On October 7, 2021, we invited UITPANZ Executive Director Michelle Batsas to lead a conversation with Mobility XX Co-founder Laura Chace about increasing the number of women in decision-making roles so that mobility systems reflect the travel needs and patterns of women. The conversation is now available as a podcast on both NewCities’ threesixtyCITY and UITPANZ’s Women Who Move Nations. Some of the transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Listen to the conversation on our threesixtyCITY podcast.
Michelle Batsas: So to begin, can you tell us more about Mobility XX, how the idea came about, and how you’re bringing this vision to life?
Laura Chace: Mobility XX was first started by ITS America and two partner organizations: WTS International and an organization called The Ray, which is a member-led organization of ours in Georgia. We came together actually last fall, around an opportunity for a very large grant proposal called Equality Can’t Wait Challenge. It was about a $40 million grant opportunity offered by Melinda Gates and Mackenzie Scott focused on putting women in positions of power. So anyway, our organizations came together around this opportunity and we said, “transportation, we have a really compelling story to tell here.”
Not only do women not make up much of the industry, but part of the reason we wanted to do this is that women face inequities in our transportation system. We know that women pay more for safe transportation and lose more time on transportation; they have to trip chain, a lot of their trips are as caregivers. It also limits their mode choices. You can’t jump on an E-bike if you’ve got a toddler in tow, right? Or you can’t necessarily jump on a scooter if you’ve got grocery bags.
So all of those factors–the fact that you pay more for safety, that you’re losing more time because of your needs that are not met by the system–it equates to reduced economic opportunity. And so we put together this compelling proposal that focused on the fact that if you can elevate and lift women in transportation, you’re lifting women everywhere.
You’re not only lifting women, but you’re also lifting families, you’re lifting communities, and you’re creating these better outcomes for women everywhere.
Unfortunately, we did not receive the grant. But in the process, we created this steering committee of leading women in the transportation industry, in the public and private sector alike. And we’d gotten such momentum, and such interest in this compelling story, that there was a lot of interest in continuing this work and raising awareness in other ways.
And so that’s how I’m coming to you today with this pledge opportunity to talk about. We decided to take all of these great ideas, and this great momentum and commitment, and turn it into action. And that action is in the form of wanting to increase the number of women by 10% in 10 years. And just to give a little context to it, currently, women only make up 15% of the industry. But what’s even more stark is that over the past 15 years, the proportion of women in transportation has only increased by 3%. So we said, we want to change that. We want to supersize this and put together a goal that we think as an industry we can meet that would really elevate women.
Q: I love that. I’ve got goosebumps. I’m so inspired. I think that there’s something you said around lifting, not just women, but then families and the economic impacts. I think that’s incredible. And so important to think about actually, as a broader impact of the work. You talked about Mobility XX being led by a group of women and a strong network of women in transportation. And I wanted to ask you more about that. I’m really interested to get your views on the power of women coming together. And I often talk about it as the transport sisterhood. I’m based in Melbourne, Australia, and a lot of women in the transport network know that I talk about it like that because there’s a community and I think it’s building. In such a male-dominated industry, do you think there’s always been a sense of solidarity among women working in the industry?
A: I really do. I love your term of the sisterhood. I think it’s a somewhat natural inclination that women do seek each other out, especially in an industry where they are so underrepresented. But I think that part of it also goes to show how the rest of the industry is perceived. And I think that women feel more comfortable in situations with other women. They share more, they open up more. They’re not as afraid to give an answer or to take a chance and share a viewpoint that may not be shared if you were in a group of all men. So I think it does create a sense of solidarity among the women in the industry.
Q: I think that’s a really important point. And I wanted to ask you because obviously, you’ve been doing a lot of thinking around how this situation has come about where it is a male-dominated industry. What do you think have been the factors to make it so hard to attract women to the industry? And what do you think needs to be done to change it?
A: Well, I think we need to shift how we talk about our work and how we talk about the industry with women. So there is a study out there, done by one of our partner agencies, a research agency called the Mineta Transportation Institute, and they delved into this a few years ago.
What they found is that if you talk about transportation as connected to the communal goals that it serves, women are more interested.
And right now it’s got a very technical, sterile perception, and that does not attract women. If you look at industries where you have a lot of women like the healthcare industry or in education, there’s a very clear communal goal and societal benefit. But the irony is that transportation has all of that and more. I mean, it is so foundational to how you get your healthcare, how you get your education, what’s your economic opportunity, all of those communal goods and goals are very highly represented in transportation.
So I think if we can flip the script, and start to talk about it in a way that reframes the opportunity for women, that will attract more women. And the other thing that has been proven out to some degree, and I’m sure as a woman in this industry you’ve seen this as well. Even if you can get young women into the industry there are very few role models and mentors at the highest levels that are women. And so that has an effect on young women not seeing a path for themselves. So we need to really think about how we can increase diversity at those top levels as well, to attract the younger women and show them that there is a career path for them.
Q: Yeah, absolutely. I completely agree. You can’t be what you can’t see. So it’s so important to have those role models and be inspired. And certainly, in speaking with you, you’re one of them, Laura, and I think I’d love to hear more about you personally, in terms of what attracted you to the industry. Can you share with us how you got into the transportation industry and what’s your journey been like that’s led you to become Chief Executive Officer of ITS America?
A: Yeah, well I’ve had what I’ll call a non-traditional journey to this role. Early in my career, I was in politics and then I was in trade associations in Washington, DC. And I did leave the workforce when I had twins for about ten months but then was able to come back. I had flexibility in my schedule, which allowed me to do that, quite frankly. So that was extremely helpful at that time in my life. And then, after my third child was born I had to leave the workforce again. And when I finally came back after my third child, I was very fortunate. I was able to come back to the transportation industry in a role in intelligent transportation, an area that really excites me, through a former colleague.
For me, that was really the key because I was able to re-enter the workforce at a similar level to when I had left. And unfortunately, not every woman has that opportunity, so I was really grateful. I would say to people out there that there are a lot of different paths you can take. But, being able to rely on your network and contacts is the number one key for women. Especially if you have taken any time out of the paid workforce and are trying to get back in, using those contacts and networks is critical.
Q: I think that’s such a good point around the importance of building and nurturing relationships and maintaining that network. And Laura, I just want to say thank you for being so open about your journey and sharing that challenge you had around your third child as well, and what that experience was like for you. So thank you, I appreciate that. I think sharing those stories is so important as well, it’s part of that journey of inspiring women. I wanted to take a turn back to talk about Mobility XX. I understand that there is a pledge that you’re launching this week. And I’m keen to hear more about it. And from what I understand, you’re challenging the mobility industry to increase the number of women in transportation by 10% over the next 10 years, as we’ve discussed. So what are the commitments that a company signs up to when they become a signatory to the pledge?
A: So we have an option of about 15 or 16 action items that we are asking companies to look at and choose two. We’re asking them to pick two actions from the list to do over the next year. Now, of course, the company can certainly do more, but we’re asking for a minimum of two. And the idea behind this is to inspire collective action. We want as many companies and organizations as possible, both public sector and private sector, to be a part of this because we know that we need many, many actions to increase our numbers.
So some of the ideas and action items that we have include diversifying panels. So we’ve heard the term “manels”, no “manels”, all right. So women out there, men out there, use your agency to say, I’m not going to participate in a panel that is not diverse at all. It’s important not only to bring different perspectives into the conversation but just like you said, if you can see it, you can be it. So young women need to see people speaking that they can identify with. So that’s one idea.
Another action is baselining your organization then set some goals. So doing a gender and diversity baseline of your organization, and then deciding where you want to be. This is certainly very important at all times, but I think it’s very important now during COVID because a lot of organizations are realizing they lost women during this COVID environment. So really exploring, do you know where you are? You may think you’re doing great—you may be doing great—but do you really know where you are, and then how can you improve?
And then another action on the list is what we call accountability and collaboration partnerships. What that means is, if you’re an agency that does work with partners or other organizations, you can use your agency to find more women- and minority-owned businesses to work with. So really looking at who are you bringing into your fold as partners and contractors, and trying to make sure that you’re true to your values of gender equity and diversity.
Another action is a pipeline and hiring pledge, which sounds simple, but just the sheer act of requiring more than one diverse candidate for a job, and having diverse hiring panels, has the effect of actually increasing your odds of hiring diverse candidates. It takes away some of the bias that arises if you only have one diverse candidate, and you’re comparing them to a non-diverse candidate. So those things can produce real results. And they’re not that hard to implement.
A very important one, which is a board or a company leadership pledge. So increasing gender diversity on your board or within your company executive levels by 10%. And then finally, I’ll highlight to rethink recruiting. Sometimes you hear people say, well, I can’t find diverse candidates, I can’t find women. And I think the answer there is, well where are you looking? And have you thought about how you’re advertising, where you’re advertising, what forums you’re using? If you’re not using forums where the candidates that you might want are prevalent, then for sure you’re not going to find them. And so I think that there’s a lot of ways that companies and organizations can rethink how they’re recruiting candidates.
And then finally, I will just add that we do have a create your own action. And that is to recognize that companies in this space are at very different ends of the spectrum. Some companies have done a lot on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and gender diversity in particular. And some companies have started talking about it, but maybe haven’t taken as many actions. And so we wanted to use this to inspire action. So if a company has an innovative idea that they’ve done, that has worked, we want to know about that. We want to be able to celebrate that, we want to be able to share that and inspire others to do it. So as long as it is a meaningful action that can support women, we want to hear about it.
Q: Yeah, that’s so great. I love that the actions that you’ve outlined, they’re simple and achievable, right? They’re practical and I think that’s so important. So it’s great to hear that you’ve got companies and organizations signing up and pledging some of those actions. I know personally, the journey takes time, but you have to be so proactive. Our board here at UITP ANZ when I started three and a half years ago, the board representation of females was less than 10% and we’re now at 46%. But that has taken really proactive commitment to source and secure women directors on our board. But it makes such a difference in terms of the diversity of views. So, your response leads well into my next question actually, as cis-white women, I know for myself and many of us, it’s been quite difficult at times in the mobility and transportation industry. But how do you think we can better elevate non-binary, trans, and women of color, and ensure that with your initiative we’re considering intersectionality as well?
A: Well, I think that’s a really important point. Sometimes there’s a temptation to think, what works for one woman works for all women. And that’s not true, it’s not one size fits all. And like you said, you need to think about how my lived experience in this space is very different perhaps from somebody who is of a different race, or a different ethnicity, or different gender identity. Not to mention, differences between low-income women who don’t have access to resources to overcome some of the challenges that they encounter in the transportation space.
Through this initiative we want to highlight and bring the lived experiences of women to the table so that women in this industry can create the type of diversity that’s reflective of the communities that we serve.
And so we would like to be able to highlight those different perspectives and experiences as we go through this initiative.
Q: Yeah, that’s so great to hear. I wanted to touch on a point that you mentioned right at the start of our conversation, where you were talking about how women in decision-making roles can impact the choices that women then on the ground have in terms of transportation and getting around. In the last couple of years, there have been conversations at a global level that we’ve become more aware of how gender bias plays out in transportation planning and city building. And I’d love to hear what you think are the advantages of having more women in decision-making roles? And how does that link to the economic opportunity for women in cities?
A: So, one direct link comes from a study that was done in New York City called the pink tax. It was the pink tax on transportation that showed that on average women pay $26 to $50 more per month for safe transportation options than men do. As caregivers, with primary responsibility for the family, that’s significantly tied to your economic opportunity. I think we’ve also seen interesting examples in Los Angeles just recently. One of our members, LA DOT, did a study on a few different neighborhoods in Los Angeles and looked at women’s travel needs. They conducted the study through interviews, so they got really rich data and they found that there were gaps they didn’t realize were impacting women’s opportunity and access to transportation. Gaps like a cell phone gap, where there were significantly fewer women that had cell phones than men, or a driver’s license gap.
And so the reality is that when you look at that data, and you start to think about this with a gender lens and at what the barriers are that women face, then you start to plan and deliver services differently. Because what you might have thought would work isn’t necessarily going to help those communities.
I think that a lot of women in this industry have experienced some of these things. We’ve experienced the difficulty of traveling with children, we’ve experienced the difficulty in trying to pick up the prescription and pick up the milk, and all the other things on your way home. Get the kid from daycare without getting the fine, all of these different travel patterns that don’t mix with the typical commute. We’ve all experienced this and yet, we haven’t voiced this within the industry until now. And I think that being able to bring our own lived experiences in this space, especially if you’re in a role where you can make decisions and influence planning. It just brings a whole different lens to how we design and operate the systems, and offer these services.
I’ll give one quick example. There was a town in Sweden, that looked at all their policies and programs with a gender equity lens. And what came out was snow plowing. And it surprised everyone because it turned out that by plowing the roads before the sidewalks, women were at much higher risk. After all, they’re walking on the sidewalks with strollers, with children, with packages, it was a much more dangerous environment, there were injuries. And they recognized that by changing how they viewed things and looking with a gender lens, they were able to make a change that improved safety and quality of life for women. So I think just taking that lens and applying it is incredibly important and I think women bring that lived experience to this.
Q: Yeah, that is so inspiring to hear. And thanks for sharing that story about Sweden, I mean, what an interesting example of how this applies on the ground when you have that diversity of thinking. I wanted to come back to this point around males in the industry being dominant. I mean, let’s just call it out, many organizations are led by white males and I know of course that’s changing in some places. But, there’s an expression, male pale and stale, or versions of that. And you see that the manals are actually representative of the leaders of organizations. I wanted to ask, do you face challenges in involving and engaging some of those males in the work that you’re doing? And if so, what are they? And how are you engaging them and in a way that I would say is non-superficial that’s bringing them on the journey so you can achieve your goals?
A: So that’s a very good question. And I will say that we’ve started to see men and women alike are seeing how bringing more diverse voices into our organizations, but also into the work that we do in transportation, can improve both our workplaces and what we do for a living. So I think that’s encouraging. I will say, our board is a majority male. I mean, we have added women and we have a good representation of women, but it’s majority male. And our board has been supportive and stepped up, and I’ve been incredibly pleased to see that. I have had conversations with some males at times where I think that it can feel threatening in a way. And to that, I would say, we need to reframe the conversation in a way that shows that supporting gender equity is expanding the pie for everyone, men and women alike. It’s creating more opportunities for all.
We know from research that diversity in teams, diversity in workplaces, actually creates more profitability. It creates more innovation, it attracts and retains more talented individuals, and it creates more revenue at the end of the day. So that’s good for everyone. That’s good for men and women.
And I also think it’s important to note that the next generation that’s up and coming out of college right now. They aren’t standing for the status quo. They are looking at, what is the DEI commitment of this organization? What is the makeup of this organization? They’re not interested in going backward, they’re interested in going forwards. And so for all of those reasons, diversity is good business. And I think if you can reframe it that way, I think that you get more authentic commitment from males.
Q: Yeah, that’s actually such a good point. I love that idea around reframing the conversation to diversity is good business. That’s a quote there, Laura. I wanted to ask, this is a bit of a crystal ball gazing question. Now, what are your hopes for the future of the industry in say 20, or even 50 years?
A: Well, let’s see. First of all, and I hope we have true gender equity and diversity in the industry that does represent the communities we serve. We’re in intelligent transportation. So I hope that we see at that point, deployment of technology that’s been intentional to create more opportunities and more access, not only for women but for all communities. I also think that it’s really important to remember that women are the largest untapped labor market in both our country and in the world. And so if we want to grow our economy, making sure that we have a place for women is critical. And then finally, I would say, I don’t want to wait 20 years for this. But I strongly believe that experience outside the boardroom is as important as experience inside the boardroom. And I think that the sooner we can get alignment on that among the industry, the better off we’ll be. So I hope that doesn’t take 20 years. But I do hope that we’ll see some significant changes in the industry in that time.
Q: Absolutely. Laura, I wanted to ask, what can listeners do if they want to find out more or support the efforts of Mobility XX?
A: So the best thing you can do is go to mobilityXX.org. You can find all the information there, you can sign the pledge, you can find all the background information. And we would love to have as many companies in this industry as possible, we hope you will join us in this pledge.
Q: That’s awesome. Thank you, Laura. And I wanted to ask you one more question. It’s the question, I always ask at the end of my podcast episodes, and that is for younger women out there, do you have any tips for those that are just starting out in the transportation industry?
A: Sure, I would say probably three things. The first would be to show up. Show up to the meetings, show up to the events, make sure that you’re actually in the places where you have access, that is going to be your first starting point. It’s just really important to be present. The second thing I would say is to follow up and follow through. Make sure you do what you say you’re going to do. You create a reputation that you are reliable, dependable, competent, all of those things. And you will be the person that people want on their team and in the room. And then the final thing I would say is to network like a boss. So make sure you use those networks to their greatest extent, and make sure that you include both men and women in your networks. Because you need both to succeed. And as I said at the beginning, and from my own experience, I really do believe that using your networks and relationships is the number one career advancer for women.
Q: Laura, I love that. What great advice: network like a boss. I mean, it’s all about being a Transport Boss Lady, right? So, thank you so much for your time. It’s all we have time for today. But Laura, I just wanted to say thank you so much for sharing your exciting work with us about Mobility XX and also for sharing your professional journey. It’s been an absolute honor to interview you and to guest host this special episode for the threesixtyCITY podcasts. So thanks so much, Laura.
A: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. And I had a good time. So we’ll have to do it again sometime.