“Garbage in, garbage out”: Why gender-blind transport policies are not gender-neutral

With just one month until International Women’s Day 2022 on the theme “Break the Bias”, María Santos Alfageme calls for action to solve transport data’s gender bias

You reap what you sow with GIGO

Despite decades of investing in better analytics and storage systems, many organisations still struggle to make optimal use of their data. Data enables governments to govern, and good data enables governments to govern efficiently (International Transport Forum, 2021). However, the adoption of data-driven approaches in policymaking comes with several challenges. These include having an under-skilled workforce, digitalising valuable data trapped on printed paper, or accounting for citizens who do not produce digital data. Too often, the public sector has an abundance of data that is underutilised or yet to be discovered (GovTech, 2021). Not harnessing this “dark data” is partly responsible for our gender-blind transport policies.

Infinite examples of gender biases in the transport sector exist. Probably the most prominent ones are the design of default-male transport products like buses, bus straps, or seatbelts. Gender biased transport policies are even more worrying when we realise that, even if women represent the majority of public transport users, public transport planning has historically been shaped around the standard male A-to-B travel patterns. Or when we realise that samples used to determine vehicle safety standards make women 73% more likely than men to be seriously injured or die in a car crash. As we become increasingly reliant on artificial intelligence and different technologies to manage our databases, the need to address this bias is more urgent now than ever.

Why car design is killing women | Caroline Criado Perez

Achieving gender equality in transport requires quality, policy-relevant data on women and girls’ transport use. Without it, we cannot make informed decisions, and we cannot track if or how those decisions are improving lives. The good news is – we have that data! In recent years, there has been a proliferation of concepts underlining the gender bias in transport policies, like NYU’s “pink tax on transport “or Professor Inés Sánchez de Madariaga’s coined term “mobility of care “. The last two decades have seen public investments in projects to bridge the data collection gender gap (e.g. DIAMOND project, the Transport Innovation Gender Observatory, etc.), as well as free, self-paced training courses. These contribute to a growing body of evidence collating best practices to address this issue institutionally.

The International Transport Forum (ITF) works to better understand both female transport users and transport professionals. For instance, the ITF published a compendium highlighting positive examples of how women can benefit from the transformative innovations in the transport sector, proving that transport connectivity is a decisive factor in women’s empowerment. ITF will soon publish a Gender Analysis Toolkit for Transport Policies to help countries carry out their own gender analysis. Last year, ITF’s official platform for interaction with the corporate sector – the Corporate Partnership Board – held a workshop on gender bias in transport data, and a joint and public event with the Science Technology and Innovation Division at the OECD, entitled Addressing the Gender Bias in AI Data. These exchanges made it clear that without inclusive, purposeful public-private data partnerships between mobility operators and authorities, the biases of our systems risk being perpetuated.

Joint ITF-OECD event on Addressing the Gender Bias in AI Data

These events were not aimed at data professionals, though. They served as an eye-opener to the social consequences of not addressing gender bias and the benefits that ethical, inclusive use of databases could bring to society. The adoption of data-driven approaches can increase objectivity, equity and fairness. And they will, if we ensure that the data we collect and use to design policies is representative by default.

Contrary to what many still claim, a gender perspective to transport planning is not ideological. It is about effectiveness. Not accounting for half of the population means that we will not deliver policies that serve all citizens. This is not only unfair and inequitable, but unsustainable. “Garbage in, garbage out” (GIGO) is a concept common to computer scientists and the tech industry to express that the quality of output is determined by the quality of the input. Since a computer processes what it is given, we must be mindful of producing policies that do not blindly perpetuate old injustices, as Caroline Criado-Perez upholds in her book Invisible Women.

Women-only subway car in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The OECD March on Gender calls us to raise the bar for better policies for gender equality. Now is the best time to rethink and restructure the way we collect data and use it meaningfully. At the same time, new governance frameworks are being developed to effectively govern digital spaces. It would make sense to push to create systems that ensure a gender lens is embedded in all aspects of public policy. Let’s prioritise equity, and let’s not lose sight of heterogeneity within the “women” cluster. We must be ready to assess multi-variable realities that have an effect on travel patterns, such as income, race, background, occupation or age, to ensure a “global dialogue for better transport”.


María Santos Alfageme is a Research Officer at the International Transport Forum’s Corporate Partnership Board

“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.

“Gender is One of the Most Robust Determinants of Transport Choice”

What has gender got to do with transport? A lot, but few people know it. That needs to change, was the message from a consultation on gender and transport organised by the ITF with 34 transport stakeholders.

Mary Crass at ITF Summit 2019

Mary Crass, the ITF’s Head of Institutional Relations and Summit sat down with Emma Latham Jones to discuss female representation in the transport industry, women’s personal safety and how gender influences travel behaviour.

ELJ: Is it still necessary to focus on women in transport in 2020?

MC: Without a doubt! Women represent the largest share of public transport users around the world. In France, for instance, two-thirds of passengers on public transport networks are women. A study that we’ve recently done here at the ITF reveals that gender is often a more robust determinant of modal choice than age or income. So it’s really significant, especially since transport services and policies are still not gender neutral.

ELJ: If gender is so important to journey decisions, why is it so often overlooked?

MC: Data collection and analysis very often do not include gender to reflect differences in travel behavior. This means that transport policy is potentially not accounting for 50% of travelers’ needs. It’s a huge missed opportunity for transport authorities, planners and operators to ignore the specific trip patterns and access needs of women— a market that represents over half of public transport clients. Clearly, gender needs to be better taken into transport policy consideration.

ELJ: Are travel policies not gender neutral because women are not well represented in the transport sector?

MC: I think this certainly plays a part. The transport labour force remains heavily male-dominated. Only 22% of transport employees in the European Union are female. In the Asia-Pacific region, women are typically found in fewer than 20% of transport jobs. There are relatively few women working as operators, drivers, engineers, and similar positions. A survey of ITF member countries also found that only 13 out of 60 member countries currently have female transport ministers. As a result, women’s voices in decision-making are under-represented across all levels, which leads to a lack of incentive for transport services to respond to the particular needs of women as users. It also contributes to the fact that gender considerations are largely ignored in transport data collection and analysis, and therefore in policy decisions. We need to change this to ensure that the voice of women is heard in public transport decisions.

ELJ: Does this mean female representation in the transport industry is a priority of the ITF?

MC: Absolutely – the lTF is working alongside its members and stakeholder organisations to better understand the questions related to gender in transport, both on a travel-behaviour level and in terms of representation in the sector. Our consultation on women in transport just now in January brought together 34 stakeholders to explore these questions. We hold this consultation annually, and our understanding of the importance of a gender-diverse transport sector is advancing year to year. We greatly appreciate the insights of our partners and we feed the findings to our summit in Leipzig in May. There we’ll examine how innovation in the sector is impacting women, in terms of their travel and mobility choices.

ELJ: How else does the ITF support women in transport?

MC: We’re looking at gender in transport within the context of inclusive transport and we examine the question from three different angles: travel behavior, safety and security, and representation in the sector. We look at how the gender balance in the industry can be more effectively pursued by understanding the distinctions between how men and women navigate the transport system as users – and how they evolve as workers and professionals serving transport operations and activities.

ELJ: I am a young woman, and sometimes on public transport I find myself concerned about my personal safety. How do issues like these influence women’s decisions and their lives more broadly?

MC: Women are more likely than men to be dependent on public transport. Yet they face personal security challenges that hinder and often deter them from using transit systems. As a result, women’s access to jobs, services and amenities is severely compromised. A Reuters survey of 16 major cities worldwide found that women in Latin American cities faced the highest rates of harassment, with about 60% of women reporting physical harassment on public transit systems. Even under conditions where infrastructure is considered to be safe, women’s perception of that security can influence their willingness to use collective means of transport. Simple, low-hanging fruit can go a long way to improve perceptions of security – including better lighting, clear signage and presence of security personnel. Our work has shown that if women do not feel safe and secure using transport, they will switch to taxis or private vehicles faster than men. So ignoring gender impacts of transport infrastructure and operations is a disservice to the sustainability agenda as well.

ELJ: February 11 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. How can we increase the number of women in transport related science, technology and engineering roles?

MC: If we look at this question from the perspective of education and training, then I’d say employment in the transport sector needs to have greater visibility in higher education. Too often, opportunities in the transport sector for women are not properly understood.

ELJ: What about the more practical aspect of being a woman in a male-dominated sector?

MC: For operational jobs in the sector – driving vehicles for instance – the conditions of employment need to ensure that the needs of both genders are met. Too often required clothing, equipment and even facilities are not appropriate for women in the sector. This can be rectified by ensuring that upstream purchasing and planning of the worker environment take into consideration the presence of women in these jobs.

Thank you so much for your time, Mary.

Mary Crass is Head of Institutional Relations and Summit for the International Transport Forum. She is responsible for the ITF’s relations with member countries, international organisations and associations, and the Annual Summit of the International Transport Forum. The next Summit will be held from 27-29 May 2020 on the topic of “Transport Innovation for Sustainable Development” in Leipzig, Germany.