The secret connection between Sex & Mobility

We live in crazy times and I am using this time for more introspection and searching for ways to strengthen myself and becoming a better version of myself. I also see the potential that society can do the same through this extreme interruption of everything, that is forcing us on our knees and bringing us to the essential. Talking to Kelly feels like one of these chances to gain more insight and nuance to a subject that we often talk very loudly about.

Kelly Saunders is a strategist in gender and social equality.  She has specialist knowledge of the mobility sector with 10 years prior experience with Group SNCF in Australia and France. She currently works with clients including Arup, Transport Infrastructure Ireland and the Urban Mobility Summit to rethink the relationship between gender and mobility. This includes reflections on the future of mobility (MAAS, public transport, active modeswalking, cycling) and cutting- edge ethnographic research and co-creation. She works with major clients including Adobe on subjects including design thinking, the gender lens and managing bias.

Without much further ado my interview with Kelly.

Dear  Kelly,

Could you tell us a bit about your background and what brought you to dedicate yourself 1) female related subjects and 2), maybe less obviously for most of us: the relationship between gender and mobility?

It seems inappropriate to talk about women and mobility at a moment in history when humans are confined to their homes and the battle of Covid 19 rages. But reflections on mobility are more important than ever. There is a monumental paradigm shift underway, whether we like it or not. We are being forced by this pandemic and rapid climate change to shift from a bruising principle of global efficiency to one of local resilience. This will dramatically impact how we move people and things like health supplies, food, basic necessities. The rules will be rewritten.   We know from studying women's mobility that women are already highly sensitised to resilience building and are attracted to community subsistence. They have much to contribute to this new visionworld.  I would also add that this massive shift to men and women working from home presents is an interesting a cross-roads.  Men are suddenly required home to share in the juggle home lifeof chores, children and work in new ways and I think this will open up interesting avenues of inquiry for gender equality and mobility in the future.

This is a super interesting observation, Kelly, and reminds me of a Statista graph that shows that women are very largely carrying us through this crisis – in care professions and as cashiers in supermarkets for instance. Sorry for this interruption, please go ahead, dear Kelly. We’d love to know about you.

​My career follows a modern female arc of good early opportunities followed by harsher mid-life (and 21st century) gendered realities.  I am a test tube for my work.  As a young lawyer in Australia, I entered the workforce at a moment of high confidence in women's rights: 2003.  Women, we thought, could have it all within the existing system. Equality gains were absolute. Men now understood that women were equal. The language of human rights still held value for nation states. Without knowing it, I was part of a progressive and privileged elite in good social and economic times. I started out in public policy and law with a state government, working across consumer protection, criminal prosecutionscrime, education and prisons.  A culture of evaluation pervaded the bureaucracy at the time.  I see now that this capacity to ask hard questions about the effectiveness of social policy and projects is rare. Few organisations appreciate that this is the way to innovate.

Back then, I worked on a few rape trials as .  I was part of the prosecution team.  I watched a school girl being cross-examined without mercy by a red faced, male defence barrister.  He set clever traps of logic and reason with his questions, punishing this girl with every 'unclear' detail.  I was too young to question this at the time, but I smelt the limits of the justice system to respond to women's experiences in these trials.  I volunteered at a women's legal centre.  It was a telephone service.  Women would call saying they had just left their violent partner and did not know where to hide. Or that they wanted to leave their financially controlling husband but feared poverty for their children.  Or they needed help with an urgent court order to stop an ex-partner from stalking them.

I took a legal job in public transport with a global operator.  I never imagined working on infrastructure and technology projects and frankly they didn't interest me to start with.  But I understood saw that public transport was about people.  It is about what people can do with their mobility. Only after working with mostly male executives, drivers, rail unions, engineers, safety experts and traffic modellers for years did I join the dots and see that the transport system was not designed with women's experiences in mind. No one in the industry was thinking about it.  It was a sincere, dedicated group of mostly men focusing on rail beams and bogies. There were some impressive women in various roles but none that had the power and presence of mind to ask does this work for women?  Then we had a spate of terrible, high profile murders of young women walking home from the tram or choosing to walk instead of get a taxi.  It filled the public with rage and grief and it made the government sit up and take notice.

When reading stories like yours I am always fascinated how there is a progression of seemingly unrelated sequences that lead to who we are. When we first met I was instantly intrigued. I did know that a) our mobility options need to be fine tuned (to practice some English art of "downplaying") and b) do need more equality, that discrimination does show itself in more obvious and insidious ways – I do admit that there is a hesitation in me to wanting to not appear/be someone who sees gender issue in everything, yet it is in more than we believe.

But making THAT connection wasn't at all obvious to me, and I am sure also to a larger part of our beloved readers.

Gender Equality vs Gender Sensitivity

You are involved in some bigger scale ethnographic research on women's mobility. Could you elaborate a bit more on your findings and identify parts where you believe we women would need a more adapted mobility offer to our respective needs?

When we talk about women's needs, often men and women get uncomfortable.  If women now enjoy equality with men (which by the way, they don't), then why do we need to focus on their needs?  It seems unnecessary, somehow patronising or even sexist. This is a common reaction. But being gender sensitive is the opposite. It means exploring the realities for people, the way they experience a system and the way it affects their wellbeing and their lives. And we are by no means talking about a minority.  Women make up 50% of the population and the majority of public transport users.  Their needs should not be popped in a generic and under-funded diversity folder.

International research is very clear that women and men generally have very different mobility realities. The OECD has identified gender, household composition, income and car ownership as the most important factors influencing mobility, with gender ‘the least understood’. (ITF Discussion Paper, 2018-01)

We are so used to just 'accepting the way things are' that, despite the frightening statistics, many people are not comfortable talking about this.

The way people move tells us a lot about the status of gender equality. Across the world, women are still largely charged with the mobility of caring for others.  This means dropping off and picking up children throughout the day at set times, supporting elderly parents and picking up household necessities, often in addition to paid work.. Many women describe themselves as in charge of the household in addition to paid work. They Women also dominate caring roles such as child minding and health care services, meaning more pick-ups and drop offs.  Traditional transport systems and new types of micro-mobility do not support the mobility of care.  A chain of smaller trips with dependents generally means higher cost, longer overall time travelled and higher stress when compared with a single work related trip. Travelling with children and the elderly is a physical and psychological barrier to accessing many mobility services. Many women consider it too dangerous to ride a bike, especially with kids.  Elderly people often cannot climb the steps of the bus. Further, the places women travel are regularly outside major transport hubs and are not well served by transport, meaning long wait times and walking.  Or driving a car if you can afford it.

We know that globally women's perceptions of insecurity and theirfears and experiences of sexual harassment or assault in public space impact their mobility, their lives and their children's livesdevelopment.  The impacts are profound.  I am working with a great team at Transport Infrastructure Ireland and Arup on new ethnographic research allowing us to deep dive into a range of these experiences.  We are seeing the self-imposed limits and techniques that nearly all women adopt in order to manage their mobility. What has struck me in this work is the significant choices women make - where to live, who to live with, what to do with their lives - based on concerns about safteysafety in and around transport.  We are looking forward to sharing this reasearch soon.  Emerging research from Plan International shows that up to 1% of women who have an unsafe experience in a public place do not go back.  Up to 1 percent stop going out altogether.  This is massive, yet the implications for women’s social and economic participation remain largely unmeasured and unknown.  There is a lot of room for improvement.

I am trying to think about myself and my decisions – and hearing this it is true that safety is automatically a factor in my choice of home and transport.
The why of the status quo very much interests me. Why do you believe gender equality hasn't been more integrated in the mobility offer?  There is an enduring lack of interest in gender equality in many sectors, including transport. Customer Satisfaction is still not disaggreated by sex and few people in the industry actually know what gender mainstreaming means. Even fewer seek to evaluate their gender equality projects to learn what works. The mobility sector has proudly considered itself gender neutral without asking hard questions about what this means.  It has also become a sector driven by technological innovation.  This is partly due to the profile of many mobility leaders.  They are mostly male engineers and business graduates moving from one transport or infrastructure role to the next. They have not been trained or socialised to think about the social implications of their work.  As NZ researcher Bridget Burdett said "no one teaches you about anxiety in engineering school".   Human issues such as keeping women safe on transport have not driven innovation in the sector.  People often conclude that we simply need more women in the industry.  I would go further, we need women with profiles that challenge the status quo who are empowered to implement new, unashamedly feminist projects.  We also need men and women with backgrounds in education, social justice and health to join the sector.  The mobility sector needs to integrate with new sectors and new people.

It is pretty impressive how neutrality can have such a counter-productive effect. Could you name some best practice cities or countries and mentally give them the Kelly Saunders Thumb-Up Award and to which countries would you give a...analogously... worst-practice award? What is your opinion on France and Paris, and Germany?

Sweden has endeavoured to roll out gender mainstreaming in its transport sector for 30 years but they have struggled to translate policy into concrete change on the ground. Their experience highlights how, even in advanced countries, gender equality is complex and not well understood at agency and operator level.  Researchers observe that for gender mainstreaming to work, leaders must develop a more internalised gender awareness. Gender equality does not fit neatly into existing corporate efficiency tools. It requires an evolution of existing thinking and systems.  Perhaps in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there will be an appetite for rethinking the way we do things, driven by this key idea of 'resilience'.

When I think of the good work going on, I think mostly about new studies into women's travel patterns commissioned by transport agencies.  Men’s and Wwomen's travel patterns have been studied by university researchers for many years but there has been an increase in interest on the part of transport authorities in the last few years.  To my knowledge, this has not yet translated to There are concrete initiatives with major impact, in part becausebut frankly, people are still struggling to imagine what a gender-sensitive transport system really looks like, and at what cost.  I think this will change in the coming years.

But there are pockets of promising work everywhere. Vienna is well regarded for its gender sensitive street and transport design. Last year, L.A Metro in the United States conducted a brave and honest study into women's travel patterns. Uber has revised the way it investigates sexual assault claims, adopting gender sensitive investigation methods recommended by experts in victims of sexual violence.  The Irish Government are undertaking doing this new ethnographic research into women's experiences, exploring car dependency, attitudes about climate change, modal choice and more.  The Victorian Government in Australia has been engaging local universities and innovation labs to co-create safer cities with women.Transport for London recently launched a report on designing public space for children which is a great way to cover some of the same ground.  In 2018, French operators RATP and SNCF did a significant study into sexual harassment and assault on public transport. They released a brutal report about the scale of the problem with 87% of women reporting some form of sexual harassment or assault.  This kind of transparency is new.  I have not read about manyBerlin is doing some really interesting stuff around purpose driven transport services.   German projects but I am sure they exist in the wake of the mass assaults on women at train stations several years ago.  Germany has a strong bike culture but it is also heavily car dependent.

I am hopeful that these studies will lead to better concrete projects.  I know that women- only carriages work well in some societies and that feminist critiques of these initiatives are a luxury which many women in India and South America cannot afford.  But I want things to go much further.  I want women to be truly safe which will involve a lot more money for the right kind ofand innovation and better cooperation between mobility leaders and other stakeholders such as universities, unions, law enforcement... I could could go on.

Please do! It is important to hear what would make our mobility offer fairer? What would be the criteria to be considered in the algorithms?  How can mobility further ensure more safety for women? Let’s envision a better future, while we have the kind of mind space and time to do so. What would generally be your dream for mobility of the 21st century, both in regards to gender equality and sustainability?

First, letsby really opening the can of worms. We are starting to shed light on women's unsafe experiences in public space but it remains on the fringe of transport priorities, something undesirable but sadly unavoidable. Mobility leaders of all kinds need to confront this complacence.  Male leaders need to speak up about unfairness in mobility, even if it's not popular.  They need to face the uncomfortable truth about the scale and source of violence against women in and around transport. Otherwise women will continue to experience trauma that impacts generations. To drive cars. And when cars are banned from cities, they will stop going out.  It needs to be a business priority of equal importance to reliable services and patronage growth.  New performance measures need to be linked directly to operator payments and sustainability outcomes.  Fare revenue or other secured funding can go straight back into funding new safety and sustainability projects.  I would also love to see mobility leaders doing this internal 'gender awareness' work.  That would be really exciting. And finally evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. Find out what actually works.  What is at stake here is the future of humankind!

Let’s envision a better future, while we have the kind of mind space and time to do so. What would generally be your dream for mobility of the 21st century, both in regards to gender equality and sustainability?"

There is so much to say..As for my dream future… a green future safe for women and girls. But how?

Real gender equality would see more men with children working close to home and schools, juggling paid and unpaid priorities, and more women commuting to high paying jobs in the city, dropping by the gym on the way home.

I dream of a system that is genuinely safe for women, including the last mile home.  That effectively means public space becoming safe. How? Firstly, by using the full weight of technological innovation to identify and prosecute offenders, with no limits on data access or resources where a woman's safety is concerned. Zero tolerance. Harsh penalties that reflect the real scale of the damage. Second, through massive reflection at all levels and in all corners of society, we would teach our children and our employees about harmful stereotypes, unfair systems and the true impacts of violence on women and children.   Third, I dream of a massive shift to e-bikes and regular bikescycling. Imagine cities and regions with state -of- the- art bike infrastructure with smooth, uninterrupted paths that are fully segregated from traffic, with a whole new commercial, environmental ecological and social life centred around these paths.  I'm thinking late night cafes, community gardens, bike produce shops, child care centres, swimming pools.  I see children being socialised early to ride in all kinds of weather with the right equipment.  I see men and women each capable and confident riding bikes short and long distances with groceries, babies and computers for flexible work at home.  I see a lot more trees, grass, local vegetables and community activism.  Last, I see mobility as becoming something people do with purpose and restraint.  We will all fly less, drive less and buy less online. A frugal future where we take less and create more. I think this period of mass confinement is our training for this something else.  

I like your vision very much, dear Kelly! I’d love to (mentally) fly there.

Much love and thank you for taking all this time for us!