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‘Don’t think you can’t do it’: Women in engineering at BART on their triumphs and challenges

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is highlighting three women engineers’ stories about how they got to BART and why they do what they do.  

When Phoebe Cheng was little, she loved stories. She found that reading and storytelling could transport her to faraway places, help her stand in someone else’s shoes and shed light on why things are the way they are. In school, Cheng discovered new passions – this time for math, physics and computers. These three subjects, she found, could solve even the most inscrutable puzzles. And engineering combined all three of them. 

Today, Cheng is the group manager of Civil, Structural, Track Engineering and Construction Engineering Services at BART, where she’s worked for more than three years. Prior to joining BART, Cheng worked in private consulting, leaping from one large project – bridges, tunnels, nuclear power plants – to the next. As her career progressed, and Cheng found herself rising into management positions, she found her passion for storytelling was reignited. 

“Not only do you have to be good technically as an engineer,” she said, “but you have to communicate what you’re doing.” 

An engineer’s ability to communicate effectively is essential to “illustrate why certain things need to be certain ways,” Cheng says. It’s like an act of translation: taking complex information and data and transforming it into something digestible, something everyone can understand. 

“Engineering encompasses everything I like,” Cheng said.   

Cheng is one of the many women in engineering at BART. As Women’s History Month comes to a close, the agency celebrates their contributions to BART and the transportation sector. 

“As a woman, coming to BART was incredible,” Cheng said. “I was encouraged when I started to see so many women in leadership roles. The diversity in this organization is really remarkable.” 

Danielle Kirchmeyer joined BART as an engineer in 2017 prior to transitioning to the mechanical engineering department where she works on emergency ventilation systems and fire life safety. She knew she wanted to be an engineer from a young age. 

“I really liked to solve problems,” Kirchmeyer said. “I remember things breaking down as a kid, like our VCR, and I really wanted to know how to fix it.” 

But the road to engineering wasn’t an easy one. Kirchmeyer had trouble with math as a child. In elementary school, she signed up for math tutoring when multiplication proved especially difficult. Though the path was often challenging, she persisted.   

“I just wanted to keep doing it and reinforce my understanding,” she said. 

Kirchmeyer says engineering is an incredibly rewarding profession, especially working for a transit organization like BART. As an engineer, she says people’s lives can be literally on the line. 

“There’s a lot of risk in our hands,” she said. “And we have to be thoughtful stewards of that.” 

Kirchmeyer remembers one incident while working as a lifeguard in high school. Two young girls were drowning at the same time, and Kirchmeyer leapt into the pool to rescue them. She pulled them from the water in the nick of time. The life-saving experience made a lasting impression, underscoring the gravity of her stewardship.   

“It has to do with lives,” she said. “And I think that it’s neat that what I do as an engineer is related in a way…I’m protecting peoples’ well-being.” 

Rachel Russell is in the big ideas business. As a project manager in BART’s Strategic Engineering department, Russell says her work revolves around bringing people together and shepherding a concept from ideation to completion to adoption. 

“It’s about bringing the right players to the table,” she said of project management. 

If the general manager has an idea and it lands on Russell’s desk, she sees it through from start to finish. Often, that involves thinking “outside the box,” Russell says, and ensuring that every party involved has what it needs for success. 

Russell didn’t always know she wanted to be a project manager, especially in engineering. After studying at UC Berkeley, Russell worked in environmental management with a focus on environmental justice. At BART, where she has worked for 10 years, the work seemed like a natural continuation of her previous efforts. 

“It’s all about creating access,” she said. “What we do is help people and try to make the system better for them. That’s what I do every day.” 

Because she’s not an engineer but works in an engineering department, Russell thinks she brings “a totally different perspective” to the table, one that looks at the complete picture with dexterity and creativity. 

“Thinking holistically and not specifically at an engineering discipline – that’s something I’ve been able to bring,” she said.  

The lack of female representation in engineering spaces has created some uncomfortable situations for the female BART engineers at times. Cheng remembers attending engineering conferences with her all-male team. Rather than addressing Cheng, fellow attendees would instead pose their questions to her employees. 

“They’d go up to the men to ask questions even though I’m the manager,” she said with a laugh. “My colleagues would all say, ‘She’s the manager, go to her!’ That’s happened a few times…” 

But Cheng has learned to take such missteps in stride. People have unconscious biases, she says, and “I don’t take it badly…I accept it as the way humans are.” 

At BART, the engineers’ work speaks for itself. Kirchmeyer said she “doesn’t focus on the differences so much,” but gravitates to the knowledgeable folks, regardless of their genders. 

Still, she always gets excited when women join the team. In the mechanical engineering group, for example, she’s one of three women out of 14 people.  

“You have to let it go and not think about gender,” she said. “If you do, you might feel insecure or self-conscious.”  

Of course, being a female engineer also has its benefits. Women bring different perspectives, priorities and attitudes to their teams, which fosters creativity and agility, Cheng says. 

“Diversity generates more holistic solutions and results in better products, services and morale,” Cheng said.   

Russell agrees. Though people sometimes make assumptions about her, she tries not to let it overshadow her triumphs and successes. 

“People assume that because you’re not an engineer, you shouldn’t be doing this work,” she said. “But we all have opinions and voices that propel the work forward.” 

One of the biggest lessons Russell said she’s learned in her career is to “never sell yourself short.” 

“Don’t think you can’t do it,” she said. “Always apply, always go through the process, and let them tell you no. You might be the perfect fit.” 

At the end of the day, being an engineer is simply “so much fun,” Cheng said. She encourages women of all ages and backgrounds to explore the field. 

“To any woman who’s interested in engineering, I want to shout, ‘Go for it!’” she said. “…The most important thing is to feel free to ask for help, even from people you don’t know. People are surprisingly generous.”