Gender Diversity: What we can learn from research

24. 06. 2021

Here at the ÖBB Rail Cargo Group, we know that diversity is a key factor for success – both today and even more so in the future. Academics are also looking at gender diversity and its impact on all areas of society.

We spoke with Brigitte Ratzer from the Technical University of Vienna about the significance, the opportunities and the current situation regarding gender diversity.

Brigitte Ratzer is head of the Gender Competence Department at the Technical University of Vienna (TU Wien).

The department is committed to providing women and men at TU Wien with development opportunities that reflect their qualifications and to counterbalancing existing disadvantages for women.

She conducts research on topics such as gender & the working world, gender in education and studies, and the connection between innovation and gender. During our interview, the expert gave us an insight into her work and tips for improving equal opportunities in companies and in the mobility sector.

Which field do you work in and what is your focus?

I am working to achieve equal opportunities for women at the Technical University of Vienna. My department's focus is on advising the university management on HOW this mission can be implemented in practice. This ranges from programmes for schoolgirls that open up technology as a field of interest to them, to training for appointment committees to minimise gender bias in our selection processes.

From a scientific perspective, why are diverse teams so valuable – also in terms of gender?

Many publications have shown that diverse teams that function well have a different way of communicating. In particular, it can be seen that cooperation in groups improves with the presence of women. The effect can be explained in part by the higher level of social competence of women. They recognise non-verbal signals better and can more accurately deduce what other people are thinking or feeling. Groups that include several women also exhibit a different conversational behaviour: more frequent changes of speakers enable them to better react to each other and to include more knowledge and qualifications from different group members. 

In your opinion, what are the most important tools for companies to promote gender diversity?

Everyday culture, quota, everyday culture. If we want long standing stereotypes to (slowly) disappear from people's minds, then we have to counter this with real life experiences. Many diversity trainings involve exercises that require you to put yourself in another person's shoes and take on their perspective. This is very useful for facilitating an understanding of people in other positions or for recognising prejudices as such. In order to create "alternative" experiences, it also helps to have a quota: after all, women first have to get into positions in significant numbers so that they can become effective and visible there. If I have more frequent experiences in the company of working well with a woman in my team, if my female boss proves to be a competent leader, then step by step I also learn to take a different view of the skills of women, men and all other genders. 

What do you see as being the biggest hurdles to and opportunities for women gaining a foothold in technical professions? What opportunities do you see for the industry?

Our social prejudices are the biggest hurdle. We still think men are competent in all things technical and that women are not. I see an opportunity in the many young women who do not allow themselves to be forced into a pattern and who are much more self-confident in taking up untypical professions. And that we already have role models who show that it's possible!

Where does the mobility sector and rail freight in particular stand in terms of gender diversity? And where do you see the greatest need for improvement?

I don't have any concrete figures on rail freight transport. However, I suspect that the proportion of women in this sector is very low, as the proportion of women in the transport and traffic sector in Austria as a whole is just 13.1 percent. In sectors with so few women, I would focus on targeted recruiting, internal training programmes, coaching and networking opportunities, and creating a work culture that allows for a good work-life balance. When companies offer employees framework conditions and opportunities at their workplace that take their personal life situation and reality into account and pay attention to giving women and men fair and equal opportunities, this has a positive influence on the satisfaction and motivation of all employees and on their quality of work and performance.

You research the impact of gender on innovation: which findings are particularly relevant for the mobility sector & where relevant for freight transport?

The question of who uses which means of transport and transport infrastructures is relevant in mobility research. We know, for example, that women use public transport more often and have more complex travel routes, which means that there is a greater need for the expansion and improved frequency of public transport. The design of public transport also plays a role. Safety must be ensured for all users equally, and of course it must also be user-friendly – think tall stairs, space for luggage and pushchairs, etc. Last but not least, I see the following key topics in freight logistics: innovations in last mile distribution logistics, delivery and collection, dynamic interaction between parcel delivery staff and customers, innovations in digitalisation, alternative means of transport and media (e.g. cargo bikes, transport boxes), usability of new technologies. All of these involve gender and diversity aspects, because they deal with issues such as physical strength, communication, digital literacy, and so on. In any case, freight transport is an exciting and diverse topic from a gender perspective!