Put Women In The Driver’s Seat

If you are looking for a user-friendly, safe and accessible mobility system, involve female transport users and workers.

By Emma Latham-Jones

Every step made to improve the experience of women in transport is a win for everyone. When policy makers address gender issues in transport, they increase accessibility for all. What this means is taking a user-centric approach: every single transport user is the focus. We need to rethink transport policies that are biased against certain users, especially vulnerable citizens: children, pregnant women, disabled people, those from poorer backgrounds – they all need to be at the heart of transport policy decision making.

To do that, it is important to look at the data. The evidence should inform transport policies to ensure they reflect real-life situations and solve real-world problems. Rich evidence shows that gender is a significant determinant for the choice of transport modes. Women’s travel habits tend to be more multifaceted than those of men: they tend to take more frequent, mostly short trips; they use different services than men, and at different times of the day.

Women’s trips also more often involve children. To make transport inclusive, we cannot only serve those who make few, direct trips at set times and normally alone. Transport needs to work for everyone. When it does, it has an incredible ability to empower citizens.

Female leadership

Here at the International Transport Forum, we celebrate women who work across the sector and work to amplify women’s voices and visions for improved transport for all. The ITF appreciates the importance of diversity for the quality and value of our transport systems, and we know that women can be powerful agents of change. That is why we have a broad  range of work on Gender in Transport: from consultations on (and with) women in transport, via conferences on how to attract more females to the transport sector, to reports on how to ‘Plan and Design Transport Systems That Will Ensure Safe Travel for Women’.

Female leadership is of critical importance to increase representation of women in the transport sector. At the ITF, we are proud that three members of our staff – Mary Crass, Sharon Masterson and Magdalena Olczak-Rancitelli – have been honoured as “Remarkable Women in Transport” by the Transformative Urban Mobility Initative (TUMI); testament to our commitment advance the mainstreaming of gender perspectives in transport, together with our partners in governments, international organisations, academia and the private sector.

“The transport sector needs more gender diversity”, say argues Magdalena Olczak-Rancitelli, who is Manager of Summit Preparation at the ITF. “One of the most effective way to motivate women to make themselves heard and felt in transport is to tell stories about inspiring women who thrive in the sector.”

Outstanding female researchers

Women already achieve great things on the frontlines of transport, as bus drivers, aircraft pilots, logistics planners, and so on. But they play an equally as important role as researchers, academics and thinkers. When French transport scientist Anne de Bortoli won the ITF’s Young Researcher of the Year Award 2020, with a groundbreaking study on the environmental impact of shared e-scooters in cities, she was only the latest female success story in a long history of female excellence in transport research.

2013 Young Researcher of the Year, Laura Schewel from the United States, won the Award with a fascinating analysis of the history and policies of moving retail goods. Today, Laura is the CEO of Streetlight Data, a start-up that provides transport and urban planners the with an easy and affordable way to incorporate data on mobility behaviour into important decisions – for instance how citizens are using roads, bike lanes and sidewalks. Last year, Schewel’s company created the first ever bike and pedestrian metrics for the urban transport industry. The MIT Technology Review named her one of its “35 Innovators Under 35” in 2013.

Laura Schewel receiving the Young Researcher of the Year Award at the ITF Summit of Transport Ministers in Leipzig, Germany, in May 2013

Women researchers are also making major contributions to better understanding the link between transport and climate change. In 2015, Dr Nihan Akyelken from Turkey won the ITF Young Researcher of the Year Award for developing a conceptual framework for the governance of sustainable freight transport, which the jury honoured for its’ originality and policy relevance. Today, Nihan is an Associate Professor in Sustainable Urban Development at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, where she is teaching students in the Masters and Doctoral programmes in Sustainable Urban Development, she helps to form the next generation of innovative transport leaders, many of them women. Her forthcoming book is, appropriately, titled “Women, Work and Mobilities”.

This year’s award winner Anne der Bortoli also has a clear take on gender and transport: “Women are generally under-represented in expert panels, academia, PhD programs, and industrial leading positions higher education. This is particularly noticeable in some STEM subjects, to the point that it’s almost jarring, she says. “Yet women have proven time and again that we can overcome barriers and smash glass ceilings, and this is exactly what we must do in order to see long-lasting positive change.

We must be confident, we must challenge discrimination, and we must take action for what moves us. Women need a large variety of role models. I urge all female researchers who work in transport-related fields to apply for the next ITF Young Researcher of the Year Award. Why? Because every time you give yourself a chance to win, you’ve made a major step towards gender equality.”

2929 Young Researcher of the Year Award, Anne de Bortoli

Emma Latham-Jones is a Young Associate at the International Transport Forum. You can read more about the 2020 ITF Young Researcher of the Year Award, Anne de Bortoli’s research, and find the recording of the ceremony here.

“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.