Her Story: Voices of Women in STEM

RSGers share insights on mentorship, equity, and opportunities for women in STEM fields

March 8, 2021

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We’re all about data at RSG. And the data regarding women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields indicates much work remains to be done to achieve greater gender equity and representation. According to a trend analysis from the National Science Foundation, despite gains made since the early 1990s, women remain underrepresented in science and engineering jobs.

In search of a cause, research conducted to date and some theories have pointed to the importance of mentorship (individual advice/support), sponsorship (public advocacy/support), and teams led by women in helping more women assume leadership roles or positions within their organizations. For women already in STEM fields, having a role model who is also a woman has also been found to help with retention.

As a STEM employer, we want to help further the conversation by spotlighting the professional experiences and perspectives of women at RSG. These viewpoints also offer additional insights into the experiences of women in STEM. Importantly, we encourage others in the industry to join us in increasing the visibility of women in STEM and, in turn, inspiring the next generation of girls and women interested in the sciences to reach their full potential.

Margaret Campbell is a Director at RSG and a market researcher and social scientist with nearly two decades of experience. Her unique expertise in survey methods, project management, and analytics inspires her to design creative, cost-effective, and methodologically sound studies that produce actionable results.

In your own words, how would you describe your work?

I help people understand traveler behavior and preferences to improve transportation services.

What led you to pursue your current career? Did you have mentors?

Since high school, I’ve always had an interest in human behavior and psychology. In college, I became interested in social psychology specifically and survey methods and design. I ended up going to graduate school to focus on that. When moving to the Upper Valley, I found RSG and it was a good fit. I didn’t start out wanting to do transportation market research. But after learning about the work, I became excited about making a tangible difference by helping transit agencies understand their customer needs and design better services to meet those needs.

How have the challenges unique to the pandemic affected your views on gender equity issues, especially as these relate to the workplace?

As the mother of two young children, I’ve experienced these issues firsthand. The tension that was there before the pandemic became even worse and much more salient—it became a constant struggle. As a woman in the workforce, you’re told not to talk about your children. So, I have this hope that—after the pandemic—these issues won’t be swept under the rug anymore. Women aren’t the only ones caring for children, and more collective honesty about this is a good first step.

What can individuals or organizations do to help advance gender equity?

Obviously, there are not enough women in our field of transportation consulting. We can do more work around training and hiring smart young women. Bigger picture, there is a real opportunity for our profession to improve the lives of individuals. We could reimagine transportation systems and cities to get people around more equitably and efficiently. This, in turn, could improve the lives of those in underserved communities, advancing equity in the process.

Do you have any advice for girls or women just starting their careers?

Follow your interests. I know it’s cliché, but it’s true. Personally, I had a discouraging experience early in high school that caused me to lose interest in biology. I wish I hadn’t let that experience change my motivations or perspective. Don’t let other people tear you down or tell you what you can or cannot do.

Can you share some positive experiences pertaining to gender equity?

My manager has been really encouraging of my career at RSG. He has advocated for my advancement throughout my time here. And I was treated the same before and after I had children and I found the environment to be quite supportive. He suggested that I take more time off than I originally planned when I had my first child despite my insistence I might come back very quickly. I was thankful for that advice and ended up taking the additional time. I don’t imagine that all managers react in this way. Also, our current Human Resources department is very cognizant of issues around gender equity, particularly around equal pay.

Leah Flake is a Data Scientist at RSG with expertise in data collection and delivery. She has worked extensively on developing data products based on our smartphone-based GPS travel survey app, rMove™, and our web survey platform, rSurvey™. Leah’s expertise also includes reproducible research, data visualization, evaluation of big data, and machine learning model development.

In your own words, how would you describe your work?

I develop tools and analyses to better understand transportation data.

What led you to pursue your current career? Did you have mentors?

I studied engineering in college. My adviser at the time (another woman) had a doctorate in engineering and public policy. That struck me as a great way to merge STEM and public policy, so I ended up studying that in graduate school. The transportation focus came later from my love for cities and transportation systems. I am drawn to the idea of improving transportation systems and making them more accessible by helping planners use data ethically and equitably.

How have the challenges unique to the pandemic affected your views on gender equity issues, especially as these relate to the workplace?

I recognize the privilege of my own situation. Both my spouse and I are employed, for one. Even with a job, though, it’s sometimes a trade-off between a career and childcare. The loss of service industry jobs during the pandemic has disproportionately impacted some demographic groups. Thinking optimistically, it might be good if more people now start paying attention to it. But we need to get back to something better than just where we were as a country in February 2020—whether that means companies making changes to hiring policies or more federal support and policies to help working mothers.

What can individuals or organizations do to help advance gender equity?

In our industry, having people who are thinking about these issues throughout the process, from data collection to policy, helps advance equity. However, there’s this perception that if we just get a diverse pool coming in then those people will stay. That’s not necessarily the case. Those junior people need to see people like them at the senior levels in the company. Otherwise, those people often don’t end up staying. Hiring a more representative and diverse workforce across all levels of seniority will help. Even if we solve the issues that are present now, the root causes of gender inequity might persist. There’s lot of work to be done, but things are getting better.

Do you have any advice for girls or women just starting their careers?

In some respects, a person’s workplace will matter more than their career in terms of the benefits or respect they receive. That said, as far as a career, every woman should have the opportunity to advance equally, but that varies by their chosen profession. Ask yourself: Do you want to be in a career where you are already represented or blaze a path?

Can you share some positive experiences pertaining to gender equity?

The team that I’m on is mostly women, and it has evolved in terms of the degree and complexity of technical work we’re doing. A lot of times technical work is dominated by men, but in this case, we have a team that is mostly women. We know the people on our team have the skills we need and so we’ve developed them within our group. I feel quite lucky in that respect.

Michelle Lee is a Director at RSG with 20 years of project management experience. She specializes in applying geospatial technologies across research fields, including transportation, health, and environmental science. Michelle leads complex transportation research projects throughout North America utilizing RSG’s smartphone-based GPS travel survey app, rMove™, and RSG’s web-based survey platform, rSurvey™.

In your own words, how would you describe your work?

I am a consultant project director for complex transportation and health research projects.

What led you to pursue your current career? Did you have mentors?

High school is where I developed my passion for geography, but I didn’t know I could make a career out of it until I went to college. One of my professors at the time, Judy Olson, was and still is a well-known and respected geographer. My adviser (another woman) also knew of my interest in geography and asked if I knew about computers and mentioned geographic information systems (GIS), describing it as computer mapping. At the time, GIS was still niche. So, I specialized in spatial information processing. I’ve been doing GIS since then.

How have the challenges unique to the pandemic affected your views on gender equity issues, especially as these relate to the workplace?

It hasn’t really. I have seen that women often juggle responsibilities a little more than men. But you don’t know how much of that is based on their individual situation versus gender bias.

What can individuals or organizations do to help advance gender equity?

The Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) is a good example of how companies can help women connect with other women. They do activities like give out scholarships, and their overall mission is to advance women’s careers within the transportation industry. In volunteering, you could begin to get more girls involved in STEM at younger ages to have enough people to make a substantive change in the number of women in our profession. You’ve got to start younger and break down those barriers. Our industry has a role to play by thinking outside of the box and helping to get girls excited about science and technology when they are young.

Do you have any advice for girls or women just starting their careers?

Build relationships with other women (and male supporters) in your chosen field—and don’t give up. In the process, you should create ethnically and gender-diverse project teams. You want to work for (or start your own) companies that walk the walk when it comes to equality. On the one hand, you can say it is difficult to build a team of women in STEM. But we have examples of how to do that at RSG in my own work, so it’s doable.

Can you share some positive experiences pertaining to gender equity?

We have always approached hiring with gender and racial equity in mind. Part of that work includes, for example, trying to interview at least one woman for each open position. We’ve always made this effort, and that push has been driven by my manager and our Human Resources department.

Dana Lodico is a Director at RSG and an acoustics expert with 21 years of experience. She specializes in identifying creative solutions to acoustics problems and is particularly interested in applying lower-cost strategies to improve people’s everyday noise environments. Dana is also the current Vice President of the Institute of Noise Control Engineering (INCE).

In your own words, how would you describe your work?

I improve quality of life by reducing noise exposure and improving acoustical environments.

What led you to pursue your current career? Did you have mentors?

I went to school for civil engineering originally, but I’ve always been sensitive to the acoustics of spaces and noise disturbances. For example, I played violin. While at the University of Colorado, I worked in the acoustics lab of my mentor, Ralph Muehleisen. He helped me move into the acoustics field, and I eventually pursued a graduate degree in acoustics. He was also one of the few professors who I observed mentoring women while I was in school. He continues to be inclusive of diverse people and experiences. Through his actions, he has made a huge difference in the field.

How have the challenges unique to the pandemic affected your views on gender equity issues, especially as these relate to the workplace?

It has been tricky. My spouse is a professor and he teaches at night, so we’ve been pretty lucky in that we’ve been able to balance our schedules. It’s good these issues are getting press and people are more aware. I feel like there has been a lot of progress made to date in the engineering field, and perhaps the pandemic will erase some of that. But I hope that acknowledgment of this being an issue, and the momentum around change, will spur progress.

What can individuals or organizations do to help advance gender equity?

Acknowledgment of the importance of gender equity helps—but maybe it’s not enough. The biggest thing that can be done is to try to bring more women into leadership roles. More women are entering the field, but many are—I imagine—unintentionally overlooked when it comes to being offered leadership roles. It is also important that this effort does not get put just on women; otherwise, it is just another extra burden and hurdle for women to overcome.

Do you have any advice for girls or women just starting their careers?

Everyone needs to make their own choice about what they’re interested in and work hard to pursue it. It’s also important to make connections and network. I feel like if I had done that, then I would have understood what I wanted to do sooner. I may have also had more opportunities just through meeting more people and getting more viewpoints. Short version: Don’t be shy about reaching out to people you see doing interesting work.

Can you share some positive experiences pertaining to gender equity?

RSG has made me feel very included in the short time I’ve been here, but I haven’t been here long enough to have a story specific to RSG. I’ve been involved in INCE-USA leadership for five years. When I first started on their board of directors, there were few women and minority groups. But the last couple of years have seen a huge push and more recognition of women and other minorities. In my own role, I’ve worked hard to bring more women into the awards and fellowship process and into leadership roles at INCE. INCE leadership supports this effort and everybody is focused on making this change and making the institute inclusive for all people. It’s been an exciting effort to be involved in over the last five years.

Maren Outwater is a Vice President and member of the Leadership Team at RSG with over 35 years of experience. She specializes in developing travel forecasting models and managing complex model development efforts. Maren is actively engaged in federal research projects to evaluate autonomous and connected vehicles, improve smart growth and transit, and develop long-distance and freight demand models.

In your own words, how would you describe your work?

I research travel behavior and forecast future impacts of transportation systems.

What led you to pursue your current career? Did you have mentors?

I did not have a specific mentor, but many people helped me along the way. My interest in transportation began as a junior in college when I went to Switzerland for a semester abroad program. I was studying engineering at the time and, although I first went there with the intention to ski, I quickly realized how far behind the US transportation system was compared to other cities in Europe. I became enthusiastic about the possibility of working to make things better, and I started focusing on transportation. This focus, in turn, helped me decide on a graduate degree in urban planning.

How have the challenges unique to the pandemic affected your views on gender equity issues, especially as these relate to the workplace?

I’m not sure the pandemic has shaped or changed my own perspective. Being a gay woman means gender inequities have a somewhat different meaning for me. Within my own household, we don’t have any gender inequities. It’s my wife and I—we’re the same gender. But as a woman in the workforce, I do experience these issues more broadly. What I have observed during the pandemic is more awareness. The pandemic has revealed these gender inequities. There is no longer any way to sugarcoat these disparities or pretend they don’t exist. I feel strongly that it has made other people aware of the issues, and that’s a good thing.

What can individuals or organizations do to help advance gender equity?

For decades, I’ve been advocating for the removal of gender as a proxy for behavior. Many in our industry still use gender as a proxy for a person’s role in a household—and, by extension, their travel behavior in models. As a proxy, it’s a bad one and one we should be moving away from. Our job is to make sure our models don’t get used in this way. Same thing with data collection. I don’t think there is any reason to believe that gender produces certain behaviors. I think it is a mistake that we continue to use gender in this way. The new generation is so fluid that the binary gender definition will become an outdated concept. And on the hiring front, there are also gender equity gains to be made. That’s something we can advance in our hiring practices.

Do you have any advice for girls or women just starting their careers?

My parents encouraged me to do what I wanted, but they were never expecting me to do anything other than get married and have kids. I love my career and wanted to work for a while before starting a family. People need to pick their career based on what they’re interested in and good at. They should work to eliminate gender stereotypes along the way. Don’t let anyone else, especially your parents, be the predictor of what you’re going to do with your life.

Can you share some positive experiences pertaining to gender equity?

One of the things I have always appreciated at RSG is the fact that whenever a person says they have a family issue, our response as a company has always been, “Absolutely, go deal with that.” I’ve seen this with both men and women. From a gender equity perspective, I feel like RSG has done a great job in this way. This has been especially true throughout the pandemic. I’m appreciative of how supportive RSG has been.

Molly Ryan is an Analyst at RSG and a skilled social science researcher. She has held numerous key roles as a qualitative researcher for projects conducted across the United States. Molly’s recent experience includes a focus on understanding the needs of underserved populations and studying race and ethnicity trends through recent work with the National Park Service.

In your own words, how would you describe your work?

I help improve outdoor recreation and travel by interpreting people’s motivations, opinions, and use patterns.

What led you to pursue your current career? Did you have mentors?

I’m not sure that I’ve had a specific mentor that I could point to as a turning point. I’ve always been driven to study the connection between people and the environment, and that’s varied from the natural environment to people’s physical surroundings. For me, it’s about understanding how a physical space and all the history and culture contained within it affect people’s interactions with each other and that place. In that respect, I was drawn to RSG because it is interdisciplinary. We can look at these issues from so many different angles, from a national park setting to transit and travel. It all involves people and places and use patterns.

How have the challenges unique to the pandemic affected your views on gender equity issues, especially as these relate to the workplace?

I haven’t been as impacted as many other people at RSG and across the country. But we need to focus on how it has not just laid bare these inequities but exacerbated them. The pandemic will have long-lasting impacts on women’s careers, based on some of the reporting I’ve read. Many people can see these inequities on their screens during Zoom meetings. But there are also the invisible losses, such as people having to leave the workforce entirely.

What can individuals or organizations do to help advance gender equity?

People already recognize the need to support women in STEM. To that end, it’s important for women and girls to see themselves in these careers and know it is an opportunity for them. But in a lot of cases, that push is limited to the physical sciences. Social sciences—especially when they’re referred to as soft sciences—are seen by some as less rigorous and can be undervalued as a result. And when I talk about value, I also mean that explicitly in economic terms.

Do you have any advice for girls or women just starting their careers?

I would like to flip this question around a bit. I would like to see women who are more established in their careers reach out to younger women—whether within their own companies or at their colleges or elsewhere. A lot of time the onus is on the people with less power to reach out to those with more power. At RSG, having women in the company reach out early on would have been great even though I’ve since made great connections with women here.

Can you share some positive experiences pertaining to gender equity?

I recently started work on a project where the team is all women on the consultant and client side. I thought that was great as it was my first professional experience like that. The first project manager I worked with at RSG who’s a woman also once messaged me and asked for feedback. I don’t want to necessarily ascribe that gesture to gender, but I found her willingness to improve and openly ask for feedback recognizes the power dynamic that I mentioned earlier. I really appreciated that, and it has continued throughout our working relationship.

Abigail Rosenson is a Consultant at RSG and a skilled market researcher. She has performed market research work for academics and public entities, including county-level and multiregional agencies. Abigail’s recent experience includes creating repeatable processes and survey approaches that decrease respondent burden, improve data quality, and increase efficiency.

In your own words, how would you describe your work?

I help people understand how travel is evolving today and what that means for travel in the future.

What led you to pursue your current career? Did you have mentors?

My undergraduate degree was in classical studies, but through a part-time job I had while completing my MBA, I started to work with and become interested in data. At the encouragement of a former colleague, I started using R and found myself drawn to projects that use data to draw meaningful conclusions. Having the opportunity to work on something completely different from my previous experiences really drew me into the field. I quickly realized I could apply these data skills to any field, which is how I ended up at RSG working in transportation.

How have the challenges unique to the pandemic affected your views on gender equity issues, especially as these relate to the workplace?

I haven’t been as personally impacted as others, but I know many who have faced challenges. I have also observed instances where these challenges are equally shared among working spouses, at least among parents at RSG. That’s great to see, but I know others have been disproportionately impacted. The pandemic has revealed the disparity in opportunities and support available to women in certain industries. The challenges are even greater for particular demographics. These issues have existed for a long time—since well before the pandemic—but I’m hopeful the pandemic has highlighted them enough to encourage better awareness (and action) moving forward.

What can individuals or organizations do to help advance gender equity?

There’s a lot of room for growth, and actions that might seem small now can make a big difference later. For example, putting in the extra effort now to find qualified candidates who are women can make it easier for our industry to promote women into leadership roles. Seeing women in leadership roles can, in turn, encourage others to enter the field. Half the transportation system users are women, and our perspectives matter.

Do you have any advice for girls or women just starting their careers?

Don’t let your educational background deter you from pursuing a job or field of study you’re passionate about. There’s a lot to learn at the beginning of your career regardless of your field, but your contributions can still be meaningful while you’re learning. It might be intimidating to be the newest person in the room, but your diverse perspective may be exactly what’s needed. Actively seeking out mentors and asking for feedback along the way is also hugely helpful because it encourages you to grow and provides a stronger support system in your journey.

Can you share some positive experiences pertaining to gender equity?

My team at RSG does an excellent job of considering gender equity in our project roles and assignments. Unlike much of the industry, most of my team members are women, including in technical and leadership roles. Our team leaders have always encouraged me to offer my thoughts and opinions in settings where I might otherwise think twice about sharing. I’ve appreciated this active engagement.