Working in transport is (not) for women

Working in transport is not for women. This is what one might think by reading the statistics on female employment in this sector. Yet women can perform any job.

But then, why are only 22% of transport workers women? There seem to be two main reasons: working conditions and gender issues.

Women in the transport sector

In the European Union, only 22% of the labour force in transport services are women, compared to 46% in the general economy. In Air Transport the share of women is 40%, almost double the average for all transport services. This large female presence in the air sector is due to flight attendants and various ground services dominated by women, such as check-in and customer services. But at the same time, some employee groups, such as pilots, are heavily dominated by men.

The situation in other transport sectors is much worse: indeed, the percentage of women is 20% in water transport and only 14% in land transport. The situation doesn’t improve in the urban public transport sector, with an average 17.5% percent of female employees.

Why are women under-represented?

The main causes of the under-representation of women in the transport workforce are the harsh working conditions, a stereotype masculine image of the transport sector, security problems (particularly in the night-time urban transport sector), recruitment and reconciling work and private life.

Gender issues seems to be particularly evident in the land and maritime transport sectors. As mentioned, these sectors are largely male-dominated, with the lowest presence of women, and the highest gender segregation.

“The gender related stereotypes still occur in various modes and in general there is a typical male work culture. There are records of quite a number of experiences of women seafarers and their difficulties in pursuing a career at sea. Several women denounced being victims of sexism from staff at their training institutions and many women also reported problems with some male colleagues of sexual harassment.” [1]

Regarding women’s recruitment and employment, various factors have been identified as barriers. The most important emerge from a survey carried out in railway companies and trade unions. [2] It seems that the physical effort required in some jobs induces companies to be sceptical about employing women and discourages them from applying for a job position. On the one hand, gender-related stereotypes and prejudices are still largely common in European railway companies and the typical male work culture prevails. On the other, working in a railway company does not appear attractive to many women because of shift work and spatial mobility (e. g. for locomotive drivers, conductors/on-board personnel), which represent barriers for women with caring responsibilities.

Finally, health and safety at work and hygiene issues (e. g. the lack of appropriate infrastructure for women, such as separate toilets or toilets at all, for instance, on board freight trains) represent other major barriers to female employment, even if they seem relatively easy to overcome.

Actions at European level

The situation regarding the female workforce in transport is also worrisome from a historical perspective. The sector is traditionally strong male-dominated, and female employment is still the lowest among all productive segments. In 2008, the percentage of women in the transport sector was 21% and it grew only slightly to just above 22% in the last ten years.

This is why the European Commission has decided to take action to promote the entry of women in the transport sector.

A first step was taken in April 2016 by EU Commissioner for transport, Violeta Bulc, together with the Commissioner in charge of gender equality, Věra Jourová. They organised a participatory event in Brussels called Women in Transport, to reflect on how to attract more women to the transport sector. Female workers, employers, academics and policy makers in the transport sector participated.

Commissioner Bulc opened the event: “We need to find a gender balance in the transport sector, to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and to overcome unattractive working conditions from a woman’s point of view” she said. “Automation and digitalisation represent a unique opportunity to facilitate the entry of women in the sector”.

A list of “top conditions” to improve female employment in transport emerged from the meeting, along with a number of proposals for action.

In the same month, a workshop about “Working in transport – where are the women?” was held at the 6th European Transport Research Arena in Poland. Among the key outcomes of the workshop were the need for 1) widespread teleworking, 2) female role models to be rewarded by society to overcome gender stereotypes and 3) bottom-up careers for women to increase diversity.

As a result, the European Commission’s Directorate General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE) commissioned a study on “Making the EU transport sector attractive to future generations” [3], which was prepared by Deloitte in conjunction with Coffey and Panteia and published in June 2017. The study included recommendations on how to attract more women to this sector.

In November 2017, the “Women in Transport – EU Platform for change”  was launched. Its objective is to strengthen women’s employment and equal opportunities for women and men in the transport sector. Within this framework, a business case on increasing female employment in transport was designed to help businesses in the transport sector understand how they can increase the participation of women in their work forces.

Another important initiative of the European Commission is #SheisWe, the yearly campaign organized by EuropeAid for the European Development Days (EDD). This year, it will be focused on “Women and Girls at the Forefront of Sustainable Development” with the final goal of promoting a safer, more inclusive and open world for women.

By means of the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Program, the European Commission has also continued to propose specific topics to explore women’s needs and analyse their specific demands, as well as increase social inclusion and equity. This is the case of the Research and Innovation Action, “Demographic change and participation of women in transport”. The aim is to provide “a new level of understanding and new sets of data to be used in planning future transport systems” and to contribute to an inclusive mobility system and a higher level of social equity.

A lot has been achieved but there is still much left to do, as declared in the joint statement on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018 [4]:

“Our Union is a pioneer in tackling gender-based discrimination and we can be proud of the progress achieved: Europe is one of the safest and most equal places for women in the world.

But our work is not over – the path to full equality in practice is still a long one. Women and girls still face harassment, abuse and violence. And women are still too often prevented from breaking the glass ceiling, receiving lower pay and fewer opportunities for career and business development.”

[1] Panteia, Analysis of the trends and prospects of jobs and working conditions in transport, 2017.

[2] WIR – Women In Rail. Good Practices and Implementation Guide.

[3] Study: Making the EU transport sector attractive to future generations.

[4] European Commission – Statement- Joint statement on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018.

Giorgio Sestili