I don’t need a penis to drive a tram

by Katie Coulthard | @coulthard_katie

In a city of more than 4 million residents, transport serves as an important framework for Melbournians. If we take a step back, a peak into Melbourne’s public transport and taxi industry reveals some startling truths. Every part of the transportation industry is male-dominated.

The media has covered everything from crime rates to the racial diversity of drivers, but the age-old ‘battle of the sexes’ debate falls silent.

In metropolitan Melbourne, there are just eight female cab drivers out of an active fleet of 15,000 members.  Despite ongoing efforts, only 17% of Metro employees are female.

While some organisations are determined to improve their gender imbalances, society has an equal role to play in reversing stereotypes to pave the way for women in the future.

Ellen* works for Metro. She undertook the gruelling and physically challenging train driver’s course last year before deciding on a different role elsewhere in the company. In her experience, the good outweighs the bad.

“Women are welcomed at Metro. They’re not being shunned and they are being supported,” she says.

While instances of sexism are still present, Ellen says overall, the workplace isn’t an environment for discrimination.

“You have to treat everyone the same, or it becomes a safety issue,” she says.

Metro aim to keep their ratios well balanced. In Ellen’s course, there were eight women to four men. She thinks diversity in age, gender and ethnicity is paramount for group cohesion.

While Metro are working to close the gender gap, there’s more factors deterring women from the transport industry than men. Safety, long hours and early morning starts are all part of the job and can be off-putting for women with children.

“It’s not glamorous or easy. You’re climbing in and out of trains, crawling and bending down but then you’ll have a whole day on standby when you might not do anything,” Ellen says.

Despite the wearying job requirements, the workplace conditions are some of the best Ellen’s ever seen. Metro offer generous maternity and paid parental leave. They’re leading in the industry and, when compared to other professions, fare well despite the obvious gender differences.

Yarra Trams is also working to increase female participation. Their ‘We’re Looking For Driven Women’ recruitment campaign has drawn attention across the industry and led to a nine-fold increase in the number of female applicants.  It’s a step in the right direction for an organisation which didn’t allow women to drive until 1975.

That year Joyce Barry, Melbourne’s first female tram driver, got behind the wheel. She’d spent 19 years campaigning for her right to drive and to be more than a high-heeled conductress collecting tickets from passengers.

Although Barry had trained in 1956, uproar and protest from male drivers forced her and 16 other trainee women back down the ranks. But 70s feminism and women’s rights activists helped repeal the ban, setting a precedent for the hundreds of women to follow Barry’s infamous quote- “I don’t need a penis to drive a bloody tram!”.

Meanwhile, female taxi drivers still face prejudice.

Georgia Nicholls, spokesperson for the Victorian Taxi Association (VTA), says there’s no specific strategy to recruit women but there’s no discrimination when selecting drivers.

“We want to continue to invest in strategies and programs to make the industry more appealing for everyone,” she says.

Currently, there’s little interest for the taxi industry to increase their gender ratio.

In 2013, TaxiLink Melbourne sparked a furious, yet short-lived debate about women’s safety. Following successful trials in New York and India, the company suggested starting a fleet of pink, women’s only cabs to service Melbourne.

At the time, TaxiLink told the Age there needed to be 50 female drivers in order for the launch to occur. Two years later, the idea is all but a distant memory.

“It was a very ambitious idea. Obviously, because of the very low number of female taxi drivers,” Nicholls says.

“It really comes down to whether it can work economically, that’s always the difficulty. You’re effectively cutting out half of the potential market.”

While Nicholls cannot speak on behalf of the drivers, she believes the conditions of work and common misconceptions enforced by the media are the reasons why such gender gap exists.

“There is a deep-seeded, negative perception of drivers across the community, there’s rarely any news that’s not negative, yet the complaints rate is less than 0.1%,” she says.

Earlier this year, ride-sharing service Uber partnered with UN Women to set a target of 50% female drivers by 2020.

While the VTA disagrees with the idea, Nicholls says “the overall aim of having more women in the industry” would be beneficial for all involved.

It’s no secret gender equality is years away from being met. Metro might be breaking ground but other parts of the industry still reflect a belief driving is a man’s job.

* Ellen is a pseudonym.

Image: Stephen Beaumont/Flickr

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