It is not fondly that Charlene Robinson remembers taking a career test at Cholla High School in 1980.
“It said for me, that I couldn’t be more than like a forest ranger,” she recalled.
Though she has no disrespect for that profession, she said that was the moment she committed herself “to push and become an engineer.”
A senior research project that looked into just how few women go into engineering only girded her resolve. Now, nearly four decades later, Robinson works for the multinational engineering firm AECOM and is the project manager on a major 22nd Street bridge project, one that when completed will provide a clear view to the low-income Tucson neighborhood where she grew up.
“Anything I do, I see,” she said of her profession’s rewards. “I get to drive it.”
While things have improved since Robinson was told her chosen career was not in the cards, there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to gender parity — the equitable representation of men and women in a workforce — in various transportation fields.
Those are some of the conclusions of research and data recently surveyed by academics with the University of Arizona’s Southwest Institute for Research on Women, according to Director Sally Stevens.
The institute was awarded a $200,000 grant last year by the Arizona Department of Transportation “to understand the factors that both promote and impede women’s employment in the transportation industry.”
Across the country, women make up just shy of 23 percent of the transportation sector’s workforce, which includes truck drivers, civil and mechanical engineers, heavy machinery operators, construction managers and many other occupations. Between 2008 and 2014, many of those subfields saw significant jumps for women.
For example, the percentage of civil engineers — Robinson’s profession — who are women rose over 6 percent to 16.5 percent. In other areas, however, the percentage of women stagnated or fell, as with transportation supervisors, where women’s presence fell 2 percent to just over 18 percent of the overall workforce.
In the next stage of the study, researchers will look at the state of the industry in Arizona, where Stevens anticipates the results will be more or less “in line with national profiles.”
It’s important to point out that at ADOT, which commissioned the study, women make up roughly 40 percent of the agency’s nearly 4,000 employees, a figure that has remained level over the last five years. The agency, whose policies will be analyzed and employees surveyed over the course of the two-year UA study, has achieved gender parity in several job categories and is close to it in others, according to its 2016 federal affirmative-action plan.
It falls well short of parity among service and maintenance workers, just 1.7 percent of whom are women, though it has set specific hiring goals for women and other underrepresented groups, among other policies “to develop a diverse workforce reflective of the community in which ADOT serves.”
The UA study will also look into Arizona city and county transportation departments, as well as private firms, which do much of the design and construction work for transportation projects.
Information provided by Stevens identifies a number of benefits that come with gender parity in the workforce, as well as other forms of workplace diversity. Those include improved profits, deeper commitments to corporate social responsibility, better workplace environments and improved job satisfaction.
Beyond that, Stevens said having a more diverse workforce working on transportation planning and design means that more perspectives and experiences can be brought to the task.
Many jobs in transportation are also well-paid and come with benefits that enhance women’s “ability to provide for their families,” Stevens added.
So, what are the obstacles? Jill Williams, who heads the institute’s Women in Science and Engineering Program, said some of them start very early in women’s lives.
“As young as between 8- to 10-years-old, girls start to identify or de-identify with the sciences or engineering,” she said. “So we know we need to start early.”
Once a sector is firmly male-dominated, Williams said, there is then a shortage of women mentors and role models to help attract younger women into the field. Implicit bias among university professors and employers can also make it difficult for women to break into traditionally male-dominated fields, she added.
Priscilla Cornelio, the first woman to head Pima County’s Transportation Department, had no shortage of role models when she was growing up, which she said made her career path a little easier.
Her grandfather was a contractor in Massachusetts, her father was a highway administrator in Washington, D.C., four of her five brothers are engineers and her sister, who is not an engineer, married one. Her father would sometimes take her to work, where Cornelio said she’d pass the day in his office drawing bridges.
“I never knew there was anything different from being an engineer,” she said, adding that one of her two daughters has carried on the tradition. Adorning her office’s wall is a poster with some of the leading female figures in Arizona transportation history, and she said she takes pleasure helping other women make their way in the field.
“I’ve succeeded, and it’s my duty to help others succeed,” she added.
While Stevens’ team will look into training and recruitment programs at transportation departments across the country, she said some of the potential solutions could be as simple as changing the sort of gendered language that is sometimes used in job postings, which she said can discourage some applicants from even applying. Others could involve accommodating child-care responsibilities and other elements of work-life balance.
Even though it wasn’t always easy, Robinson said she would still strongly advocate for young girls to follow in her footsteps.
“The job satisfaction that you can get as an engineer in transportation outweighs some of the trouble you may have to getting to achieve that,” she said. “I tell people, it’s so wonderful to drive around Tucson and say I was part of this particular project. I built this bridge.”