Joanna Pinkerton on excelling in traditionally male industries: 'There's no reason I don't belong here'

Chloe Teasley
Joanna Pinkerton, CEO, Central Ohio Transit Authority

Before Joanna Pinkerton was leading the Central Ohio Transit Authority from her office Downtown, she was working on dusty, muddy commercial construction sites. As an engineer, Pinkerton began in construction infrastructure for commercial buildings, churches and schools. After that, she became an engineer for Union County, which at the time was the second fastest-growing Ohio county. There she handled stormwater, wastewater, roads, bridges and building inspections.

A new Ohio Department of Transportation director asked her to come do the same work at ODOT, thus cementing her work in transportation. “I just jumped right in, I didn’t know any better,” she says. “It challenged me to be more of a professional and not just an engineer. I had to learn how to navigate politics, bureaucracy, work with local government, state government and work within federal guidelines.”

After work at Ohio State leading a partnership between the university, Honda and the Ohio State University Center for Automotive Research, she was recruited to COTA.

Her work environments—engineering, construction, transportation—are typically male-dominated, but Pinkerton says she was used to these kinds of environments because she comes from a family of trades workers. She has always loved to build things. She couldn’t help but find the project office for COTA’s renovation-in-progress and look at some plans. “I remember really early on when I was in college, interning on highway projects, a lot of the tradesmen who had kids my age were like, ‘Oh, I wish my daughter would get into construction.’ I think there are a lot of cultural issues where people assume that women can’t do the job. I just never had those boundaries in my own mind. You just have to have the fortitude to think that there’s no reason I don’t belong here.”

All of Pinkerton’s bosses have been men until now (she reports to the COTA board of trustees, which is chaired by Trudy Bartley and has men and women). “I mean, that’s just the way it is,” she says. “Even my superintendents and my subordinates were male, especially in the construction trades. I was the first female project manager and project engineer at the construction company I worked at.” When she introduced herself to the superintendent, he snapped in frustration that finally they had sent someone from the office to deliver supplies he had been waiting on all day. She introduced herself (she was his boss). “He just kind of looked at me. He was like, ‘Huh, OK,’ ” says Pinkerton. “And then we just immediately began working together. I found as long as I was open to figuring out what made other people tick, I didn’t have the trouble that you might anticipate. Not saying that it was all roses all the time, but I did find that you have to be real careful to not project your bias on other people.” And that bias goes both ways.

Not roses: The many times she had to adjudicate a decision or deliver bad news. “If they did not get the answer they wanted, their reaction was, ‘Who is this young lady and who does she think she is?’ And then maybe their deliberate attempt to go directly to the politician or to my boss to do basically answer shopping because it came from a woman.” Other reactions she received upon sharing unwelcome news included someone throwing a chair at her; a man driving toward her as if to run her over; being spit upon; and a man coming to her office just to ask her who the hell she was.

Thankfully, her superiors in those situations had her back. “I had great experiences with great bosses who supported me and backed me. So [those times are] not a fun process to go through. But when it resolves itself, I’ll tell you, although those times are tough, you really learn how to grow and deal with difficult people. But that happened—I would say that was a routine occurrence in my career,” she says.

As far as come-ons, yes, Pinkerton has had her fair share. But she does think people should be allowed to express respectful interest in one another when appropriate. “People expressing an interest in another person, I don’t see a problem with it. It’s how they do it, and it’s the intent and it’s the environment. When it’s just an unwanted advance, and you can say, you know, not interested, then that’s OK,” she says.

Pinkerton has historically not been very vocal about gender equity and she says it’s because she was taught that what matters is doing a good job and working hard—that those things will equal success. But she realizes there are other influences holding people back.

“It’s, I think, a little bit difficult to broach this topic in the workplace, because you want to do it in a way that’s not polarizing, particularly in a male-dominated industry,” she says. “This isn’t about attacking the fact that men are in positions of power, or have maybe a majority of the employment. It’s about helping them expand and include more people.”

Chloe Teasley is staff writer for Columbus CEO.

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Age: 43

Position: CEO, Central Ohio Transit Authority

In position since: April 2018

Previous roles: Chief operations officer, Transportation Research Center Inc.; Ohio State Partnership co-director, Ohio State University and Honda; chief operations officer, Ohio State University Center for Automotive Research; Central Ohio regional manager, Ohio Department of Transportation Office of Jobs & Commerce

Education: Bachelor of Science, civil engineering, Ohio Northern University; professionally licensed engineer in the state of Ohio

Community involvement: Member, Intelligent Transportation Systems of America Board, Washington, D.C.; chair, DriveOhio Government Advisory Board; board member, Transportation Research Center Inc.; member, Franklin County Poverty Task Force; chair, transportation subcommittee, Census 2020 Complete Count Committee; advisory board member, Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) Smart Region Task Force; executive committee member, Ohio Public Transit Association; advisory board member, MORPC Transportation Policy Committee; advisory board member, Alliance for the American Dream, Schmidts Future/ Ohio State University; external advisory board member, Ohio State Center for Automotive Research; Ohio High School Track & Field and Cross-Country Volunteer (southern Ohio)

Personal: Lives in Circleville; has two sons, Colton, 16, and Grant, 13.

Joanna Pinkerton