Urban Wire As Women Leaders in Transit Gain Ground in Representation, Many Face the Glass Cliff
Lauren Fung, Lindiwe Rennert
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photo of transportation

In the world of transit, women are increasingly filling head-of-agency roles. However, the conditions they’re stepping into are disproportionately mired by scandal. In an analysis of gender and leadership changes over the past 14 years, we find women make up twice as large a share of leaders appointed in the wake of scandal as they do of total leaders.

In these distinctly challenging conditions, women agency heads need adequate resources and capacity to support their success. Their absence risks turning shattering glass ceilings into fallen-from glass cliffs.

The glass cliff is a phenomenon in which women are more likely to gain leadership positions that are associated with a greater risk of failure. Research suggests the glass cliff effect may occur when an organization wishes to signal a distinct change in direction or break from past leadership to alter their agency’s reputation, or is attributable to the belief that “women’s traits” are better suited for managing crises.

The result of these challenging conditions, the cliff of the matter, is that women leaders at the helm of an agency trying to shed a scandal often have comparatively shorter tenures than their male counterparts, are ousted or step down when their agencies continue to underperform, and are typically replaced by traditional leaders (white men, in the case of transit). This renders the benefits of diversification advancement unfortunately short-lived and can negatively affect the long-term careers of women leaders.

First things first: Gender parity among transit leaders has improved

Despite composing 51 percent of the population and more than 50 percent of transit riders, women have historically been underrepresented in leadership roles in the transit field. In recent years, however, their presence has been on the rise, changing the makeup of a largely male-dominated workplace. To put that into perspective, among the 20 transit providers that carry the most riders, 15 percent of agencies’ highest-ranked employees in 2010 were women. As of April 2024, that share has risen to 40 percent, with most appointments having happened within the past five years. This trend has moved in alignment with growing calls for increased diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts across a range of transit leadership roles.

The push to reduce workplace barriers and recognize systemic bias against people of marginalized identities, of which gender is but a single example, is a positive one for many reasons. Evidence shows that having a diverse leadership team has many benefits, including enabling better problem-solving and increased performance, reaching a wider customer base, and contributing to attracting and retaining employees from marginalized communities.

Though this uptick in gender representation in positions of power is grounds for celebration, there remains a need for greater understanding of the conditions that new leaders of marginalized identities are stepping into to best support their personal and professional success. Here, in new analysis, we explore the backdrop against which increased gender diversity has been carried out in practice and shine light on what gaps might remain in supporting women leaders in the transit industry.

Women are often stepping into head-of- agency roles following scandal

We look at leadership changes between January 2010 and April 2024 within the 20 transit agencies that carried the most riders over that time span. Though the sample size is relatively small compared with the total number of US transit agencies, combined, these agencies served over 5.1 billion riders—or 74 percent of nationwide annual transit ridership—in 2023.

We collated changes in agency heads, gender, occurrence and type of scandal, and whether the leader was the first woman in agency history to hold the position. Scandals, which preceded 31 percent of leadership changes (n = 25), were categorized into the following groups: misuse of funds; safety concerns; interpersonal conflict with governor, mayor, or board of directors; a state of emergency; or suicide.

Head-of-agency at the 20 highest ridership transit agencies, 2010 to 2024

Over these 14 years, we find there have been 81 changes in leadership of the highest-ranking employee among this cohort of transit providers. Of these, 22 percent of appointees have been women. Among leaders appointed following a scandal, however, the share of woman-identifying leaders rises to 40 percent. In fact, of all women heads of agencies in our sample, 56 percent inherited an agency in the aftermath of scandal. This suggests that indeed women leaders in transit are frequently made subject to the glass cliff.

Scandal type by gender of succeeding head-of-agency

We also find that among the five types of scandals analyzed, states of emergency featured the largest share of women heads of agency appointed in their wake. States of emergency were defined as times when agencies were in violation of their service delivery policies because of some combination of large debts or lacking funds, chronic delays and service cuts, and dilapidated infrastructure.

This is particularly poignant with respect to the glass cliff because it suggests cultural and structural issues throughout the agency. Because a structural issue is a greater feat to reform than an individual-based issue, this too evinces the disproportionately precarious positions that women transit leaders are inheriting.

To avoid falling from the glass cliff, women transit agency heads require resource allocation and structural support.

The following are two key strategies central to their success:

  • Diversification at all decisionmaking levels, not just at the top.
    Because presidents, general managers, and CEOs of transit agencies don’t unilaterally make decisions, working toward greater gender representation solely at the head-of-agency position is a missed opportunity to establish a scenario in which women leaders are not facing the glass cliff alone. Men are also heavily overrepresented on transit agency boards. Because companies and agencies with , a greater number of women board members may strengthen supportive networks for women to lessen the likelihood that a woman agency head is ousted or pressured to step down and serve as the agency’s scapegoat—nothing would need scaping from.
  • Federally required data on leadership identity.
    There exists no regularly collected, official, publicly available, self-stated dataset capturing identity features—gender, race, ethnicity, disability, to name a few—of transit leadership. In the absence of these data, advocates, organizers, and members of the public cannot rigorously keep agencies accountable to their own DEI plans and agency-stated values. Equity in resource allocation for each incoming administration by leader identity can also not be evaluated. If agencies have any real plans to take federal directive and get serious about improving their representation in the workforce and better reflecting their riders, they’ll need to get serious about data collection as well.

We remain hopeful that women leaders of the transit industry taking on these large challenges will prosper aided by growing support, and we’re confident that the riders benefiting from their leadership will continue to do so.


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Research Areas Race and equity
Tags Transportation Women and girls Work supports Worker voice, representation, and power
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center