Gender balance in transport – a challenge and an opportunity

The 100 Years of Women in Transport campaign in 2015 celebrated the significant role that women have played in transport since the First World War. During the war, 100,000 women entered the transport workforce to take on the responsibilities held by men enlisted for military service. The campaign raised the profile of women working in the sector and awareness of the career opportunities and yet, in 2019, women represent less than a quarter of the transport workforce.

The Department for Transport’s (DfT’s) Infrastructure Skills Strategy, launched in 2016, aims to achieve gender parity with the working population by 2030. Women account for just 20 per cent of the UK transport workforce, below the EU average of 22%. The strategy recognised the significant value that accessing the widest pool of talent could bring, not just to transport, but to the wider economy.

The strategy stated: “While women need work, work also needs women. By equalising the labour force participation rates of men and women, the UK could further increase GDP per capita growth by 0.5 percentage points per year, with potential gains of 10% of GDP by 2030. There are over 2.4 million women who are not in work but want to work, and over 1.3 million women who want to increase the number of hours they work. We need to unblock this mismatch and optimise the potential for the UK’s economic growth”.

Two years on, progress is slow; the proportion of women apprentice starts in roads and rail has remained static at 20%. Likewise, female technical and engineering apprentice starts have not progressed, holding at 10%. In contrast, BAME representation has increased and the reporting rate has improved over the last year. In March 2019, transport ministers called on industry to take action to drive positive change and understand the reasons behind the poor representation of women in transport.

So what are some of our challenges? A perception that some careers are for ‘men only’, unconscious (and conscious) bias in our recruitment, retention and attraction processes, toxic workplace cultures and non-inclusive workplace policies.

This paints a pretty bleak picture. For me personally, transport has provided a varied, fulfilling and challenging career and I believe there are many opportunities for women to thrive in transport. But we have to be able to hold a mirror up and say something isn’t working, despite many initiatives and campaigns in recent years, our progress is too slow and we need to understand how to drive change more quickly.

Diversity and inclusion is often framed as being a journey which takes time to get right. And it is but we can get caught up in overthinking the solutions rather than taking action. Sometimes, the ‘fixes’ are simple; providing appropriate PPE, making bathroom facilities unisex, advertising vacancies more widely, having a diverse panel at interview. Getting the basics right doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. Often the bigger challenge is creating a culture where questions can be asked, practices challenged and change can happen. For that, you need buy-in from every level of the organisation including senior leadership plus a willingness to invest the time and resources to make a long-term, sustainable difference.

Brighton & Hove Buses is a great example of a company leading the way. The company has set a target of 20% women by 2021 and has had success attracting more women as drivers, apprentices and managers. The business has worked on its internal culture, changed its recruitment practices and introduced family friendly policies, like flexible working, shared parental leave and time off for family emergencies, amongst other initiatives.

The gender balance challenge is not, of course, unique to transport. This year’s International Women’s Day annual study found that 52% of people globally believe there are more advantages to being a man than a woman in today’s society. The study also found that 59% of Brits believe the push for gender equality has not gone far enough. And they aren’t wrong, according to the World Economic Forum, at the current progress, it will take over 200 years to close the global gender gap.

For the transport sector, women represent an opportunity to address the skills gap and support UK growth. As an industry, we have a collective responsibility to pull together and embrace that potential, to promote and advance women currently working in transport and attract more talented women into the sector so we can accelerate progress towards gender parity.


About the author:

Sonya Veerasamy is CEO of Women in Transport. A non-profit, professional networking which supports and advances women working in transport through networking, mentoring and raising awareness of the opportunities in the transport sector. Women in Transport also act as secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary for women in transport which aims to increase the representation of women in the transport workforce across the UK. Sonya has been a member of Women in Transport for 10 years and a board member for 6 years.