Violeta Bulc, former European Commissioner for Transport, joins #womenonthemove2020 campaign with an exclusive interview. Taking us through her experience in promoting equality in transport, she shares her vision for a future where men and women have the same opportunities.
During your term at the European Commission, DG MOVE launched the Women in Transport-EU Platform in 2017. Which stories have inspired you the most?
“So many! When I look back at it – this was one of the most worthwhile projects. We were 45 at the first conference and all but two were women. We sat in a big circle on the floor and discussed our different experiences. The experience was so direct, so engaging and involving, that I could see the importance of shared stories. I will never forget one colleague from France who was sent to Australia, where her company had a subsidy, to understand why no women wanted to apply to work there. After a short site visit, she realised that physical conditions were not in favour of women: no separate toilets or showers, filthy corridors, and this was a transport and logistics business. So, upon her advice, the company decided to invest in infrastructure. Soon after they finished with the renovation, something really positive happened. Not only did women start to apply for jobs there, but also young people. Her story was such a strong message to all of us that the focus on infrastructure conditions became one of the pillars that we constantly emphasized and developed our activities around. Also, when we were designing our investment plans for infrastructure, we made sure that this was part of the description and the prerequisite for investment.
Another story came from a truck driver at Volvo. The company decided to balance the male and female workforce. Volvo soon realised that female drivers take better care of the trucks and equipment, they drive at more constant pace and therefore use less gas, but besides this, they were able to establish a very positive relationship with their clients. When they delivered goods, they always got feedback, which helped headquarters improve their business. The fourth positive consequence was that male drivers started to behave better! These are the stories that really kept us going and showed us how we can make a difference.
Of course there were sad stories too, such as the ones involving female pilots. Schooling for pilots requires a lot of financial and personal investment, and once you get your license it takes a while before you can pay back your debt. When pilots went on maternity leave the salary was not even sufficient enough to cover the schooling loan. This really challenged us and also hit us emotionally, so we started working with the European Pilots Association and the unions.”
What did you learn during these conferences?
“What we realised is that if we really want to improve the conditions of women, and this is my philosophy too, we need to create environments for equal opportunities, for fair treatment and respect for each other. We need to find the right balance, to cooperate and not look at gender anymore when it comes to employing people, especially in this new age where through digitalisation many jobs are moving from front end to back end. The conclusion of the first conference was that we need to find a way to bring men on board for the gender equality topics. My personal statement during each conference was inviting men to join us because, in a couple of years’ time, they might need the same framework for themselves. What I’m happy and proud of is that together with all the stakeholders we started to build a kind of community based on this philosophy, so our conferences started to grow and more men were joining us. The last conference was attended by 160 people and 40% were men. They suggested promoting ambassadors for equal opportunities in transport, so “Ambassadors for Diversity in Transport” was launched and the number of them keeps growing monthly. So, this is how the story evolved. Every year we had richer angles of diversity, richer participation and more useful focus and content. I hope this will continue to grow. During one of the last conferences, Easy Jet’s HR manager said that the company had decided by 2020 to have 20% of female pilots. In aviation on average at that time, Europe was at 3%. This is a major change. You see, political support encourages people to make commitments.”
In 2015 only 22 % of workers in the transport sector were women. Have the figures changed? Why is it important to have more women working in the transport sector?
“I believe it is important to motivate girls to enter schools that encourage transport roles. When I went to the University I was majoring in computer science, and half of us, who graduated were women. Today I’m shocked, because the number of female students has dropped down to 15-20%, so something has gone off course, because my generation saw many women in computer science. We have to do a better job in inspiring women’s interest in this profession in the early stages of their schooling. Usually this kind of transformation takes about 10 years. However, Junker proved that it can be faster if there’s the right leadership. When he became President, only 21% of women were in European Commission high positions. He said that by the end of his mandate he wanted to reach a percentage of 40%. On the day that we left the office, there were 41.5 % of women in the top positions. This happened only in 5 years, so I’m confident we have planted a seed that will continue to grow. In ten years I expect more than 40% of women working in the transport sector. It is important to have role models.”
What advice would you give to the younger generations of women who are thinking of starting a career in the transport sector?
“I don’t like giving advice, but what I can do is to share stories. We need to highlight that transport jobs will not disappear, despite the large transformation the sector is facing. Whenever a transformation happens, there are new opportunities. Women should look at the transport of tomorrow, the transport that we are now moving towards: clean, smart, inclusive, public, shared and collaborative. These were completely new concepts five years ago when I became Commissioner, but became mainstream by the end of my mandate. The new Commission has placed two major transformative trends in future transport at the centre of the European agenda: The Green Deal and Digital Europe. Women have a big role to play in both of them, and opportunities will emerge for them. I hope women will recognise this, and that the media will continue to promote this topic. Sharing stories, that’s how you break taboos and old-mind sets. “
Do women face obstacles compared to men when working in this sector?
“Transport work in general, in the past, was heavy physical work, like driving, for instance. However, with today’s big technological changes, physical conditions to deliver the job are no longer such a challenge. Driving, for instance, is very well supported with modern technologies, which has opened the door for women to enter the sector. In the last couple of years, all vehicles, planes, ships, trucks and trains have become safer and more protected. This also improves safety conditions and vehicle maintenance. Transport is also becoming more and more digital. I was positively surprised when on the third year of my mandate we visited a new port in Dubai. All the manipulation of cargo in the port was done digitally, and when we came into the back office, many of the handlers were women. Another aspect that has changed is the overall social atmosphere, especially in Europe. It is acceptable that women work in different jobs, so that has helped transport to receive broader political support. Traditions have also changed. A lot of these jobs were passed on from family to family, from father to son. In this case, the change had to come also in a more intimate circle of people, like families.”
Will you still be involved in the Women in Transport—EU Platform?
“Well I am one of the proud ambassadors. I continue to promote it whatever I can, as a public speaker, and I will continue to do so. But at the beginning you have to give space to the new team and then probably in a year time I will find some more focus topics where I can then engage and help.”
Not only former EU Commissioner, but a long-time entrepreneur. What would you say to companies in the transport sector?
“To recognise that society is progressing and that we are changing (I still argue that we are changing for the better). One of the characteristics of this changing world is that if you want to be successful, it is no longer enough to be production oriented. Everyone needs to invest in people (education, training, new skills) and focus on the efficient organisation of the company. You need innovation in order to prosper and you need to constantly reinvent yourself through services, products, through your internal organisation. And every case study will tell you that to have a sustainable and innovative spirit in a company you need diversity, because innovation is the result of different minds and views brought together to create a new view. It is important to recognise new behaviour, to recognise a new opportunity, and that of course is a strong argument for having both men and women on board. You need to have a society that serves everyone. If in Europe we have 51% of women and 49% of men, you should have similar structures in your teams to be able to recognise consumer’s needs.
Women are financially independent, we’re now a more and more proactive part of society and we are making decisions. Women are not just fitting into men’s shoes, we are not trying to behave like men, and we need services and products that talk to us, that recognise our unique needs. Companies that recognise this will be more sustainable and stable. There is also a need for companies to step out of the rigid structures and become more dynamic. They need to make a link between a recognised challenge and a team of skilled people who have the capacity to respond to that challenge. I also hope that transport companies will be willing to learn from other sectors to continue to make a change in its own.”