Celebrating Women’s History Month

By Michele Wong Krause | 3/28/2024

Breaking Down Barriers to Women in – and on – Transit

APTA Chair

“This Women’s History Month, may we recognize the long, storied history of great women helping to realize our Nation’s founding promise and aspirations … to build a world worthy of the dreams and goals of all women and girls.”

— From Presidential Proclamation on Women’s History Month, 2024

Women’s History Month traces its beginnings back to the first International Women’s Day in 1911, but it wasn’t until 1987 that Congress designated the month of March as “Women’s History Month.”

March is a month to celebrate the achievements of women who built, shaped, and improved the world in which we live … to reflect on the too-often-untold stories about those who championed equal rights … and to continue our commitment to ensuring women and girls realize their full potential. 

This is of special importance to our own public transportation industry.

Transportation was long perceived to be a male-dominated sector.  However, since the 1800s women have worked in every type of job and in every mode, making invaluable contributions and leading innovations throughout the industry.

From the early days of horse-drawn carriages to high-tech buses and trains to engineering advances in safety and sustainability, women have been essential to the planning, operation, and leadership of today’s modern mobility.

The history of women in public transportation is full of interesting trailblazing “firsts”:

  • Helen Schultz, the first woman founder, owner, and operator of an American bus company in 1922, the Red Ball Transportation Company in Iowa.
  • Charlotte Johnson Baker, the first African American woman to operate a horse-drawn streetcar and later a bus in New York City, paving the way for other women.
  • Rosa Parks, whose courageous act of defiance on a segregated bus helped change history, and Caroline Le Count, who played an integral role in successfully integrating Philadelphia’s streetcars.
  • Betty Bone Schiess, a transportation planner and advocate who helped advance transit with initiatives that made public transportation more sustainable, accessible, and efficient for all riders.
  • Mary Riggin invented the railway crossing gate, Mary Walton patented a mechanism to clean train emissions in 1879, and Eliza Murfey created 16 devices for improving railroad car axles that reduced derailments.
  • Margaret Horsfield, a transportation engineer and planner who specialized in designing public transit systems that were accessible and user-friendly using innovative technologies and sustainable planning and design practices.
  • Olive Dennis, the first female member of the American Railway Engineering Association, introduced reclining, stain-resistant seats in passenger rail cars, ceiling lights that could be dimmed at night, and patented individual window vents to allow for resh air.
  • Elizabeth “Liddy” Dole, the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of Transportation, appointed in 1983, who led made transportation safety a national priority for generations to come.

These women, among many others, helped to shape the public transportation industry for the nation – and for future women leaders, advocates, and visionaries.

Yet, women still face barriers in the transportation industry.  In many cases, we earn less than men for doing the same job.  We continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions and often face obstacles to being recognized for their contributions.

More than 55 percent of transit users are women, but they account for only about 15 percent of the transit workforce.  We also hold a smaller number of executive level or leadership positions than men:  According to Dr. Karen Philbrick at the Mineta Transportation Institute, less than 13 percent of women in public transit are executive officers.

Why is it critical to address the barriers to attracting, retaining, and advancing women in our industry?

1. To Build a Stronger Economy:

A strong national economy requires the full participation of women — half our workforce – especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) jobs.  According to a 2021 PEW research report, women made up only 25 percent of computer scientists and 15 percent of engineers. 

2. To Ensure Greater Success and Innovation:

Research shows that public and private sector organizations perform better and demonstrate a greater level of innovation when women are well represented at the top of an organization.

3. To Address Different Needs and Priorities of Women Customers

Effective systems need to serve everyone in order to grow public support.  Women’s travel patterns are more complex than men’s due to social and family roles; i.e., “trip-chaining” or multiple stops, household-related trips, and caregiving.  In addition, personal safety is a top priority for women who use transit, including well-lit stops and crime prevention programs.

There is significant work to be done to: 1) make the public transit workplace more attractive to female employees; 2) recruit and promote more women, especially at supervisory and C-suite levels; and 3) make transit more convenient, beneficial, and secure for female riders.

The good news today is that many transit agencies are re-examining their workplace and recruitment policies.  Adjustments are being made to transit services, safety and security, and vehicle design to be more compatible with women’s travel patterns.  And there are more mentors and role models than ever before in key leadership positions, including/

  • U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation Polly Trottenberg;
  • Former and current heads of the Federal Transit Administration Nuria Fernandez, the first Senate-conformed woman to hold the position, and Acting Administrator Veronica Vanterpool, respectively; and
  • A growing number of CEOs / general managers at major public transit and passenger transportation agencies from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, Las Vegas to New Orleans, Denver to Cleveland, Orlando to San Diego, and Pittsburgh to Dallas (where I am a member and the immediate Past-Chair of the DART Board).

Additionally, organizations like WTS (Women’s Transportation Seminar), led by Board Chair Jannet Walker-Ford and President and CEO Sara Stickler, is an international organization that “attracts, sustains, connects, and advances women’s careers to strengthen the transportation industry.”

As the fourth woman to serve as APTA Chair in the last 10 years, I am committed to supporting female leaders and employees in the public transportations sector.  Through our many conferences, webinars, workforce development initiatives, and networking opportunities, APTA is a valuable resource on these issues.

At our core, public transportation is about access to opportunities.  As members of the APTA family, we are passionate about building a more resilient, sustainable, and prosperous future by giving people the means to attain what they need, what they love, and what they aspire to achieve.  All progress is built on mobility. 

As this year’s Women’s History Month ends this week, let’s pledge year-round to make mobility the means to creating a more equitable society that “realizes our Nation’s founding promise and aspirations.”  What better way to welcome a new Spring than by recognizing, supporting, and rewarding the contributions of women everywhere.