Is public transport lagging behind when it comes to gender equality?

Speaking with Intelligent Transport, Stefania Di Serio, Partnership & Alliance Manager, Transportation Division of Almaviva, and a participant in UITP and the World Bank’s #PT4ME campaign, discusses women’s roles within the public transport sector…

Is public transport lagging behind when it comes to equality?

Have you seen much change in the industry in terms of diversity since you’ve been a part of it, and do you think #PT4ME can help?

I have been in the public transport field for many years and when I started I was among very few female professionals in the sector. Now, if we look around us we do see more women, which is good, but it is still a drop in the ocean.

I do believe UITP has to do something to promote female employment. Progress is being made, but it is important to keep this issue at the forefront of people’s minds and encourage women to enter into this market sector.

I cannot avoid underlining that in conferences and congresses most of the speakers are male. This is partly because most employees are male and usually a male organiser will choose a male speaker, but it is also because women often do not feel comfortable putting themselves forward for the opportunity. This is the situation we have in our sector.

Do you believe it is a case of changing attitudes within the industry?

Absolutely, and young people are really embracing this change. This campaign is fundamental to changing attitudes and the UITP recognises the importance of doing so.

The transport sector is one of the industries where women are least represented. I am not only referring to drivers but to key roles behind the scenes as well.

Being in transport for a number of years, you must have seen the sector change a lot?

I have been in transport for over 20 years and over that time it has changed, but not as quickly as I would expect. From my perspective, the rate of change is still very dependent on the country.

Do you feel like now, or in the next couple of years, we could be reaching a tipping point?

I hope so. There is still a long way to go and we need to be evolving and changing at a quicker rate. It all comes down to our mindsets.

In the transport sector, more than any other, the average age of a worker is higher in comparison to other industries and older employees often have a different mindset. And this is changing very slowly.

Digitalisation will enable this opportunity for greater equality within public transport. It will not only help improve technology but will encourage new people with different skills to join the workforce. I am really confident this will help make a difference.

As digitalisation takes place within the industry, more technology becomes available and the sector is more heavily linked to technology, do you believe this will encourage younger people to get involved?

It would be a huge mistake, and a missed opportunity, to focus on digitalisation from a technological point of view only. Digitalisation is an opportunity to change from user to customer and to see a change in thinking within transportation companies. If we can promote, discuss and make improvements and speak to our customers then we will see change. If we can create passenger-centric solutions, public transportation will be the backbone of the future.

Sharing systems are fast growing and I really believe they are crucial for mobility integration, however the backbone of a city is public transport. You cannot solve the problems of a city with car-sharing solutions only. Whether they are shared or not, there is not enough space for individual transport systems.

Digitalisation could also be used to introduce a change in management within companies, which could positively affect our issue of female employment. Women have a different approach compared to men, not better or worse but simply different, and this can really impact large organisations.

Transport companies need to work on training at an academic level to share and explain the opportunities for employment and career progression that exists for women in this sector. If you visited a university today and asked who was interested in becoming a manager of public transport, it is unlikely any hands would be raised. People are not aware of the job opportunities within the transport sector; we need to explain this is a market where there are huge possibilities.

Therefore, it is not only a change in attitude but a change in how we educate and introduce people to the sector?

Exactly. This is why the PT4ME campaign is so important. Mohamed Mezghani was just telling me – the programme has spread to 100 cities, which is great: people can start realising the potential differences and affects that are available in this modern day.

Information is of outstanding importance in many aspects of transportation. When discussing safety, women understand immediately, whereas with men the issue sometimes needs to be clarified. When occurrences are never reported or discussed, people are often unaware that they are even happening. Even if you see a scenario, you may not truly ‘see’ it, due to your attitude not being ready to understand what is happening around you.

We are a community – we all need to be aware of, and respect, each other. The hope is that people will pay closer attention to the situations happening around them now. Of course, technology can also help improve safety with station cameras and real-time information preventing individuals from waiting alone at a bus stop for a long period of time. Information is the basis of safety and we need to use it to make a community.

Do you think an attitude change at management level within public transport would filter down?

I think you must work within all levels. But a different attitude at the top will flow through tier by tier, causing the overall attitude to slowly change over time.

Personally, I do not believe that higher levels of safety are achieved by the addition of police officers. If you can create an environment within public transport where people feel comfortable, where they can access services and amenities, get a coffee, read a good book in a relaxing space for instance, then it is inevitable that more and more people will choose to spend their own time in this public environment. For me, there is safety in numbers.

When people do not feel safe enough to use public transportation services, society is affected in many ways. If women and children do not use the service and cannot afford taxis into the city, then culture and enriching experiences are lost. If the preferred school is further away from home and the public transportation is not welcoming, parents will select second-choice schools for their children as they cannot afford daily taxis. This is something that needs to be addressed: we need to choose what type of society we want to be.

The question of educating workers and passengers to improve this scenario can be easily answered. We have a media network that is often used for trivial things which could instead transfer valuable information. Routes could be shared with others in similar areas by communicating via social media, so people do not feel alone, so that they do not need to travel alone, say at night. If young people do not feel safe on public transport, then something is very wrong.

We need to work from station to station, addressing the education of drivers and passengers, encouraging more people to use public transport, creating campaigns and providing information and support. It is not only the simple provision of a public transport supply but rather the change of our cities becoming nice environments to live in.

Otherwise in a more degraded environment it is not necessary for something to have happened to feel unsafe, too often it is enough having a forewarning. However, a simple smile from the driver, a recognition that they see you, can make you feel safer. Some companies have started dropping people closer to their destination at night, even if there isn’t a bus stop, in order to help passengers feeling safer.

Furthermore, I would like to address a workforce issue. Women are more likely to be highly educated, however in the companies they are not working in key roles. Why does this happen? There are of course many reasons, but an important factor is that women do not see public transportation as an industry which holds any opportunities for them.

There are, however, improvements that are being made. In Italy, there is a law that enforces company’s boards to include a percentage of female members. This has made a difference and other market sectors should look at this example. There is no reason why they can’t make their own rules to ensure they offer equality and diversity, whilst encouraging the internal promotion of women.

Men should also benefit from equality. Personally, I would like to see paternity leave being made mandatory, for at least two months, to help strengthen the families and relationships within our societies and help keep a greater gender balance in the workplace.

In addition, the data regarding women in top management positions shows that an increase in the share of women from zero to 30 per cent would be associated with a 15 per cent rise in profitability1.

Equality is a dynamic concept – UITP and PT4ME have taken responsibility and are performing well. Other companies, across all market sectors, now need to start building towards equality to make the puzzle one piece closer to completion.


  1. “Is Gender Diversity Profitable?” Evidence from a Global Survey e Peterson Institute for International Economics, Washington 2016.