“To Empower Women, Everyday Acts Matter Most”

How can the transport sector get better at serving the needs of women – both as customers and as employees? On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2020, Sharon Masterson spoke to Emma Latham Jones about women innovators, why getting girls interested in STEM is not enough, and inspiring female voices at the transport ministers’ Annual Summit.

How can the transport sector become more attractive for women?

ELJ: Innovation will be the core theme of the ITF Summit in May 2020. What is the role of women in innovation?

SM: There have been women among transport innovators throughout history – they just weren’t acknowledged. Think of Katherine Johnson, a woman and mathematician who worked for NASA. Her trajectory calculations were critical for successfully sending the first humans into space. Despite her enormous contributions to space exploration, she remained mostly unknown until the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” made her a household name – at the age of 98. Sadly, Katherine Johnson passed away this 24 February; she was 101 years old.  

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson at the 2017 Academy Awards

ELJ: A powerful reminder of both of the impact women can have and how little their contributions are often valued! I know you have a strong interest in developing female innovators and leaders. When you look at the next generation, what do you see?

SM: I am more than interested, I am passionate about the development of the next generation. If I look at the young women of today, I see they are strong and not afraid to claim their space at the decision-making table. They know exactly how to make their voices heard – and others are listening! 

ELJ: Can you give me some examples?

SM: This February, I was at the Global Ministerial Road Safety Conference in Sweden. One of the largest delegations at that conference was the delegation of the World Youth Assembly for Road Safety. Their co-chair, Omnia El Omrani, a medical student, made an impassioned plea to all present for safer and more sustainable roads and cities. She demanded “no false promises or fake commitments”. She made the very poignant point that today’s youth feel that their future is uncertain and not enough importance is given to critical issues that affect it.

If we think of sustainability, and in particular climate change, it is also a young female activist, Greta Thunberg, who has the largest following. Her message is a very simple one: listen to the climate experts and the science, and then act upon their advice.

Young women are making their voices heard

ELJ: How can the transport sector attract more women and girls?

SM:  The sector is working hard on this, but there is a still a lot to do. Last year the ITF’s Corporate Partnership Board organised a workshop on “Hiring and retaining a diverse workforce”. Two of the many interesting findings from that discussion were the need to address unconscious bias in the workplace and to put measures in place that ensure diversity of applicants in the recruitment process.

To get there, the transport sector has to raise awareness about all the different types of jobs that exist in transport and mobility. We produced a video aimed at encouraging girls and women to consider a career in the transport sector, to simulate their curiosity.

One of the things I would point out is that while there is a lot of emphasis on getting girls interested in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and the professions related to the STEM subjects,  there are many non-STEM jobs in the transports sector, for instance in transport policy, tourism, or urban planning.

#WomenInTransport: ITF Corporate Partnership Board event on 8 March 2019

ELJ:  Transport ministers and delegations from more than 70 countries attend the ITF Summit. How present will women be? Which remarkable women will ministers be hearing from at the Summit in May?

SM: First of all, there is an increasing number of female transport ministers. This traditionally male-dominated portfolio is led by women in ITF member countries from Albania and Austria via Italy and the Netherlands to Korea and the United Sates. They are still a minority, but things have clearly begun to move.

In May, we’ll have a host of remarkable women speaking at our Summit. If I had to pick just one or two from that list, I would highlight Mary Robinson and Sinéad Burke, because they’re Irish and Ireland holds the ITF presidency this year.

Mary Robinson will give a keynote at the Summit. As an Irish woman myself, I remember her election as the first female President of Ireland well. In her acceptance speech she stated: “I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system”. Since her presidency she has gone on to do other very important things in many areas, including advocating for climate change and human rights.

Mary Robinson, former Irish President, will be a keynote speaker at the ITF Summit 2020

Sinéad Burke is a young Irish lady and a powerful advocate for diversity. I was fascinated by her TED Talk and an intervention she made at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she spoke about why design should include everyone. So when I met Sinéad in person I asked her if she would speak at the ITF Summit and give us a user perspective on transport design and inclusion. It will be inspiring to have Sinéad with us!

ELJ: Whose responsibility is it to help women and girls succeed?

SM: I believe that all of us have a shared responsibility to help the next generation, both the young men and the young women. Kind words and encouragement go a long way. It is the everyday acts that matter most to empower women. Diversity and equality matter every day, not just on International Women’s Day. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh siad is an old Irish saying meaning young people will progress and grow better with praise than criticism. I grew up with that saying and it is something that I’ll be passing along to my daughter.   

ELJ: That’s a beautiful saying. Thank you for sharing it. Finally, how will you be celebrating International Women’s Day?

SM: The two events we had prepared for International Women’s Day 2020 have had to be postponed until later in the year because of the Coronavirus situation, unfortunately. We will reschedule our workshop on “Gender: The Importance of Co-operation between Industry and Government” and share experiences and best practices among the ITF Corporate Partnership Board’s member companies. The focus will be on how to build and maintain successful women’s networks, as well as the mentoring and coaching activities our member companies have put in place. We will also find a new date for a high-level panel discussion on the same topic – stay tuned!

ELJ: Thank you so much, Sharon.


Sharon Masterson is the Manager of the ITF Corporate Partnership Board (CPB), the International Transport Forum’s platform for engaging with the private sector. The CPB works with the ITF on emerging transport policy issues around topics such as the sharing economy, blockchain, drones, innovative mobility, transport decarbonisation, and gender and diversity.

Emma Latham-Jones is a Young Associate at the International Transport Forum.