Roundtable: Women and gender inequality in transport

Ilaria Grasso Macola 16 March 2021 (Last Updated March 17th, 2021 16:59)

Despite conversations in the industry about gender inequality, little has been done to improve the situation for women in the railway, aviation and shipping industries. We speak to five women working in these sectors to find out what more can be done.

Roundtable: Women and gender inequality in transport
We speak to five women about what more can be done. Credit: mohamed_hasan.

Monday 8 March marked International Women’s Day, but despite the many discussions held by the industry on the day, gender imbalance in the transport sector is still a major issue.

As reported by UK recruitment firm Search Consultancy, 63% of managers believe that the transport industry is still struggling with a lack of gender diversity.

According to the research – which involved 1,000 respondents rating how they believed their industry compared in terms of diversity – transport is the second to last, a little behind the construction sector.

“Although research shows that 63% of managers in the transportation sector believe their industry is suffering from a skills shortage, little is being done to encourage a more diverse workforce and consequently widen the talent pool available,” said Search Consultancy director of talent and engagement.

We round up women working in the aviation, shipping and railway sector to talk about what their industries are like and what can be done to gap the gender imbalance.

 

How did you start in your sector? What made you choose it?

Alessandra Testa, JetClub chief commercial officer and head of sales

I started with an internship in an aircraft seat manufacturing company, but I was a project manager working for the railway division. [While there] I could see that my colleagues working in aviation were very passionate, meeting [with big companies] such as Boeing and Gulfstream and I was dreaming of maybe one day [doing that job].

That day happened because I took other jobs and changed companies and grew. I didn’t choose aviation but somehow the industry reached out to me.

Marta Garcia, UNIFE Technical Affairs Manager

I have always known that I wanted to work in a technical environment because it is a continuous challenge. Seven years ago, I started auditing rail works and I really enjoyed the sector.

Claire Hosking, DFDS head of revenue

A combination of onboard experience, a financial mathematics degree and a final dissertation centred around pricing set me up to do the work I am today.

I would say where I have ended up is not something I actively sought out – it’s been a number of choices along the way. Less a choice and more making the most of all fitting and inspirational opportunities I happen to come across.

Jools Townsend, Community Railway Network chief executive

I started working in the third sector shortly after graduating, having spotted an interesting-looking job at Brake, the road safety charity. Having started my career at Brake, and now at Community Rail Network, sustainable transport has been an important theme; something I’ve become increasingly passionate about and am pleased to be working closely with industry partners to advance progress on.

Stefania Vigano, Farnborough Airport head of safety and compliance

I decided to start studying for an aviation diploma when I was just 13 as I was really fascinated by the world of aircraft. After my diploma, I joined Alitalia Airlines as a ground handling Agent at Roma Fiumicino Airport and I really loved the experience working for a big company in a very interesting airport. I have been in aviation since and haven’t looked back.

 

How long did it take you to get to your position?

Alessandra Testa

I don’t think it’s a matter of how long it took but mostly the opportunities I have encountered during my career and the choices I have made and how many risks I have decided to take. In the end, you take risks and somehow you shape your own future.

Marta Garcia

It took me nine years of experience – seven of which were in rail – and I have to say that I am very lucky to be able to see the sector with a high perspective, as UNIFE, the European Rail Supply Industry, has us working in all parts of the industry.

Claire Hosking

I have been in my current position for a year and a half. So about seven and a half years.

Jools Townsend

I’ve been working in the third sector [non-governmental, non-profit] for about 20 years, and my current position for four years. I coordinate a team of 16 at Community Rail Network, supporting hundreds of community-based partnerships and volunteer groups around Britain, which engage people locally in their railways.

Stefania Vigano

I worked as a ground ramp coordinator and weight and balance Officer until 2006, before becoming senior cabin crew for nearly two years. I then decided to be less operational and pursue a career in compliance and safety of airport ground operations so worked as a Safety and Compliance Officer from 2008 to 2018.

Over the years, I worked as a consultant for various organisations across Europe and the Middle East but in 2018 I felt the time was right to commit to an official in-house role and I joined Farnborough Airport as Safety and Compliance Manager.  In 2020, I was promoted to Head of Safety and Compliance.

 

Is there gender inequality in your sector?

Alessandra Testa

It’s public knowledge that aviation has a very poor [gender] balance and the lack of women is particularly relevant in senior leadership positions. According to IATA, the proportion of women holding C-level roles in the industry is just a low single-digit percentage.

So there’s still a long way to go but luckily there are companies that envision diversity and inclusivity and JetClub is one of them. We’re very proud to have a highly inclusive approach to talent acquisition, with women holding 60% of our senior leadership positions and in my team it’s even 80%.

Marta Garcia

Traditionally, rail supply had more men present than women, but there are more and more highly competent women working in the sector every day. They are attracted to its dynamic nature that offers many possibilities in different positions towards a more sustainable world.

Claire Hosking

I would say that in my experience there is not equality in revenue management generally, but I don’t know figures. I can also add it’s not something we see in revenue management at DFDS – our department is diverse in many ways.

Jools Townsend

In my role, I am often taking part in transport and rail events, meetings and activities, and it’s often quite stark that the industry remains male-dominated [but] things appear to be changing.

There is a growing awareness within transport of the need to embrace diversity, and the value this brings, especially to help create a more people-focused, sustainable, future-ready transport system.

Stefania Vigano

In the airport sector, it is certainly true that women are less well represented in operational and managerial roles. However, in other areas such as customer service roles, there is probably more of a balance if not more women?

Equality means many things, but I would say there is still a lot that can be achieved to further encourage women into the sector.

 

What can the industry do to tackle it?

Alessandra Testa

In business, everything starts from the top. The decisions, attitude and style your CEO embraces are reflected in every aspect of the business.

As an industry, what can be done is setting up goals on gender diversity [to foster] equal representation, keep building awareness and attracting and nurturing female talent. Improving gender diversity throughout the industry really makes business sense and according to a report from McKinsey, companies where women are most strongly represented perform best.

This is an important signal and as women in leadership roles, I think we have a responsibility towards the young generation, setting an example and being open to mentor.

Marta Garcia

I believe that the [railway] sector is undergoing a transformation with the pace change in digitalisation and the policy focus on the EU Green Deal. This pivot has made us more attractive to young people and women who want to explore futuristic tools and contribute to our planet’s health. Rail stakeholders have also been proactive in starting campaigns like Hop On For Our Planet and the European Blueprint for Skills called “Skill Training Alliance For the Future European Rail System” (STAFFER), where concrete training and education plans are to be drawn up by suppliers, operators, academics and more.

Claire Hosking

Being conscious is the first step – not just knowing the figures and the targets we want to reach but the people behind them. If we don’t make the workplace an environment that women enjoy working within, even if we hit long term targets, they will not want to stay with us very long.

Jools Townsend

The community rail movement is all about creating positive relationships locally between railways and communities, bringing people together, and helping communities have a voice in rail. I think there’s much we can offer our rail industry partners in amplifying diverse voices and ensuring communities and inclusion are at the forefront of industry thinking.

Stefania Vigano

[Underrepresentation] comes down to many factors but one way of shifting the paradigm is for companies to make a concerted effort to recruit women into roles where there is underrepresentation, across all grades and managerial positions.

 

What advice would you give a young woman who’s interested in joining your sector?

Alessandra Testa

There are plenty of opportunities, you can be whatever you want to be. Just be bold, choose your path and work hard, do your best to make it happen, dream big. [Quoting Jim Collins] set yourself a BHAG – a goal that is big, hairy and audacious – and make the best to achieve it.

Marta Garcia

I would definitely tell her to hop on rail! It is a very interesting, dynamic sector with a wide range of opportunities and a very positive spirit of cooperation. Working in rail is highly rewarding as we improve people’s lives through mobility and create a more sustainable world at the same time.

Claire Hosking

There is some bad advice out there so be careful, don’t change who you are or your values to fit into a male-dominated field. Diversity will only come when we not only make room but actively include all types of people. Be true to yourself because if you aren’t you won’t be happy in your work.

Jools Townsend

We often don’t see transport as an integral, influential part of our communities, lifestyles and shared future. As we grapple with major challenges to decarbonise transport and ensure everyone can access sustainable and inclusive mobility, the tremendous importance of transport, socially, economically and environmentally will, I hope, come more to the fore.

I think that offers great opportunities for the sector to embrace different perspectives, achieve a more diverse workforce, and ensure transport is inclusive and welcoming for all.

Stefania Vigano

[In aviation] there is a real opportunity to be that next role model, whether it be out on the airfield or sitting in the CEO’s chair. If you are passionate about aviation, I would say follow your interests and don’t hold back.