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Adriana Trujillo, manager of construction and commissioning for stations at Metrolinx.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Half the senior leadership of the government agency that runs Toronto-area commuter transit is female. And the board of Metrolinx is close to parity. But if you visit the washrooms in the executive wing of the head office, the guys get twice the facilities and at least three times as much space.

This imbalance at Toronto's 90-year-old Union Station – a heritage-protected building – is testament to the long-time dominance of men in the railway industry, which at one point would hire only men.

Throwing off this heavy hand of history has been a slow process for the industry, but the biggest transit agencies in the country have made major strides in recent years bringing on female staff. From a rarity to a substantial presence, women are now more common on the front lines and especially in executive boardrooms.

The industry has gradually recognized that they are missing out on half the talent by not pursuing female employees. And with women often over-represented among transit passengers – they form slim majorities in Vancouver, Montreal and make up 57 per cent of straphangers on the Toronto Transit Commission – there's a recognition that having more women on staff can help the agencies do a better job of meeting customer needs. From concerns about well-lit spaces to the desire for a system that can accommodate passengers managing bags and strollers, women say they have needs not necessarily shared by men.

"Woman, we see commuting, our day-to-day commuting, as a different experience probably than male commuters," said Adriana Trujillo, manager of construction and commissioning for stations at Metrolinx. She cited issues of accessibility, safety and comfort, adding when she's on a construction site she is apt to notice if a surface is unsuitable for traditionally female footwear. "Wearing high heels, you think from a different pair of eyes."

Building up the ranks of female employees has its challenges. The industry is competing with other sectors for what can be scarce numbers of graduates in technical fields. And front-line jobs pose other difficulties. These often require shift-work, which "can create barriers" for women, said TTC spokesman Stuart Green, pointing to statistics showing familial caregiving responsibilities are disproportionately borne by women.

There are other issues as well. In some circumstances, male drivers have to rely on ad hoc toilet arrangements, which may not seem safe to women and compel them to dehydrate themselves on the job. At an international conference of transit professionals in Montreal this spring, Wilma Clement, of the Barbados Workers Union, noted female drivers can face risks to their health if they don't have appropriate facilities they can use when required.

Front-line roles are the biggest job category at most transit agencies, meaning female representation in these jobs has to be increased for them to make up a meaningful portion of the total. And with the person operating the vehicle typically the public face of a transit agency, Canada's biggest are working to boost their numbers.

After a complaint, the Société de transport de Montréal removed the requirement that people had to have a special licence as a prerequisite when applying for training to drive a bus. This change helped drive a more than six-fold increase in the number of women in this role over the past three decades. Female operators now make up 23 per cent of the people driving buses, roughly in line with the number of female managers.

In Vancouver, about 20 per cent of staff at Translink are female, with that number being pulled up by a higher presence in management. Only 14 per cent of bus drivers are female, and the agency is specifically targeting women as it hires hundreds for the role this year.

At the TTC, Toronto's transit agency, the number of female bus, streetcar and subway operators is similarly low, sitting around 13 per cent. The agency loses employees relatively slowly, according to a spokesman, making raising the number of female employees a protracted process. And because the agency employs so many people in this category, that has the effect of bringing its overall rate of female employees down to 15 per cent, even though about one-quarter of middle and senior management are women. The executive level is half female, only a few years after being entirely male.

TTC chief executive Andy Byford stressed the hiring at his agency was "all done on merit," explaining if two equally qualified candidates apply, the nod should go to the one from the less-well-represented group.

At the TTC, women now occupy traditionally male roles including the heads of the train crew divisions, the chief capital officer and the CEO's chief of staff. Women also led the last round of negotiations with the union.

"That was … I think, pretty deliberately done on my part," Mr. Byford said. "That also, again, changed the dynamic. It's easy, man to man, to sit opposite another guy and just say 'We're not having that.' But to sit opposite a tenacious, eloquent, determined woman who's done her homework, I think that gives you a bit of a psychological upper hand."

Every agency spoken to for this article stressed increases in female employees took concerted effort. It didn't just happen.

Among the tactics, Metrolinx points to their sponsorship and mentoring programs. The TTC last year launched a diversity and inclusion plan, its first in a decade. TransLink has a corporate wellness effort that includes programs geared toward women's health. And the STM in Montreal has gone to a committee of selection for employment interviews, to help eliminate any bias. "We changed our requirement [to apply] and we changed our process," said Anne-Marie Lombardi, head of recruitment at the STM.

But in an industry that is still so heavily dominated by men, this progress can seem an uphill struggle – and one not entirely within the control of the transit agencies. After this spring's conference of transit professionals in Montreal, the Metrolinx acting CEO sent organizers a letter.

"One area of improvement that we noted regards the diversity of speakers, and more particularly the inclusion of women on panels," John Jensen wrote. "In Canada and other countries, the majority of public transport users are women, so it is crucial to represent their perspective.

"We know that our industry is on a journey to become more diverse, and that as universities and training programmes become more diverse, so will our industry. However, we feel that more needs to be done."

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