Breaking the stigma: Changing gender perceptions through a modernized railway industry
Hot on the heels of SmartRail Munich and it's successful Diversity in the Workforce panel, SmartRail World is proud to present a special guest article by BAI Communications about the changes in the rail industry regarding female perceptions and opportunity, ahead of the International Women in Engineering Day on June 23rd.
In the 1851 UK census, there were just three women listed as ‘railway labourers’ working in the industry. Whilst trains overall have gotten faster since then, the number of women working on or with them has travelled at a more pedestrian pace.
An extensive survey of the UK by industry group Women In Rail found that as a whole, 84% of men and the vast majority of the 16% of women workers were working in junior lower paying positions. Only 0.6% of women in the rail were at C- or director level in the UK, and the picture is similar in other nations.
But times are changing, and an evolving industry is shifting perceptions and increasing diversity. To learn more, I spoke to three women working at BAI Communications -- a company at the forefront of industry change -- to learn what has brought them to their positions, what the work looks like, and what advice they’d offer other women looking to follow in their footsteps.
For Rebecca Rajan, Project Engineer at Transit Wireless (a majority-owned BAI Communications company), it wasn’t just the corporate world experience which was new to her, but the whole city of New York and its subway: “I was a fresh engineering graduate when I saw an opportunity at Transit Wireless", Rebecca says. "Since then, I have been able to grow continually with the help of some amazing mentors and now I am Project Engineer of Execution leading multiple projects, including the ones in NYCT subway stations.”
Nupur Sutaria, a Design Manager at Transit Wireless in New York, had a similar experience; “I began as an intern, as I was finishing up my master’s degree in mechanical engineering. I was using and developing the skills I learned in school to create engineering drawings for the wireless networks inside New York City subway stations", she says. "Currently, I am a Design Manager, a position in which I supervise a team of engineers that design new equipment enclosures; devise structural equipment mounts; and create electrical, fiber, and antenna network plans for transit environments.”
But working in transport telecommunications is not all about engineering, as Nichola Easton, Client Director of Business Development at BAI Communications in London tells me: “After graduating with a degree in politics, I took a job in telecoms as the industry was going through the dot.com bubble. From there I moved into sales and commercial roles within the sector which evolved into a focus on transport," she explains. "One of the most exciting projects I worked on was in Virgin Media, on the delivery of public wi-fi services on the London Underground. It was the first time I could really see how the technology and service that we created was making a difference to the travelling public in London.”
Rebecca, Nupur, and Nichola have all taken different routes into the industry, but whereas they have found opportunities, women in rail are still very much in the minority. A big part of it is due to the perception of the roles available, and that applies to the recruitment of men, too -- the idea that working on the railways involves being in a fluorescent jacket in the cold and rain fixing a broken rail is no longer the case. Education opportunities are another issue to overcome, with girls often steered away from STEM subjects, whilst flexible and family supportive working practices are also likely to both recruit -- and most importantly -- retain staff.
In light of this, I asked what advice our three stars from BAI have to offer to other women looking to follow in their footsteps.
“Gone are those days when people used to say that being a woman in tech is odd," says Rebecca. "It can be tough at times, but as ambitious women, we should take up challenges and be able to shatter the glass ceiling."
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions!", adds Nupur. "One of the best ways to improve your knowledge and skill set is to learn from a supportive mentor.”
“It’s difficult to often find yourself as one of very few women in the room, but women have a big role to play in this industry -- so don’t shy away from that," concludes Nichola. "Be confident, know your subject and don’t be afraid to challenge the way things are currently done.“
BAI Communications would like to acknowledge International Women in Engineering Day, held on the 23rd June, 2019. We will be celebrating the day in recognition of the outstanding achievements of women engineers across the world.