Just 20% of the UK’s transport and logistics workforce is female. Here’s a plan for making the sector more appealing to women

 
Govia Thameslink Railway reports it has experienced an influx of female apprentices

 
BY Krishna Desai, Senior Global Marketing Manager at Cubic Transportation Systems

Currently, the UK transport system isn’t fully equal in its ability to meet the needs of every potential user. While women represent the largest share of public transport users around the world, accounting for nearly half of rail journeys and over a third more bus journeys than men in the UK, they face multiple barriers that limit their mobility.

From harassment and safety concerns to costly journeys and scheduling issues – there are a number of overlooked problems that could lead female users to swap to alternate modes of transport that better fulfil their needs. This can have a direct impact on transit agencies’ revenues, and add congestion onto the roads, reinforcing that it’s in everyone’s best interest that women claim a seat at the table and have a say in transport legislation, design and development.

The challenge and the opportunity

Currently, however, just 20% of the transport and logistics workforce in the UK is female; that’s less than half the current 47% average across the entire UK workforce. In fact, the issue is so significant that the Department for Transport has recently launched a 12-week consultation to understand the future skills that will be needed to boost diversity, plug the skills gap and promote careers across the industry.

The transport sector has long-standing challenges around increasing diversity and improving inclusion and social mobility. Last year, an All-Party Parliamentary Group survey found that over two-thirds (69%) of professional women working in the transport industry said its macho culture meant it had an image problem.

Assessing specific industries, a recent DfT study highlights some sobering statistics. In aviation, women account for just 6% of commercial pilots. In rail, only 16% of the workforce is female and less than one-in-four women would consider a career in rail. Meanwhile, in England, just 7% of bus drivers are women.

As the sector looks to launch new apprenticeship schemes and attract mature people and career changers into transport roles, increasing the representation of women will be key to tackling the looming workforce and skills shortages. But if efforts to address diversity are to succeed, transport organisations will need to tackle some of the root obstacles that continue to get in the way of attracting and retaining female workers.

1. Create an inclusive environment

On-site facilities designed for men, complaints about intolerant or inappropriate behaviours, it’s little wonder that young girls and women often feel actively discouraged from entering such a traditionally male sector.

Encountering a workforce where 80% of the workforce is male is intimidating enough for aspiring young women. But a recent European Training Foundation report documents how women in the transport sector frequently encounter real discrimination at work and are plagued by the sexist behaviours of their male co-workers.

Organisations need to get serious about creating safe working environments for women. Alongside dealing seriously with complaints about inappropriate personal conduct and unsavoury comments, organisations need to implement robust HR policies and procedures that are trusted by female workers and enable them to confidentially report cases of harassment.

Improving the workplace culture so that there is respect and dignity for all workers will be critical if organisations are serious about wanting to attract and retain women workers.

2. Address workplace inequalities

Inflexible working arrangements, the persistent gender pay gap, and a lack of equal access to the same training and career options continue to hamper the aspirations of female workers.

Challenging workplace inequalities begins with the basics. Whether that’s addressing stereotypes around what kinds of people become drivers and engineers with recruitment ads that feature women, or providing training and recruitment opportunities that tackle the disparity between male and female employees. That includes promoting on-the-job training designed to attract women who are considering a career change in a bid to extend the candidate pool.

Open and honest discussions are the key to creating inclusive environments that help women pursue careers for the long term

Open and honest discussions are the key to creating inclusive environments that help women pursue careers for the long term. For example, without flexible working options, and appropriate facilities, working mothers will be more likely to consider quitting their role entirely.

Formalising discussions about career management that are focused on how decisions like pregnancy, maternity leave and post-maternity lifestyle changes will affect careers won’t just benefit women. Men too need to know how they can sustain their job roles while balancing the demands of work and family.

Initiatives such as returner programs, aimed at mothers wishing to re-start their career, can also be a valuable tool for tackling under-representation of minority groups. Last year, Cubic signed up for the STEM Returners programme, as a way to hire more mature women who wish to return to work after a career break – supporting them in their return back to work, while minimising the gender imbalance within the industry.

3. Give women a voice

Organisations that are keen to demonstrate their diversity and inclusion credentials need to put their money where their mouth is. Advancing women into management and leadership roles is a clear indicator that opportunities exist for those with the right talent and that gender is no barrier to progression.
When we hire women in positions of power they are likely to influence better internal policies and culture to retain and attract more women. For example, in 2020 Stagecoach appointed Carla Stockton-Jones as managing director, making her the first woman to lead a private sector multi-modal public transit organisation in the country. Since then, the company has raised female representation at its operations board to 42% as it continues to provide a platform for women to lead in the industry.

Senior women will also be able to provide insights and perspectives into critical decisions relating to training and recruitment and will be able to highlight the cultural problems that are acting as a barrier to diversity and equality strategies. They will also act as role models for aspiring women within the organisation who will be able to see the realities of what can happen when ambition and talent is recognised and supported.

Female engineers, drivers and management leaders will also play a positive ambassadorial role as gender champions in recruitment drives and partnerships targeted at schools, colleges and universities.

Spotlighting women that are successful and undertaking a diversity of roles in the business is a way to showcase to aspiring women that there are significant opportunities to be had by starting or continuing a career with an organisation. It will also help dispel perceptions that transport is a ‘men only’ club that doesn’t value female employees as much as male workers.

4. Increase representation at events

All too often, industry events are stacked with executives who are often male. By populating conference panels with talented women who hold subject expert roles at various levels – including software engineers, modellers and operational roles like drivers or air traffic controllers – the industry will benefit from their shared experiences.

Closing the gap between male and female speakers not only demonstrates the industry’s commitment to gender diversity, but will be critical for attracting Generation Z talent that is passionate about only working for organisations that are determined to eliminate any negative or discriminatory practices. As more talented women get media attention, awareness of their achievements will increase. Resulting in more girls and young women looking to emulate their success.

Some organisations, such as MaaS Global, already have policies in place which state that if a spokesperson is asked to be on a panel which is entirely made up of one gender, then they can instead recommend someone of the opposite sex from within the organisation, whilst UITP India offers a sponsorship discount incentive for female speakers.

Evaluating the gains

Many organisations in the transport sector are already reaping the benefits that come when they invest time, effort and creative thinking into accelerating their diversity efforts.

Govia Thameslink Railway – which operates Great Northern, Southern and Thameslink – reports it has experienced an influx of female apprentices. In 2021, 34% of its recruits were women – and overall 40% of all those recruited were aged 31-40 years of age.

Meanwhile, supply and logistics firm Wincanton is reaping the rewards of a commitment at board level to improve the diversity of its workforce. In addition to taking steps to reduce the gender pay gap, the firm has increased the proportion of females in its executive management team and boosted representation on the wider senior management group to 32% – up from 20%.

The firm is also undertaking pioneering new approaches to recruitment, including an innovative scheme to fast track ‘drivers of the future’, designed to open up new opportunities for staff at its warehouses, and is set to result in 255 new drivers by March 2022. According to Wincanton, the number of female applicants for its internal fast-track programme is well above the industry average.

By avoiding gender stereotyped training and development, introducing mentoring programmes and re-evaluating recruitment and progression, organisations operating in the transportation sector will be able to develop inclusive working conditions where diverse talent can thrive. This will prove critical for attracting and retaining more women in the transport workforce that will be essential for closing the workforce skills gap. It will also lay the foundations for shaping the future of this progressive industry sector as it prepares to push ahead with new technologies and green solutions that will sustain the next era of mobility that will be critical to the continued success of the UK’s economy and the well-being of its citizens.

 
This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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