, and address it at every point of our planning, hiring and interaction with communities. We all need to make it a point.” For many panelists, women managers and mentors played an important role in their success. All expressed a sense of responsibility for helping carve paths for junior women.
Men have to step up to correct this gender imbalance too. When Andy Byford became President of New York City Transit last January, he quickly declared his intention to bring more women into the agency’s upper ranks. Byford condemned a “top down, militaristic, macho, male- dominated, and my-way or the highway, I’m the boss you do it or else” culture at NYC Transit. (And indeed, one former MTA employee on our panel compared the environment there to the TV show Mad Men, known for its depiction of sexual harassment and discrimination towards women in the workplace in the 1960s). Byford quickly followed up his rhetoric with action by elevating Sally Librera to senior VP of subways (the first woman to hold the position) and hiring Sarah Meyer as chief customer officer. If his past experience is any indication, he won’t stop there – under his leadership, the Toronto Transit Commission achieved gender parity in its executive team, where no women had ever previously served.
The lack of women in leadership may be a source of current culture problems, but appointing women to high ranks won’t solve the problem alone. LA Metro, whose workforce is just 29 percent women, has created a “Women and Girls Governing Council” made up of sixty Metro staff members at all levels of the agency. Their mandate is to reduce barriers to employing women within Metro, and study the transit needs of women that are currently unmet in the transit system. For example, they reviewed job descriptions for arbitrary criteria or phrasing that might discourage female candidates. When they eliminated a weight minimum for operations jobs, they saw a spike in female applicants.
LA Metro anticipates hiring about 765,000 employees with the large funding package known as Measure M. Proactive steps in this time of growth could lead to significant change at LA Metro, and a transit network that better serves the majority of its riders.
Transit service is often built with the archetype of a male, home-to-work commuter in mind, leading to peak-hour-only service and expensive suburban rail. The pattern doesn’t accommodate school drop off, errands, or off-peak commute hours. But how do we change the voices and ideas that are valued in rooms where planning decisions are made?
Transit agency leaders should appoint women to positions of power, promote the ones who have been languishing for too long, and begin to value “soft skills” like organizing and communication through which planners learn about the way women use transit. Increasing the platforms women have for engagement could lead to fully accessible subway systems, and stroller space on transit vehicles. Improvements like all day frequency on buses and trains, enabling parents to pick up children from daycare and caregivers to make it to midday appointments, would deliver the type of transit service that people from all walks of life would want to use.