Why are there not more women in the industry?

20 Oct 2008 (provided by Railways Illustrated), Category: Rail Customer interface

A bus driver for Reading Buses on a recent visit to Cuba was shocked to discover that its national bus company doesn’t employ a single female driver.  The eight women out of the 157 employees either work in the office or clean the buses. “They simply don’t believe in having women driving buses,” comments Tricia James after her trip. “It is not traditional to have women drive any sort of vehicle in Cuba.”

Thankfully such discrimination doesn’t prevail in the UK transport industry but it still seems to be perceived as male-dominated by some people and like many other industries, such as engineering, the pathway into it for women hasn’t necessarily always been an easy or natural one.

First Group stands out by having three senior female managing directors: Nicola Shaw who heads up First’s UK bus division, Mary Grant MD of ScotRail, and Elaine Holt who leads First Capital Connect. But even so, Holt says that only 16% of the group’s workforce are women and of the managers, just 23% are female.

“It’s an area we often discuss at First Capital Connect,” says Holt. “We have four board directors who are female. It’s unusual but we’ve not cracked that through the organisation - how we can attract more women. We’ve got a bit more work to do as an industry and part of it is about perception. When I say to people I’m managing director of a train company, they assume it’s a training company. We’ve not quite broken the barrier.”

Shaw views the industry very positively and has not, herself, experienced discrimination. “My working life has been within the transport industry so this is all that I know. I’ve not been discriminated against and have only on a few occasions felt uncomfortable.

“That’s probably better than would be the case in many other industries. I feel good working in this industry because I like the people, find the work stimulating, and feel that we are doing something worthwhile.”

Indeed a large attraction to the transport industry is its strong people focus. “I quickly discovered it was a people industry and I like working with people,” says Marjory Rodger, director - government relations of the Confederation for Passenger Transport in Scotland. Chloe Leach, marketing and communications manager for Arriva Yorkshire, says it was  “the huge scope for change - whether it’s through new technology or simply by using fresh and innovative ideas” that attracted her.

But when attending one of the many transport conferences or events that happen throughout the year, you would be easily forgiven for thinking the industry was a man’s world. “If I’m doing a presentation, the audience is often dominated by white middle-aged men,” says Holt, “which is disappointing rather than a hurdle.

A count of attendees at this year’s Confederation of Passenger Transport annual dinner, for example, showed that out of 650 people, 74, were female.

“It has taken decades to erode the old boys’ network and (often flawed!) business decisions being taken over liquid lunches after rounds of golf - rather than as a result of evidence-based business plan decisions made after informed debate,” says Rodger.

“Upon reflection, the industry was for generations run by engineers who prioritised their fleets. Then, after [bus] deregulation in 1986, it was run by accountants who prioritised cost cutting to make a return on investment as quickly as possible.

“It took until the 1990s for the industry to discover it was a service provider and bring in marketing and better information. So we are in our infancy as a service provider,” continues Rodger.

Go Ahead’s chief executive Keith Ludeman says that the group has tried very hard to encourage more women in its businesses. “For some reason, we’ve not been able to encourage as many females as we would like - but the more the merrier.”

The consensus seems to be that there aren’t any actual, tangible barriers obstructing women entering the industry, but that there are good opportunities. “I began my career in the industry in 2004,” says Leach. “ What I noticed almost instantly is there’s a huge amount of opportunities available to women in an industry that is often mistaken as being male dominated.

“The industry is fast-moving and it would be great to see more women recognise the opportunities available to them in transport.”

So, like an efficient public transport service, it’s about letting people know what’s out there, and selling it to them.

The problem seems to come down to  perception, regardless of whether the perception doesn’t reflect the reality. “The only barriers that exist are those stereotypes that wrongly see the industry as being male orientated,” says Leach.

“It’s perceived to be an unfashionable industry to work for, says Charlotte Bruce, marketing manager of Go Ahead-owned Metrobus. “Sometimes my female friends when I tell them what I do say, ‘oh right, you work there’. They have the idea that I work in a dirty garage.” Ludeman also feels that “part of the industry has still got a gritty perception of people put off by issues like shift work”.

In order to break the perception, Leach says:  “Basically, we need to show them [women] that the industry is exciting and the doors are open for them to come in and make their mark.

 “If the bus industry was a brand it would be time for a re-launch and this is something that is happening. I do honestly believe that the public do not have the true picture of how dynamic the industry is.”

After a comprehensive re-branding, proper promotion of the industry would seem to be the next step. As Rodger says: “Rightly, marketing has been concentrated on the customer base - but maybe it is time the emphasis was switched to promote the image of the industry itself more.  

She adds: “I just don’t think it enters girls’ horizons as a natural option.” Sound careers advice would be the obvious vehicle for promotion and education. “Careers advice when I got it didn’t enter the territory of transport. Do we do enough as an industry to make people aware?” says Rodger.

That entering the transport industry is not a natural or obvious option is perhaps unsurprising. Rodger puts the industry we are in now, into context. “Traditionally, bus industry management was recruited from engineers, and engineering was traditionally male dominated. But nowadays, many other disciplines are represented - for example accountancy, IT, marketing, HR and consequently I think the gender gap will narrow further.

“The continuing driver shortage which will be exacerbated by the driver CPC requirements will hopefully increase the opportunity for more flexible working patterns.”

For Rodger part of the solution is to target women to cover the traditional school bus runs and inter-school hours’ private hires to fit in with having a family.  “This would enable working mothers to work part time initially, and progress to full time working as their families got older,” she says.

This is the only factor that Rodger highlights that is really gender-specific. Otherwise, she says it’s not about gender but talent and ability. One thing is certain: any forward looking employer should snap up bright committed, young staff - of either sex - if they show an interest in working in the industry.”

While Ludeman is very encouraging of women joining the transport industry, for him too, this is based on merit. “Certainly in terms of Go Ahead, if we get good strong candidates we would actively seek to promote them.”

One thing Holt points out is that the transport industry isn’t an easy, or soft one. “It’s also a very robust, tough industry and you have to be quite robust to succeed especially if you are a woman. Sometimes ‘robust’ is misconceived by some of my colleagues.”

Holt isn’t saying that the industry isn’t for women and robust doesn’t have to equate to ‘male’ but it does suggest a challenge for most people. Those who work in the transport industry, like the spirit of challenge, whether male or female.

As Holt continues: “It’s a pacy, customer-driven service and a lot of people like that kind of environment.” 

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