By Kelly Saunders, Gender Equality Strategist & Evaluator

In an August long read from the UMDaily, Dr. Nicole Kalms, Director of XYX Lab and Ross Douglas, Founder & CEO of Autonomy stated the facts: women and girls face endemic levels of harassment on and around public transport, every day and everywhere. Women modify their travel patterns to avoid danger with consequences for their participation in work, education and public life.  Further, women are still the primary group charged with the mobility of care (travel necessitated by caring for children or the elderly). With the projected growth of ‘Mobility as a Service’ and the banishing of single-use cars in cities, the situation for women and girls stands to get worse, globally. Yet, Nicole and Ross conclude, innovators and policy makers seem to believe that men and women have the same mobility realities. Even with growing awareness of the research, very little action has been taken to improve things.  

Progressive ministries and thought-leaders are starting to question the social justice implications of transport infrastructure choices. Yet to date, the traditional mobility sector has proudly considered itself ‘gender neutral’, albeit with few women in its ranks. It has at times rolled out security apps, female recruitment campaigns or female-only carriages. Yet these attempts to improve women’s mobility have sat firmly outside the core business of constructing and running transport networks. The new mobility sector led by financiers and tech companies, whilst focused on the key question of ‘last mile’ travel, is yet to directly engage on the subject.

A slow growing body of work by universities, not-for-profits and international organisations highlights the inequalities and practical initiatives to improve things. This paper does not add to that work.  Rather, it seeks to highlight one of the real barriers to progress: the persisting lack of interest in gender issues on the part of leaders in the mobility sector. 

The reasons for this disinterest are complex and range from concrete factors such as the inadequacy of current transport KPIs (which are about total trips, reliability and kms of track built) to a more intangible reluctance. As with many other sectors, leaders in mobility assume gender inequality has been largely solved despite slow progress within their own organisations. As ‘women’s issues’ get more coverage, many assume that this exposure equates to concrete progress. More revealingly, the sensitivity of the underlying issues concerning women’s mobility is hard to deny. Any root cause analysis would need to look at factors such as male behaviour in public space, the adequacy of our operators and justice systems to respond to incidents, poverty, education, mental health issues and anti-social behaviour, to name a few.  These are not easy or natural subjects for a mobility sector heavily focused on technical solutions.

It is this writer’s view that the following other reasons are worthy of reflection.

The scale and impact of poor mobility for women is not well understood

Whether it is lower economic participation, reduced access to education, sport and culture, reduced mobility at night or expensive trip chaining common to the mobility of caremany women travel (or do not travel) differently to men. The impacts of this are significant yet remain largely unmeasured and unspoken in the sector.

Unsafe in the City, a comprehensive report compiled from data across five global cities found that 12% of women who have an unsafe experience in a public place never go back, 47% avoid going back alone and 1% stop going out altogether (Plan International, 2018). In Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism, the stories of U.K women abound; “Standing on crowded London bus in summer, seated man puts his hand up my skirt. I shout for help. Not one person responds”, “Wouldn’t flirt back to group of youths so they spat in my face”, “Guy simulated masturbating on my face on packed bus” (Bates, 2014). The everyday stories of assault and subsequent self-regulation to avoid serious harm are even worse in countries such as Peru, India and Spain. Meanwhile, having a young child in the home increases women’s trips by 23% (as women are three times more likely to take children to school and 80% more likely to trip chain) (Allen, 2018).

Yet in the most recent public transport Customer Satisfaction Index published by the NSW Government in Australia (May 2019), customer satisfaction is still aggregated. In a country considered advanced in the field of public transport performance evaluation, customers are homogenous and people under 17 are not surveyed at all. And NSW is by no means alone. The unsafe, complex, or time-consuming mobility experiences of women and girls are essentially not reported on. The huge psychological impact of the reality for women and girls is thus not understood.

Franchise and PPP tenders that invite the private sector to build and run transport networks rarely focus on the needs of women and girls, preferring instead to refer to the community or public at large. The recently renewed tram franchise in Melbourne requires the operator to ‘embed passengers at the centre of service planning’, yet in a franchise contract of 1268 pages, the words ‘women’ or ‘girls’ are not mentioned once. It can be argued that women and girls benefit from gender neutral contract requirements about cleanliness, on-time services and passenger information. And most certainly, they do.  But the true magnitude of disadvantage which flows from poor mobility for women cannot be fully understood without specifically talking about it in surveys and service contracts.

Governments need to collect and use disaggregated data in their research and planning. They need to incentivise new and traditional operators to commit to funded projects which measure and improve women’s mobility. Without this, operators have little capacity or interest in measuring the social or economic impacts as part of their annual strategic and operating plans.

Very few people in the mobility sector know what ‘gender mainstreaming’ means

Incorporating gender-sensitive thinking into the DNA of the organisation, from policy to operations to business development, requires a level of leadership not yet seen in the industry. It has just not been possible to ask the question does this decision serve both men and women?

Things are beginning to shift. The UITP/ITF in its joint Positive Employer Gender Policy (2019) observes that “often, since the transport industry is male-dominated, little attention has been paid to the needs of women workers in terms of uniforms and the ergonomics of the vehicle they are expected to drive or work in.” Yet using a gender lens to understand women’s experiences remains largely the purview of international organisations seeking to influence the key players.

Gender equality in transport is still mostly understood in rudimentary terms (ie the need to employ or promote more women). And there is still a lot of lip service which is evidenced by the lack of granularity and detail around gender equality initiatives. There is undoubtedly progress, some of it very sincere, but we are far from mobility leaders asking their executive teams to mainstream questions of gender across, for example, infrastructure design or transport scheduling.

Leaders in mobility often struggle to value the profiles that would bring better integration

The mobility sector perseveres as a sector led by engineers, business analysts and technicians. With the arrival of new mobility, we add to that list the financiers and tech companies. To solve many of the issues facing us today, not least the climate crisis and major social inequalities, the sector needs to integrate, both within and with other sectors such as energy, health, justice and education. Imagine a transport leader who intimately knew the education sector and was able to make transport decisions with critical education outcomes in mind. This requires new thinking and new skillsets and this in turn requires radically new messages from the top. Yet, transport executive teams around the world continue to be dominated by men (and a few women) with impressive business, IT and engineering credentials who often move between large transport, automobile or infrastructure groups.

Women-led creativity and innovation is undervalued

Messaging to women transport workers has fitted into the ‘fix-the-woman’ category.  Women need mentors and women’s networks in order to be more confident and daring at work. They need to be more innovative and commercial. What transport leaders do not say is that the social and environmental innovation often led by women in the sector has not been valued. This undervaluing of women-led creativity and innovation is well researched.  Harvard Professor Iris Bohnet concludes from numerous U.S studies exploring the preference for entrepreneur “Howard” over “Heidi” that ‘if women conform to the feminine stereotype of nurture and care for others [in their entrepreneurship], they tend to be liked but not respected’ (Bohnet, 2016).

Failing to appreciate the environmental and social initiatives of women in the sector increasingly forms part of an alternate reality of ‘business as usual’, a collective cognitive dissonance of leaders failing to integrate the climate emergency into core business. Whilst the complexity of this transition for business is fully acknowledged, it is not a question of women needing to be more confident or daring, it is an issue of who is listened to and what is valued in the boardroom.

Leaders in mobility rarely explore the way social justice connects with their business

They do not consider the philosophical or ethical questions that mobility raises including underlying gender inequalities. This is an understandable consequence of privatising public transport delivery. When the public policy and funding of mobility is separated from operations and innovation, social justice reflections can slip between the cracks. New mobility is moving too fast to ponder. To overcome this, governments must impose specific social justice imperatives in their service contracts by including robust audit and evaluation.

Gender equality for transport employees has been subsumed and diluted by generic diversity policies

As with many other sectors, equality between men and women at work must compete for a very limited budget with worthy but often unrelated causes. This is just not appropriate and has a direct impact on who leads in the mobility sector.

Human centred design is overshadowed by technology-led innovation

The two are not always compatible and few in the sector are willing to talk about it. With new forms of big data, automated and micro-mobility changing the scene fast, leaders in mobility need a strong human-centred framework for navigating the technological evolutions coming from everywhere.

So what does this actually mean? It means supporting innovation that is driven by empathy for others’ experiences and focused on the real desires of people. With research showing that transport hubs, train and bus stations and bus stops are key locations for sexual harassment of women globally, a primary desire of most women is to travel freely without fear across all modes. Yet this significant problem does not drive technology-led innovation.

A workshop conducted by Embarq India in 2015 asked mobility entrepreneurs and regulators to reflect on the fact that multiple safety apps across companies and agencies confused women during a dangerous incident. It asked how complaints to a helpline or panic app could be filtered so that the most urgent cases were addressed and how, with so many small mobility companies, driver blacklisting worked (or didn’t work) between companies.

Meanwhile the Data Blog on the Boston based MBTA website offers an explanation of an impressive data-driven project:

The Automated Fare Collection database anonymously records a wide variety of information about each passenger’s interaction with an MBTA device (such as fareboxes, faregates, fare vending machines, etc.). Additionally, the MBTA’s Automated Vehicle Location database records the location of each MBTA vehicle via the on-board GPS both each minute and whenever the vehicle reaches a timepoint (one of a number of stops along its route…). The database also records the announcements made for each stop, and the route and destination recorded by the on-board bus software. These two sources are correlated together by the ODX model to infer the precise location and time of each boarding (96% of boardings …are successfully inferred) (MBTA, 2019).   

The objectives of the study were dwell times, payment methods and reliability, all reasonable subjects for inquiry. However, what is missing in this technical tech blog, as with many tech-driven innovations and specifications in the sector, is a discussion of the potential for these advances in technology to interrogate significant human issues such as patterns of sexual harassment or the real price of the mobility of care.

There is a perception that there is ‘no money to be made’ in women-friendly mobility

This is still the main point for many men and women in boardrooms under pressure from their shareholders. It comes from the lack of space for female perspectives at the executive level and from not fully understanding the key client – government – and its responsibility to protect and enable both sexes. Women are the majority of public transport users worldwide, yet the language of the ‘business case’ remains.

For some or all of these reasons, leaders in the mobility sector don’t yet see why taking major steps to transform women’s mobility is worthwhile. This means that research and data remain relatively scarce and major transformation and investment even scarcer. Better mobility for women (including getting home safely) has infinite unknown potential. Further, it is essential to solving many of the challenges we face today. More women in the industry who are empowered to think for themselves are vital to transitioning to a more sustainable, integrated mobility sector. It is time for leaders in mobility to see this.


Kelly Saunders is a freelance gender equality strategist based in Paris.