Advancing female leadership in rail, roads and transport infrastructure


Sometimes, career progression can feel like gridlock on a highway or a delayed flight. While setbacks are an inevitable part of life, women in rail, road and transport face additional professional challenges that can feel like stalling or blocked entry points. 

Women comprise only 16.9 per cent of transport roles and 4.5 per cent of leadership positions. This existing lack of diversity, combined with other socio-economic challenges make it tougher for organisations to attract and retain diverse talent. 

After celebrating the achievements of women in the workforce just last month for International Women’s Day, it is still a time for reflection. The future of the transport industry depends on a more inclusive workforce and pathways for women. 

Between 2011 to 2031, Australia’s domestic freight task is projected to grow by 80 per cent, as online shopping and demand for instant delivery increase. Currently, Australia is experiencing an extreme truck driver shortage. 

It’s time for businesses to change their approach to hiring great talent and consider how to train a diverse range of employees to achieve strategic goals.


Why leadership diversity matters in transport 

Companies ranked highly for gender diversity on executive teams are 21 per cent more likely to outperform other organisations on profitability, are in a better position to make strong leadership decisions, and experience up to 53 per cent higher return on equity.

Diversity also has the added benefit of appealing to millennial and graduate employees, with over a quarter of millennial workers choosing employers based on their reputation for diversity, equity and inclusion. Organisations with female leadership also rank highly on top employer lists. 

Read more: 3 do’s and 1 big don’t for crafting effective DE&I strategies

In recent news, Women in Industry announced its 2021 ambassador, ifm efector marketing manager, Rachael Ashfield, who has successfully progressed in her career from executive assistant to executive leadership. 

Ashfield encourages women across sectors, from transport and manufacturing, to mining and infrastructure, to continue making their mark: “Women bring alternative viewpoints and experiences to a business which often fosters creativity and change. Yet the career pathway for women can be quite challenging, especially in an industry that is not highly represented by women.”


Key challenges 

According to Transport Women Australia Limited’s (TWAL) recent research garnering women’s perspective in working in the industry, the top challenges they face include discrimination, dismissive attitudes and lack of respect. 


“[The] boys club is alive and well, particularly within industry organisations. Females are viewed as suitable to perform administrative duties but most certainly not to represent the views of industry or negotiate with government” 


“[Your] capabilities are questioned and not taken seriously.”


 “Males assume you’re the ‘office girl’.”


Notably, however, the majority of respondents (67%) stated there are plenty of opportunities for women in the transport industry – but with the caveat being women must work harder and be more persistent to attain them. A quarter still felt there were not adequate opportunities for women in the transport sector. 

Read more: Recruitment algorithms can amplify unconscious gender bias 

Many respondents commented on the need to have a “thick skin” and good sense of humour to survive in the industry. Women must be prepared to operate outside the box, and embrace and facilitate change. 


Key opportunities 

Women in Transport president Katie Hulland emphasised the value of gender diversity to overcome current market challenges: “Attracting and retaining women in the industry is vital to post-Covid recovery. We have an enormously untapped pool of female talent in the industry and if we get this right the prize is huge. There would be a [$84bn] boost to the economy if we make the most of female talent in the industry. We should embrace the new world.” 

With more than $200 billion of work in the pipeline, rail, roads and transport sectors are experiencing a surge in growth.

The industry is heading in the right direction, with 34% of transport companies establishing gender equality strategies (compared to the 33% per cent average for all businesses). 

A number of organisations are also leading the way. Girl Guides Australia in conjunction with Transport Women Australia (TWAL) are raising awareness of the transport industry and the role women can play, by highlighting the existing opportunities available for women of all ages. TWAL is championing women in transport through regular networking events, to empower and connect women across the country. The organisation has plans to revive its mentoring program and is working to encourage new female talent. 

Increasing engagement and representation of women and diverse leaders means more role models. It also leads to a better capacity to influence organisational change. 

As Chief Executive for Tourism & Transport Forum, Margy Osmond, recommends to women in or looking to enter the industry: “Stepping outside your comfort zone willingly is really important. It is the jobs that might be a bit beyond you that I think to deliver the best experience and stretch you to have a go.” 

Diverse workforces have proven time and time again to create positive economic benefits, from increased profitability to creativity and innovation. The transport sector is ripe with opportunity to increase female and diverse leadership. Increased diversity is key to the industry’s viable future. For women to increase their strategic value in these organisations, we must continue shining a light on diversity and inclusion, engage with organisations championing change and continue giving female role models a voice.

Getting stuck in traffic, like setbacks in career progression, can be temporary. Hopefully, these challenges make us challenge ourselves to envision new solutions, progress with purpose and become more resilient.