Sarah Bott, Head of Business Development at public transport app Passenger, explains how the transport firm has a 5% higher female representation rate than the industry average and why mental wellbeing and flexibility support can help firms reap the rewards of employee loyalty.
How did Passenger support working mothers during the height of the pandemic?
Passenger already had a flexible working policy in place pre-pandemic; however, all staff were required to work from home when restrictions first came into place last year. Additional flexibility was allowed for those undertaking homeschooling, with some employees using two-hour slots per day to teach their children.
Allowances were made for parents needing to do nursery and school pick-ups and drop-offs. Passenger also created a programme of home ‘socialising’ events to support employee wellbeing, including quiz and film nights, team exercise challenges, cookery club, and video pilates classes. We even had a remote Christmas party and sent Secret Santa gifts through the post.
Many working mothers faced the ‘triple burden’ during COVID-19 (homeworking, home-schooling, and childcare). What has been the mental health impact for this group, and how can employers help?
The pandemic has undoubtedly taken its toll on us all in different ways and trying to juggle work, home-schooling, and childcare will have posed many challenges for both mums and dads. Concern for your child’s wellbeing and education, as well as worrying about your own job security, can cause huge pressure.
My husband works for a US tech company that has introduced a ‘caring’ day once a quarter where employees can take an extra day off to take care of their wellbeing. Passenger has introduced mental health awareness training for the whole company, which includes tools and techniques for self-care. There is further training on offer for senior management to help with managing others and opening the conversation.
Why are you so passionate about mental health? What have been your struggles in the workplace, and how could organisations have supported you better?
I studied psychology at university as I have always been fascinated by what makes people tick and the science of the brain. My biggest workplace struggle was after my youngest daughter was born, and I wanted to work flexibly. I was a regional director in Asia for a media company, and the job required quite a bit of overseas travel. At the time, the global publisher was very against flexible or part-time work, and they told me I had to come back to work full-time.
With two children under two, I knew I didn’t want to miss out on their early years, and fortunately, my husband got offered a job in the US. We decided to leave Hong Kong so I could take a career break to be with my family. I absolutely loved my job at the time, and it was an incredibly hard decision to resign after being there for nine years. I wish the organisation had been able to give me a three-day week or job share at least for a year so that I could have stayed in that role.
What does “mindfulness” mean to you, and how can it benefit the workforce, especially women?
Mindfulness teaches us to respond rather than react to situations, and it helps to improve concentration and build our resilience. Women tend to have a drive towards perfectionism and self-doubt, which can cause anxiety, so by practising mindfulness, we can learn to reframe negatives to positives and develop stronger self-confidence quickly. Mindfulness is a practice, not a one-off solution, and physiologically, it rewires the brain due to neuroplasticity. The fact that we can retrain our brains is in itself a fascinating concept. I use the app Headspace if I need to relax, find some clarity, or take some time out.
How has Passenger managed to recruit more women to bring it above the industry average?
Passenger had a 90% / 10% gender split in 2019 with predominantly male employees, and the company recognised it needed to address the gender imbalance. Its focus was also to hire more women in senior roles. Passenger began by revising its family-friendly policies to assess whether its job offerings were enticing to male and female candidates. This included using gender bias checkers to ensure the language was inclusive and would attract diverse applicants. Passenger also ensured its recruitment posts included details which, according to LinkedIn, are important to female candidates, including salary range, medical benefits and working from home options.
Over 14 months, Passenger has brought its gender mix to 75% male / 25% female, bringing them above the national average for female workers within the transport sector – which is 20%. This includes hires at senior positions, including manager and head of department levels. The plan is for Passenger to continue this strategy for future vacancies while also highlighting more women working at Passenger through external content and involving them in speaker opportunities for innovation days and conferences.
Why does the transport sector have such low female representation? Is it a lack of knowledge among women about job opportunities, or is hiring bias at play?
A big barrier is a lack of confidence stopping women from applying for certain jobs if they don’t feel 100% qualified or experienced. There might also be the perception that it’s hard to fit into such a male-dominated environment, particularly if there is a chauvinistic attitude in the office or no onsite facilities to accommodate women.
There are now several inspirational women leading public transport companies, and so hopefully, we will start to see a bigger shift in the promotion and recruitment of women. With the drive towards sustainability, accessibility, customer services, and connecting communities, public transport offers many opportunities for women to take up a career that can make a difference. I believe more women working in public transport companies is vital as it’s more reflective of society.
Is flexible working the key to female empowerment in the workforce?
I’m so pleased that now many companies have evolved to offer more flexible working in recent years. COVID-19 has accelerated remote working policies, but as we emerge from the pandemic, companies will still be returning to predominantly office-based environments. This can pose problems for women who want to start a family and cannot commit to traditional office hours.
I think more companies need to adopt a flexible working environment to show women and men the possibilities of career progression while raising a family. By treating employees and their family time with respect, companies will reap the benefits in loyalty and dedication.
If you could give leaders in the transport sector three pieces of advice about hiring and retaining female talent, what would they be?
Firstly, regularly review your recruitment strategy and how your content comes across. What may be appealing during one period, such as home working during the pandemic, may not be so appealing in a year. It’s useful to gain honest feedback from third parties to inform your strategy as well.
Secondly, encourage women to apply for roles even if they don’t tick all the criteria you list on job adverts – this can be helped by tweaking language to state certain criteria as ‘not essential, but desirable’, for example.
Finally, always be flexible and recognise that different workers have different needs – particularly working mothers. Be open to feedback and show employees you’re there to listen to their needs and be accommodating as much as possible.