This article was written by BART senior web producer, Melissa Jordan, and published on bart.gov on March 8, 2019.
Julia Quittman’s grandmother told her as a little girl that her brain was just as good as her five older brothers’ and she should choose any career that made her happy: Now she’s a Senior Computer Systems Engineer for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and keeps BART’s systems running.
Maansii Chirag Sheth’s parents supported her decision to leave India as a young woman for the United States to pursue higher education and an electrical engineering career. Now she’s a Project Manager for cathodic protection, battling corrosion wherever metal meets water.
Van Nguyen loved math and science since childhood and considered medical school, but decided to get an engineering degree in four years and start working sooner. Now she’s a Senior Engineer working on the Transbay Tube earthquake retrofit.
They are just three of the women at BART whose work we are highlighting for International Women’s Day March 8. For more than a century, International Women’s Day has been observed each year to celebrate the achievements of women and to call for greater gender equity around the world, across a variety of organizations and industries.
The theme for 2019’s International Women’s Day is “Better the Balance, Better the World” – a message that BART has taken to heart by encouraging better balance in the traditionally male-dominated field of public transportation, particularly in technical areas like engineering.
In BART’s infrastructure engineering group, there’s around 17% women, compared with about 11% women engineers in the transportation industry overall. Of those BART engineers, 46% are women of color. Women are represented in key roles such as project and program managers and in all engineering disciplines. A few common threads run through their experiences: family support, mentors and role models both male and female, and grounding in STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math).
A BUSINESS IMPERATIVE
“Research shows that organizations with good gender diversity outperform those without it,” said Karen Horting, Executive Director and CEO for the Society of Women Engineers. “It’s not simply that it’s the right thing to do; it’s also a business imperative.”
“Research shows that organizations with good gender diversity outperform those without it. It’s not simply that it’s the right thing to do; it’s also a business imperative.”
-Karen Horting, Executive Director and CEO for the Society of Women Engineers
Maansii Chirag Sheth spends time working to maintain the Transbay Tube exterior and other spots where equipment must be protected against corrosion.
“I have challenging, intriguing projects to work on every day. I wanted to make a mark in society and work on something meaningful that would last,” said Sheth, who has worked at BART nearly three years. “There is a very diverse culture here at BART and even though I am the only woman on my team, it has never been a barrier. Most of the leadership team are women and they are extremely supportive.”
Sheth said mentors along the way, both men and women, showed her she could be whatever she wanted to be at BART. “There are many opportunities for advancement here,” she said.
Heather Fergus is a Manager of Engineering Programs who supports the Systems Engineering Group focusing on Train Control Engineering. With a 20+ year Cisco Systems network engineering background supporting the finance and banking arena in Charlotte, N.C., she’s been in male-dominated industries most of her life. Fergus likes the problem-solving aspect of working at BART. “I have learned so much about the Transportation industry since joining BART. I had to change my thinking from a Cisco Switch to a Switch Machine.”
“It’s a fantastic team,” she said of her group at BART. “We are driving to complete a lot of large-scale projects to help keep the legacy fleet running, which we know is a big concern for riders as the Fleet of the Future deployment quickly moves ahead.”
BRINGING SOMETHING EXTRA TO THE TABLE
Ni Lee, who has been at BART more than 10 years and works in the integration engineering group, said the women in nontraditional roles in transit “bring something extra to the table.”
“We often come at problem-solving from a different perspective,” she said. “Those of us who persisted, who had the determination to do these jobs that are more typically done by men, are not easily intimidated. We’re part of a culture change at BART making gender equality the new normal.”
Senior Civil Engineer Martina Z. Frignani grew up in Brazil and initially considered architecture for a career then found that she loved engineering. She moved to the Bay Area in 2016 to work for General Electric and was a regular BART rider; when GE shut down her area of operations, she figured, why not be an engineer for BART? “I like that you can work on a variety of different projects here, and you don’t have to do the same thing every day,” Frignani said. “You can also see a project through from the design stage, to the engineering, to the implementation.”
One of her projects, part of the Measure RR rebuilding effort, involves safety barriers that will allow maintenance workers to perform certain tasks safely while trains are running, rather than having to backlog that work to be done in the short overnight window.
“That means the work gets done faster to keep the trains running on schedule, and I know the riders appreciate that,” she said.
Mitra Moheb, a Manager of Engineering Programs over various project areas within Measure RR, grew up with the role model of an uncle who was a structural engineer. A relatively new hire at BART, Moheb had broad experience working for the FTA, Caltrain, CalTrans, Marin County and AC Transit.
“One of the things that drew me to BART was seeing the commitment to gender equality and the number of strong women in leadership roles here,” Moheb said. Asked about the perception that women tend to have more “soft skills,” she said, “You still have to back it up with logic and really knowing your subject matter, being a good manager or engineer.”
While the largest number of women engineers at BART are in the Maintenance & Engineering group, there are others spread about in different parts of the organization, including Rolling Stock and Shops, the group that manages trains and their maintenance.
“PEOPLE LISTEN TO ME”
Rosa Sung studied mechanical engineering at San Jose State University, did an internship at BART’s Hayward Shop then was hired there as a Vehicle Systems Engineer, where she has worked for more than five years.
“I always liked fixing broken stuff,” said Sung. She enjoys the challenge of troubleshooting train issues and doesn’t mind being, often, the only woman on the job. “I feel I am respected and treated the same” even though she is a young woman. “I am always focused on safety first. If I say, ‘this train can’t go back in service yet’ until something is fixed, people listen to me.’ “
Another recently hired woman of the Hayward Shop is Janice Pelasauma, who as an expeditor clerk assists mechanics in getting the parts they need to work on trains – which can involve driving a forklift, moving heavy equipment and generally knowing your way around the shop and the thousands of parts in inventory. It’s her second career after retiring from doing the same type of work at United Airlines for 23 years.
“My dad is a contractor and I grew up very hands-on whenever there were projects to be done at home,” she said. “It’s important as a woman that I learn my job well and be able to handle things on my own. I’ve felt very welcomed and supported here.”
Women are underrepresented in the skilled trades in general; at BART, however, you can find women in almost all job categories working alongside men, including nontraditional areas such as welding. Shelley Culloty is one, a track welder who has worked on many of the Measure RR track replacement jobs.
“WE CAN HOLD OUR OWN”
“My dad was a welder, and I just thought it was a cool job,” said Culloty, who was a welder for Union Pacific before joining BART a decade ago.
“I think as women we have to work a little harder to prove ourselves,” she said, “because everything you do is under the microscope until the guys see you can do the job. In my opinion women could do any job at BART if they want to. We can hold our own. I’m very proud of the women of BART.”
Senior Computer Systems Engineer Quittman grew up in Costa Rica with five older brothers, so she learned at an early age how to build things, work on cars, and “not to be afraid to get my hands dirty.’ Quittman started her career at BART at the turn of the millennium preparing computers for Y2K in 2000. Today, she spends a lot of her time in the field on projects such as fiber optical infrastructure.
“It’s been a fun journey,” she said. “I feel like a pretty lucky person to be able to work for BART, which is so important to the Bay Area.”
WOMEN LEADERS MATTER
Horting, of the Society of Women Engineers, said there’s no magic bullet to increasing gender diversity but that one factor in BART’s favor is having women in top leadership positions, such as General Manager Grace Crunican and Assistant General Manager for Operations Tamar Allen (Crunican at right and Allen at left in photo at side)
“Having women in leadership makes a huge difference, especially in retention,” Horting said.
“Women can see, ‘This is a place where my hard work and technical expertise will be recognized and I’ll have the opportunity to move up,’ “ Horting said. “It’s about having that level playing field.”
A February 2019 study from the Mineta Transportation Institute called “Attracting and Retaining Women in the Transportation Industry” concluded: “Keeping set goals of creating diverse, flexible, welcoming work environments must be deliberate and intentional.”
Jodi Godfrey, a Research Associate at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida and a co-author of the study, said, “Women are very underrepresented in engineering, and in transportation in general.” (For all jobs at BART overall, the breakdown is about 25% female and 75% male. There are many women train operators, station agents, police officers, cleaners and administrative personnel, among other jobs.
Godfrey, pictured below at right, said increasing the representation of women in transportation is important because “in order to find holistic solutions to problems, you need to have diverse perspectives represented.” Also, she said, the transportation industry deprives itself of the talent and contributions of 50% of the population if it does not create a work climate that is welcoming to women.
“YOU WILL BE A ROLE MODEL”
“I try my best to encourage women to get up and speak and make their voices heard,” Godfrey said. “If it’s your work, be proud to represent it. You may not realize it, but you will be a role model for other women looking at the industry. You can’t be invisible.”
Another part of solving the puzzle is advocacy by organizations like the Women’s Transportation Seminar or WTS, an organization dedicated to advancing women in transportation.
Tam Tran, President of the WTS SF Bay Area Chapter and a transportation planner in the San Francisco Planning Department, said the organization is seeking women and men in transportation to serve as mentors and help sponsor events such as field trips and networking meetings. “The world is changing,” Tran said. “To provide the best product or service, you need a diverse workforce to help you with that, one that reflects your customers and your community.”
Van Nguyen, the senior engineer with a key role in the retrofit of the Transbay Tube, got her first look at BART in a junior high internship – one she earned through sheer persistence of calling and calling until a manager gave her the job. After graduating from Cal and spending some time in the private sector as a consultant, she came back to BART about five years ago and has worked on jobs where she is often the only woman on the site. “I feel like I am treated the same as anyone else,” she said. “I have not had any problems being the only woman. “
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Her advice for girls and young women considering careers in transportation? “It can be a very satisfying job but you have to have the passion for it,” she said. “You are going to get tired, and dirty, and you can’t wear your dress clothes. But you know you are making a difference for the community.”
For a look at all open positions at BART visit www.bart.gov/jobs