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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 73 · No. 5 > Women in Transportation

March/April 2010
Vol. 73 · No. 5

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-10-001

Women in Transportation

by Susan Hanson and Elaine Murakami

Improving the current gender imbalance will require strategies on a number of fronts, from education to industry organizations and the workplace.

Dramatic lighting highlights the curves of the 70-foot (21-meter)-tall piers of the new I–35W bridge in Minneapolis, MN, which was designed by a woman-owned bridge engineering firm.
Dramatic lighting highlights the curves of the 70-foot (21-meter)-tall piers of the new I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, MN, which was designed by a woman-owned bridge engineering firm.

The proportion of women aged 16 and older in the U.S. workforce has grown steadily from 30 percent in 1950 to about 46.5 percent in 2008. Despite this increasing presence in the workforce in general, women remain underrepresented in engineering and the transportation industry. In 2008, only 10.4 percent of all civil engineers in the United States were women. In the category of transportation and material-moving occupations, which includes various jobs ranging from airline pilot and bus driver to stock handler and bagger, the percentage of full-time employed female workers totaled only 13 percent in 2008.

With women making up 46.5 percent of the U.S. labor force, even this larger occupational grouping of 13 percent does not approach gender equity in transportation. Whether white collar or blue collar — engineer, planner, or skilled construction worker — jobs in transportation are still disproportionately held by men.

Why should these figures concern the transportation community? Statistics like these are troubling for two main reasons. At the individual level, they might reflect a lack of equality between women and men in access to employment opportunities or a lack of interest by women — related perhaps to a gap in education or a lack of role models. At the industry level, they indicate unnecessary limitations on the talent pool tapped by transportation firms and agencies. Not only does this gender imbalance limit women's opportunities for interesting and well-remunerated work, it deprives the transportation field of a vital source of talent.

To address this gender underrepresentation, eight women leaders in transportation interviewed individually for this article offered the following major suggestions for attracting women to the field and retaining them. Their recommendations target both the industry and women themselves: (1) Connect with children and young people through schools, existing programs to attract women and minorities to science and engineering, and directly through YouTubeTM and other social media. (2) Build relationships through networking. (3) Participate in industry organizations and take leadership positions in those organizations. (4) Be mentors. (5) Recognize that workers have lives outside their jobs by ensuring flexibility in the workplace, creating part-time positions, facilitating telework, and avoiding the equation of long work hours with productivity. The women interviewed also suggested ways to improve opportunities for women-owned transportation businesses.

Women in Selected Occupations, 2008

Occupation

Employed, Both Sexes (in thousands)

Employed, Female (in thousands)

Percentage Female

Supervisors, transportation and material-moving workers

208

43

20.5

Civil engineers

346

36

10.4

Construction and building inspectors

93

9

9.5

Industrial truck and tractor operators

568

51

8.9

Construction managers

1,244

102

8.2

Engineering managers

109

7

6.3

Motor vehicle operators, all others

74

4

5.5

Driver/sales workers and truck drivers

3,388

167

4.9

Heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians and mechanics

217

2

1.1

Bus and truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists

358

3

0.9

Highway maintenance workers

103

2

1.9

Source: U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau.

Wage Inequality

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), median weekly earnings by women working full-time in 2008 were about 80 percent of men's, representing an increase from 62 percent in 1979. The BLS also reported that women's wages as a proportion of men's generally increased from 1979 to 2005 with only slight declines in the mid-1990s.

Women working in gender-typical occupations such as kindergarten teacher and dental assistant generally earn less than women working in gender-atypical occupations such as firefighter and drywall installer. As noted by the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor, women can increase their wages and their opportunities for advancement by working in male-dominated occupations. The tendency for women to be underrepresented in certain lines of work is a major reason for the gender pay gap.

This woman, a researcher at Rutgers University, is conducting half-cell corrosion potential testing on a bridge deck in northern Virginia. Half-cell testing provides information about the likelihood of active corrosion.
This woman, a researcher at Rutgers University, is conducting half-cell corrosion potential testing on a bridge deck in northern Virginia. Half-cell testing provides information about the likelihood of active corrosion.

But data on gender imbalances among occupations and on gender wage disparities are extremely sensitive to how narrowly or broadly the occupations in question are defined. For example, according to the BLS Current Population Survey, women made up 46 percent of bus drivers in 2008, up from 30.5 percent in 1990. But the occupation of bus driver includes those who operate schoolbuses, transit vehicles, and intercity buses, and the wages for driving these different kinds of vehicles differ (median weekly wage of $594 for schoolbus drivers versus $617 for transit and intercity bus drivers). Although the gender composition of these categories (schoolbus drivers, intercity bus drivers) is not available from the BLS, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that the gender difference in median weekly wage for "bus driver" ($605 for men and $507 for women, or 83.8 percent of men's earnings) reflects women's overrepresentation, relative to men, as schoolbus drivers and underrepresentation as intercity bus drivers.

Similar gender wage disparities are evident in other transportation-related occupations. BLS data for 2008 show, for example, that the median weekly earnings for full-time wage and salary workers in architecture and engineering for men were $1,286 and for women were $1,001 (or 77.8 percent of men's earnings). In transportation and material-moving occupations, women fared somewhat worse, as their earnings were only 74 percent of men's ($615 for men; $455 for women). In addition to bus drivers, this category includes crane and tower operators, packers, and packagers.

Many specific occupational categories, however, do not have enough female workers for the relevant wage data to be reported, a situation that is telling in itself. The BLS requires a minimum of 50,000 workers in an occupational category for the reporting of wage data. As a result, wage data are available for general groupings of occupations, but not for detailed occupational categories that have few women in them, such as construction managers; transportation, storage, and distribution managers; engineering managers; civil engineers; surveying and mapping technicians; materials engineers; and environmental engineers.

In terms of the gender wage gap, the question in all these cases is the extent to which the gap reflects different job types and job titles within a particular occupational category or different pay for the same work.

Limited Talent Pool

The second cause for concern about the relatively small numbers of women in transportation — the limitation of needed talent — points to the need for strategies to recruit and retain women in transportation jobs. Over the past 20 years, many occupations that formerly were dominated by men have attracted enough women that these occupations are no longer considered nontraditional for women (for example, lawyers, physicians, chemists, and mail carriers). The Women's Bureau defines a nontraditional occupation as one in which women make up 25 percent or less of the workforce.

Although the proportion of women in engineering has increased substantially over the past quarter century, engineering, like other transportation-related occupations, remains distinctly male-dominated. If medicine, law, and the United States Postal Service® can attract women's talents, why not transportation?

Employed Civil Engineers By Gender, 1972-2008

Year

Total Employed Civil Engineers

Percent Women

1972

154,000

0.6

1980

180,000

3.3

1989

249,000

5.4

2000

288,000

9.7

2008

346,000

10.4

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistic Abstracts of the United States, www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/statab.html. Numbers may vary from other reports that use only full-time workers.

Learning From Women Transportation Executives

To help determine answers to this question and others, eight senior-level women discussed their experiences working in transportation. Members of the planning committee for a Transportation Research Board conference on women's issues held in Irvine, CA, in October 2009 recommended the following women leaders in transportation:

  • Brenda M. Bohlke, president, Myers Bohlke Enterprise, Great Falls, VA
  • Marsha Anderson Bomar, AICP, president, Street Smarts, Duluth, GA
  • Linda Figg, president, FIGG Engineering Group, Tallahassee, FL
  • Carla W. Holmes, P.E., PTOE, founder and principal, Carla Holmes Engineering, Ellenwood, GA
  • Linea Laird, P.E., project manager, Washington State Department of Transportation, Seattle, WA
  • Wendy Lopez, P.E., vice president, URS Corporation, Dallas, TX
  • Kim Thatcher, owner, KT Contracting Company, Inc., Salem, OR
  • Doris Willmer, P.E., LEED AP BD+C, president and principal consultant, Willmer Engineering, Atlanta, GA

Seven of the eight own or have owned transportation-related firms, and all have worked for decades in a wide variety of positions at transportation agencies and companies. All are pioneers; whether earning a Ph.D. in geotechnical engineering (Bohlke) or a B.S. or M.S. in engineering (Figg, Lopez), they had few or no female classmates.

Topics of discussion included their work experiences and ideas for attracting and retaining women in transportation. The suggestions they provided pertain equally well to members of other underrepresented groups in the transportation industry, such as minorities or people with disabilities.

Marsha Anderson Bomar, one of the eight women transportation leaders, is shown here on construction equipment during the groundbreaking of her company’s new office building in Duluth, GA.
Marsha Anderson Bomar, one of the eight women transportation leaders, is shown here on construction equipment during the groundbreaking of her company's new office building in Duluth, GA.

Attracting More Women

The women interviewed offered three primary suggestions for attracting more women to transportation: connect with young people, network, and participate in professional organizations.

Connect with young people. To educate students about career choices and demonstrate that gender does not limit career possibilities, companies and agencies need to connect with educational institutions, especially middle schools but also high schools and colleges. The aim should be to demonstrate how mathematics, science, and engineering help to solve real-world problems and improve lives.

School projects and field trips can be transformative. During the interview, Doris Willmer described how her interest in engineering began with a fifth grade assignment to interview someone about his or her work. When the chemical engineer she interviewed likened the field to baking a cake, Willmer thought, "I can do that." She later shifted to civil engineering after realizing that she was more interested in a discipline where she could see more immediate benefits from her work.

Photo of Carla Holmes
Carla Holmes
Photo of Wendy Lopez
Wendy Lopez
Photo of Doris Willmer
Doris Willmer
Photo of Linda Figg
Linda Figg

In another school-related project, Linda Figg's bridge engineering firm involved 1,800 schoolchildren in the design of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, MN. The children attended a class that included an introduction to bridge engineering and construction, the making of mosaic tiles, and a site tour. The Minnesota Department of Transportation incorporated the children's tiles into the bridge.

Brenda Bohlke, Figg, and Willmer provided two more recommendations. In addition to sponsoring field trips, another way for companies and agencies to connect with young people is through educating school counselors about engineering and opportunities for women. Still another is to sponsor summer internships and semester-long apprenticeships for high school and college students.

Also effective is establishing cooperative programs between industry and academia, whereby young women employed in the transportation industry work simultaneously on a degree. During the discussion, Bohlke pointed out that once these employed students complete their degrees, they will have acquired a broad familiarity with job choices. (See "Selected Programs to Attract Women and Minorities to Science and Engineering" below.)

Still another suggestion, from Linea Laird, was to connect directly with young students via YouTube, Facebook, and other social networking Web sites, as many youths seem to prefer these media to more conventional publication outlets.

The last recommendation for connecting with young people was to work with one or more of the existing programs that help draw women to engineering.

Build relationships through networking. During the discussion, Marsha Bomar pointed out that the relationships women develop as business owners or managers help with recruiting. She organizes a "power lunch" for women at the annual conference of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, an opportunity to build relationships that are useful when looking for new staff or creating project teams.

Kim Thatcher is shown here with one of her employees during a traffic control training exercise.
Kim Thatcher is shown here with one of her employees during a traffic control training exercise.

"I network with a lot of engineering organizations and with their women members, so I've probably met more highly qualified women than your average person who is looking for potential employees," Bomar said. "As a result, I have more women in a pool of candidates than an average company does." By offering opportunities for networking, engineering organizations serve as a pool for recruiting women engineers into transportation.

Participate in professional and industry groups and take leadership roles in those groups. Taking on leadership roles in transportation organizations is not only an effective form of networking, it also elevates the visibility of women as leaders and demonstrates that women are making significant contributions in the fields of transportation engineering, road construction, bridge design and construction, and highway construction. Bomar was president of the international Institute of Transportation Engineers (1994) and currently is president of the American Society of Civil Engineers' Transportation & Development Institute. Bohlke was chair of the Underground Construction Association of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration (2007-2009). Wendy Lopez currently is chair of the board of directors of the National Association of Women Business Owners. By taking on leadership positions in their professional organizations, these women raise the visibility of all women, not just themselves, which in itself can attract other women to the field.

Selected Programs to Attract Women and Minorities to Science and Engineering

Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation Education Program at the Federal Highway Administration (www.fhwa.dot.gov/opd/universitygrants.htm#GAMTTEP)

The program focuses on improving K-12 students' skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, with particular attention to women and minority students.

U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau (www.dol.gov/wb)

The Women's Bureau offers programs that encourage women to pursue nontraditional occupations.

Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics On The Air! (womeninscience.org/about.php)

This program funded by the National Science Foundation includes a radio program and Web site.

American Society of Civil Engineers (www.engineeryourlife.org).

This program is called "Introduce a Girl to Engineering."

Retaining Women in Transportation

If women employees leave the transportation field, then any gains made through the above strategies were only temporary. The eight senior executives addressed this issue by offering two primary suggestions.

Be a mentor. Make a priority of mentoring women and men early in their careers. Carla Holmes credits her mentor, Marion Waters, now retired from the Georgia Department of Transportation, for helping Holmes advance in her career. In turn, many people have sought advice from Holmes. She adds that it is not useful to assume you will be passed over for a promotion because you are a woman or a minority. Instead, show your interest in advancement by taking courses and improving your skills.

Thus, mentors need to encourage staff training. At her former company, Lopez initiated a program called Pathway to Principal, in which employees work together in teams that differ from work project teams. This training program provides a venue for learning about the varied skills and strengths of their colleagues.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) provide a number of opportunities for women to advance in construction and engineering. These opportunities include programs aimed at college-level students, such as the Summer Transportation Internship Program for Diverse Groups (STIPDG), the Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program, and the Professional Development Program. In 2009, USDOT established a new program, Pilot Entrepreneurial Training and Technical Assistance Women and Girls Program, that provides internships, mentoring, and training. In 2008, women represented 38 percent of the FHWA workforce, an increase of 9 percent since 1990.

Recognize that workers are whole people. When Bomar started her company, she said, "I wanted to create a place where we could be professionally excellent but also be comfortable being whole people, that is, recognize that we have family, friends, and interests outside of work."

Holmes added, "Workplace [managers] should not make employees choose family or work; work and family are both important. Employers cannot expect work to infiltrate all hours of someone's life." Specific suggestions culled from the discussion include the following four points:

Create a flexible workplace that helps attract and retain both women and men. Bomar says, "This approach is not just for women, and it's not just for families. Someone who likes to go mountain biking might need to leave early on Fridays. The same flexibility should apply whether it's for a school event or a personal hobby. Staff should feel comfortable that as long as they are acting like professionals, they will be treated like professionals."

Kim Thatcher points out: "Women have more understanding about the need for flexibility around family issues because responsibilities for child care and family still mostly fall to women. They need the flexibility to take care of these life matters. Things like a child's recital or soccer game can happen before 5 p.m. when scheduled work time ends."

Create part-time positions in a wide range of jobs. Many jobs in transportation, such as project design and surveying, can be made part time for people who do not want to work full time while raising families or going to school.

Facilitate teleworking, including working from home but other forms as well. At Figg's company, employees can choose where to live, and project teams include people from a number of different offices, who communicate via Web conferencing and other tools.

Avoid equating long work hours with productivity. Thatcher encourages flexibility in the work process by avoiding micromanagement: "We tell staff, 'Here is what we want to do, here's the goal, and here are the parameters.' Everyone is helping everyone else reach the goal — project completion. Workers love having the latitude to 'go forth' and get the job done."

Bomar's company operates on a similar philosophy. "You have a project, a schedule, and a deadline," she says. "There are core hours where most days you should be present, but as long as you meet your schedules, meet the quality of work we're looking for, and keep your colleagues and your supervisors informed, you can [change] your schedule around to accommodate all kinds of things."

FHWA Nevada Division Administrator Susan Klekar, shown here in on a street in Carson City, NV, worked part-time for 7 years “to keep all parts of my life in balance.” She credits FHWA with helping her maintain her career with a flexible schedule that allowed considerable family time.
FHWA Nevada Division Administrator Susan Klekar, shown here on a street in Carson City, NV, worked part-time for 7 years "to keep all parts of my life in balance." She credits FHWA with helping her maintain her career with a flexible schedule that allowed considerable family time.

Improving Opportunities For Women-Owned Businesses

The discussion with women who own their own businesses made it clear that many seek to create a different kind of workplace, one that does not replicate the way things were done in their previous workplaces. Bomar observes, "A lot of the rules that I created when I first started the business were a reaction to bad experiences I had at other places. One of the areas that I thought a lot about was how to have the kind of environment that I wanted as a single mother with three children, and I wanted time with my kids. How could I make sure that other folks had the same opportunity and yet still have a high-functioning, professional business. I wanted to create something better...by doing things differently."

That these women have succeeded in doing things differently is clear from the fact that women constitute higher-than-average proportions of their professional staffs — typically more than 25 percent. Compare this with the much lower proportion of female engineers in transportation; for example, the Institute of Transportation Engineers has 3,054 female members, only 16.2 percent of a total membership of 18,824.

At Lopez's company, people of color represent a higher percentage than at her former firm. Women-owned businesses appear to be an important medium for improving the participation of women and other underrepresented groups in transportation.

The business owners offered these suggestions for increasing opportunities for women-owned businesses in transportation:

Find enhanced ways to finance women-owned businesses in transportation. According to Megan Blake's 2006 article, "Gendered Lending: Gender, Context and the Rules of Business Lending," in the journal Venture Capital, women who are attempting to finance a business in a sector such as transportation that is nontraditional for women often encounter difficulty obtaining loans. In such cases, banks have denied loans on the grounds that customers will not want to do business with a woman-owned engineering or design firm.

Some disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs) are concerned that the size standards used in the DBE program are too low, making it difficult for firms to grow enough to compete for larger contracts while still remaining eligible for the program. By statute, DBE firms must meet U.S. Small Business Administration size standards (usually expressed in gross receipts or, in some cases, number of employees). Another concern frequently expressed by subcontractors, including DBEs, is that slow payments by prime contractors hurt subcontractors' cash flow. Some have suggested requiring a specific schedule for payments, such as bimonthly. While not mandating a specific schedule, USDOT's DBE rule does require prompt payment of DBEs.

What Now?

Managers, business owners, and employees themselves can do much to alter the shortage of women in transportation. Many professions in the transportation industry are well paid and offer opportunities for advancement. Some jobs that previously might have required physical strength now rely more on the ability to operate heavy equipment using fine motor skills. As women advance to become team leaders and project managers, their strengths in communications and building cooperative relationships become especially valued.

Women as business owners can make significant improvements to gender balance in the transportation industry. They are more likely to hire other women (based on the pool of female candidates they are exposed to through their networking experiences), establish scholarships, work with educational programs at all levels to encourage women to join the field, and create working environments that maintain work-life balance.

Tips for Women in Transportation

1. Be a mentor to young women who are interested in transportation careers. Take the time to advise others on how they can succeed and advance their careers.

2. Early in your career, find a mentor, whether a woman or a man. A mentor can help you learn skills to advance and help build your network.

3. Find out what your aptitudes are. Don't let your peers or families limit your career choices.

4. Learn from your failures. Ask what you could have done differently. Don't dwell on the negative; create something positive such as a new work environment and produce high-quality work.

5. Demonstrate your interest in learning new skills. Take advantage of any management and leadership training opportunities that arise.

6. Learn to be a good manager if you want to advance. Over a long career in transportation, management skills will help you advance.

7. Effective communication skills will help you be a better project manager or team leader. Be a good listener, hearing the problems that people are having, and work cooperatively to come up with solutions.

8. Recognize that sometimes you might have to move to another location to take advantage of opportunities.

9. Be willing to put on a hard hat and work in the field, take on physically demanding work.

10. Pay it back. Get involved at the local level in school and community programs so others can learn about what you do.

11. Be an ambassador. Seek opportunities to represent the profession. Be visible, be accessible. Inspire someone.


Susan Hanson is research professor of geography at Clark University, where she has held several positions over the past 28 years, including director of the School of Geography. She earned a B.A. from Middlebury College and an M.S. and Ph.D. from Northwestern University. Her research on gender has focused on urban travel-activity patterns, local labor markets, and entrepreneurship.

Elaine Murakami is a community planner with the FHWA Office of Planning. Her education includes a B.A. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and M.A. degrees in urban planning and gerontology from the University of Southern California. She has a longstanding interest in the role of women in the transportation industry.

The authors thank Katie Caudle for her valuable research assistance and thank each of the eight women who shared their experiences. Marsha Anderson Bomar also participated in developing this article with the authors. For more information, contact Susan Hanson at 802-388-9977, shanson@clarku.edu or Elaine Murakami at 206-220-4460, elaine.murakami@dot.gov.

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