No one really talks openly and honestly about women and their role within the bus industry, and it’s about time that we did


We need more men and women in the bus industry speaking openly about the gender diversity challenges


Women and buses is a subject that the industry believes it is tackling. Gender diversity is at the top of the agenda in all the large corporates, as well as many of the other operators too. However, is it really something that’s changing at grassroots level? Is it filtering down to the bus garage, or even within local or regional businesses?

I joined the bus industry in 2005, and for those of us who still think that was a couple of years back, it’s actually nearly a decade and a half ago, and nothing much has changed. When I’m asked about my career, I say things like ‘I was lucky to have good managers, great leaders, who helped me develop and get me to those senior positions’, and I suppose there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way; then again I don’t hear my fellow male colleagues quote the fact they got where they are through ‘luck’. They got there through hard work and merit, and actually so did I.

Unfortunately, society has embedded values and ideologies within us that are hard to shake, and it’s these beliefs which lead the culture in most businesses. I hear many people say “the world’s gone mad”, “all this gender equality nonsense”, but sadly discrimination is still deeply rooted in our psyche, in each and every one of us. Most of us are simply acting on learned behaviours, behaviours that are a direct result from the influence of our environments, so it’s never going to be something that’s solved overnight.

Culture is the key to any employer wanting to truly start to tackle gender diversity, or in our case diversity as a whole.

Culture, however, is the key to any employer wanting to truly start to tackle gender diversity, or in our case diversity as a whole. Creating a new recruitment programme targeted at women, or targeted at a certain ethnic minority is noteworthy, however it’s what sits behind it that will ultimately win or lose the battle. As a basic requirement, we all want to work in a welcoming, understanding and fair environment, and what many diversity initiatives fail to do is challenge the culture. It’s not good enough just to attract women into middle or senior management roles with a shiny recruitment campaign. You’ll fall at the first hurdle as soon as it becomes apparent your culture doesn’t match the promises in your patter.

We know the importance of building a culture where employees feel they can be open and honest, where there is trust and where challenge and innovation is embraced, but not much is discussed about delivering diversity through change programmes. We need teams not only to understand the benefits of a more diverse environment, but actually to believe in it; and help it inform the way we lead our daily lives, at work and at home. We have to make the most of every opportunity, including training, communications, creative events, group discussions and everything in between.

There also needs to be dedication from the employer to start making small changes towards improving the benefits for the workforce (male and female). We need to look at things like flexible working for families, opportunities to work from home, maternity pay packages and paternity leave. By creating an inclusive and positive culture you can achieve big improvements in performance. Employees feel trusted and empowered and will be inspired and motivated to do the best by the business. It also sees employees become more engaged with customers and the communities that we serve.

We should all be committed as an industry to stamp out the casual sexism at grassroots level too. It’s an area that most employers struggle with, and a lot of the time it’s made worse by not having female role models within senior positions. This kind of sexism could be anything from being expected to take the notes in a meeting where there are only other male colleagues present, always being singled out as soon as someone mentions organising a retirement gift, being told you look sexy in a hi-vis jacket or that your legs look great in that skirt. These kind of comments and actions are a sure-fire way to make a female employee instantly feel… ‘shit’. Excuse the language, but it brings me neatly on to another… “Shhh, stop swearing there’s a lady present.”

Tolerating this kind of sexism is the biggest issue we have, and when you start to tackle it people start getting a bit edgy: “But our business is built on banter” is one of the most common responses. However it’s this ‘harmless’ banter that helps set the tone for your company’s culture, and believe me it’s not one anyone wants.

By laughing comments off that make you feel uncomfortable, because you don’t want to ‘cause a fuss’ or ‘they’re a nice person and probably didn’t mean anything by it’, is simply adding to the issue

One of the most disappointing things I have come across in my career is that many of us, including myself conform. By laughing comments off that make you feel uncomfortable, because you don’t want to ‘cause a fuss’ or ‘they’re a nice person and probably didn’t mean anything by it’, is simply adding to the issue. By conforming we are setting the scene for any new starters to do the same. When we’re trying to attract young men and women into our industry, we should be confident that they will not come up against this kind of casual sexism.

To achieve a more diverse workforce we must look at ourselves and our actions. I’m a firm believer that when recruiting or promoting we have a natural instinct to value similarities in others. We value people that offer the closest cultural match to ourselves, and this happens in the recruitment process whether it’s internal or external. It’s unconscious bias and it’s just human behaviour, but it’s a cycle that’s very tricky to break. I have to hold my hands up at this point and admit when building my teams in the past I’ve done just this, choosing candidates with the same social markers, people that reflect my way of thinking, my lifestyle and my cultural background. To get that high-performance team, the one that will take your organisation to the next level, it’s essential you have a variety of skills, experience and outlooks. Your workforce should closely match the demographic of your customers, yet this stops us doing just that.

There are so many great things about our industry, and I am so very proud to be a part of it. Our dedication to the customer experience is second to none. We lead the way in so many areas, but I think gender diversity needs our attention. I’ve debated so many times whether I should share my thoughts publicly with my industry peers and I came to the conclusion that by not sharing I would be conforming to those learned behaviours. So here you have them.

We need more men and women in the bus industry speaking openly about the gender diversity challenges, how we can come together to tackle them, and of course to discuss all the positive changes that are being made too.

If you’re interested in joining a group that will aim to accelerate and influence the gender diversity agenda within the bus industry, please do get in touch. Let’s all come together and get things truly moving!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Chloe Leach-O’Connell is managing director of Leach-O’Connell Consultancy, where she helps organisations to create a high performance culture by developing a strong corporate narrative. She was previously head of regional marketing and communications for Arriva Yorkshire and Arriva North East.


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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