First lady bus drivers in UAE who feel like ‘rock stars’ in Dubai

Filipinas Ailen Francisco and Marygold Cez de Castro talk of their exemplary empowerment

By Angel L. Tesorero

Dubai: It has been almost two years since two Filipinas got behind the wheel to become the first lady bus drivers in the UAE. The novelty hasn’t worn off as they continue to elicit smiles from passengers, and more importantly, inspire women to excel.

Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) first deployed Ailen Pueto Leaño Francisco, 46, and Marygold Cez de Castro, 34, in the city’s internal bus network back in July 2020. A third one, a Kenyan expat named Gladys, also joined them.

Employing female drivers was actually something not new as the RTA at that time already had 165 female taxi drivers, 41 female limo chauffeurs, and one school bus driver.

Marygold Cez de Castro and Ailen Pueto Leaño Francisco say what men can do, they can do too. (Gulf News)

But seeing a woman behind the wheel of a long public transport vehicle – a bus that could carry between 30 to 50 passengers or more – which was exclusively driven by men, was not only trailblazing, it also sent a strong message of “empowering women and achieving gender balance across various jobs”.

Breaking the glass ceiling

“It was unprecedented,” Francisco and de Castro told Gulf News, adding: “We felt like we broke the glass ceiling and removed the prejudice against women.”

“This pioneering effort of employing female bus drivers is compatible with RTA’s principle of empowering women and achieving gender balance across various jobs… It creates job opportunities for women in a field dominated by men and promotes the culture of using public transport,” Ahmed Hashim Bahrozyan, CEO of RTA’s Public Transport Agency, earlier had said.

‘We can do too’

The size of the bus they are driving has also increased. Recently, Francisco and de Castro said they just finished their training on a double-decker bus.

Marygold Cez de Castro and Ailen Pueto Leaño Francisco were recently trained to drive double-decker buses. (Gulf News)

“Imagine someone like me who is barely five feet and weighing around 54kg driving a 40-feet-long, 15-feet-high and 6.5-feet-wide two-storey bus,” De Castro told Gulf News. “It only proves that what men can do, we women can do too.”

“Almost every day, we (de Castro and Francisco) encounter passengers smiling and giving us a thumbs-up sign. We made women proud and, as Filipino expats, we also made our kababayans (compatriots) proud,” added de Castro, who is also a mother of two girls – a teenager and a six-year old.

Tackling misconceptions

“During the first days and weeks I was on the road, motorists would always give me a thumbs up sign and my colleagues and fellow drivers at the RTA would always say ‘hi’ and wave at me,” said de Castro.

Francisco said, “I think commuters are used to seeing a woman behind the wheel of a standard bus now.”

Thomas Edelmann, founder and managing director of RoadSafetyUAE, meanwhile, asserted women drivers are generally safe drivers and gender prejudice should be erased. He noted: “Female drivers often don’t receive the due appreciation of their driving behaviour. Gender prejudice still seems to play a role. However, an overall more careful attitude can be observed as female drivers have been less involved in road accidents than male drivers in the last seven years.”

Heart-warming reactions

On another bright note, up until now, passengers are still taking photos and selfies with de Castro and Francisco in their blue RTA uniforms – amazed and in awe of their profession.

Francisco said: “Just recently a 74-year old man approached me and introduced himself. He gave me two thumbs up and he said it was the first time he saw a lady bus driver.”

“There was also a heart-warming reaction from an Arab woman who crossed the street with her children. She proudly pointed me to her kids and they all waved at me,” shared Francisco, adding: “Another woman stopped her car near me and as she pulled down her window she extended her hand offering me a cash gift. I almost blushed and told myself: Wow! What a generous way showing her appreciation of hard-working women like me.”

Francisco, a widower and mother to two grown-ups, said she felt like a “rock star.” She added: “I’m already a middle-aged woman but there is always this spring in my step that makes me feel energetic and happy because of the positive reactions I receive from people.”

Maternal instincts

More than being trailblazers, both Francisco and de Castro said they are proud of their road safety records. “It must be because we are both mothers and those maternal and caring instincts are also reflected in the way we drive on the road. We think of our passengers as our children – we want them safe always,” they said.

Ailen Pueto Leaño Francisco with her family. (Gulf News)

At home, Francisco and de Castro steer their respective families with motherly care. They are also home makers who wake up early to prepare breakfast and would always check on their children – even while at work – if they had eaten or needed anything.

De Castro said she is proud that she is an inspiration to her two girls. “I’ve shown my kids how to be courageous and bold. I’ve failed in my first attempt to get the bus driver’s licence but I did not give up; I’ve undergone hours of rigorous training and proven myself as a pioneer in my chosen field,” she underlined.

“As a woman, don’t ever doubt yourself,” added Francisco. “Yes, it was really ‘weird and awkward’ at first working in a male-dominated world but eventually the bias will be gone, especially when we stay focused and determined.”

The duo added: “We also would like to thank Dubai and RTA for giving us the opportunity to work here in the UAE. We know that every day we are on the road, we do not only carry passengers, but we are also out there to prove that women are strong partners in steering the community and driving the nation.” #

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This article was originally written for and was published by Gulf News, the UAE’s largest English language newspaper where the author is a senior reporter.