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Special report part #1: Why are less than a quarter of rail employees women?

Posted on Mar 8, 2017

In the EU in 2016 only 17.5% of rail indWomen in Railustry employees were women, in the UK it was 16.4% whilst in the USA, Amtrak in 2015 had a workforce that was 22.8% female.* All over the world the numbers of women employed by rail or metros rarely exceeds one in four of the total workforce. The popularity of public transport and access to education is increasing around the world, but these figures have remained constant. Women just don’t go into the rail industry in major numbers. Why? Determined to find some answers, SmartRail World reporter Emily O’Dowd has spoken to a wide range of women representing Bentley Systems, Banedanmark, Wi-Tronix, Angel Trains/Women in Rail and Trenitalia. In today’s first of a two part feature we learn about these executives own route into the industry, what they see as some of the barriers to entry, and what we can all do better to raise these numbers.

In a week that celebrated International Women's Day (IWD) one of the women actively trying to change the loaded stereotypes and help propel the industry forward is Adeline Ginn, Founder of Women in Rail @WomeninRail ). Established in 2012, Women in Rail was created with the aim of improving diversity, offering support to women in the sector and devising initiatives to encourage young people to choose a career in rail. Alongside her work with Women in Rail, Ginn works for Angel Trains, a British train leasing company. When asked about why women are less keen to pursue a career in rail, Adeline believes it is due to a number of factors, “one being outdated perceptions of the industry. Many people still believe that the roles available are male dominated and ‘dirty’ and this just isn’t true anymore.” Adeline commented that there is such an array of roles available, there’s one to suit everyone. “I think another reason is because of the lack of flexible working available, the industry needs to adapt to new working conditions and become more accepting of employees looking for flexible working options.”

Perception is definitely a recurring theme when we spoke to Joanna Slowinska at Bentley Systems @BentleySystems ). Joanna has been a key contributor to improve asset performance within Network Rail. She has overseen multiple projects at Network Rail and will be an integral part of the first Optram project in Singapore. When asked about the issue of perception she said, “Engineering and railways has traditionally only been of interest to boys. Attracting women to pursue a career in engineering in general (not only in rail) is a well-known challenge, but there are no technical reasons why women should not succeed in this sector.”

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But despite the varied opportunities available to women in the industry, it is apparent that the issue is a lot broader than this. Joanna speaks of some of the challenges balancing her family and work life: “From my own experience of raising a young child I know how extremely difficult it would have been to cope in a traditional job without flexible hours, which seems to be typical of many engineering fields. Fortunately, Bentley has a pro-family working environment which enabled me to build my career.”

A similar concern was voiced by Trenitalia’s CSO Federica Santini, the youngest female executive in the company and this is something she feels very proud of. However, Federica does emphasise that it is not always easy “balancing private lives with working lives.” Whilst Trenitalia is working on implementing these changes “If it is not strongly supported by a company then women have to make a choice. Welfare support can help but most women will decide to stay at home and look after their family.”

women in rail 2.jpgLisa Matta, set up Wi-Tronix ( @WiTronix ) twelve years ago, occupying a senior role as Vice President, she tells SmartRail World that the current female to male ratio is 25-30 per cent. When embarking on her career in engineering she explains that it was a heavily male dominated scene.Photo courtesy of Crossrail.

“In my previous job the female ratio was much less than Wi-Tronix and I was the only female on my team for quite a while. There were a lot of male veteran rail roaders that had been there for a long time. With the challenge of not only coming up to speed with the rail industry and terminology but also overcom
ing the attitude that – “I’ve done this for 25-30 years” so trying to come in with a fresh perspective and a young mind was hard enough and made more difficult because I was a female mind. Sometimes this wasn’t well received.”

But Lisa believes that gender isn’t the issue anymore, for her it comes down to individual choices and a lack of awareness about what the industry can offer women. “I think that there are a lot of opportunities in rail which might not be obvious to outsiders in the industry. I was introduced to it by accident at a career fair and fell into it. It wasn’t something I was actively pursuing because there is the perception that the industry is just about people who drive the trains and make the equipment. But there is so much more involved and technology will be one of things to really move this forward and allow the industry to evolve.”

Sharing a similar viewpoint was Jette Aagaard, Project Director at Banedanmark ( @banedanmark ). Working as a female engineer for the high-speed line in Denmark has been a challenge but she stresses that her gender has nothing to do with this. “Although I work in a very male dominated role, I enjoy this environment. Gender doesn’t matter to me. I am always working with men on the tracks and yes, sometimes they have assumed that I’m the secretary! A project manager once greeted the staff with “Gentleman!” He didn’t even notice I was there until some of my colleagues corrected him.” When asked if she felt bothered by this, Jette said she wasn’t, “the industry is changing especially as there are more female engineers.”

Gita Monshizadeh, Head of BIM implementation at Banedanmark has a vital role delivering Banedanmark’s goals to supply Denmark’s First High-speed Line. Using State-of-the-art Technology. Gita and Banedanmark won Bentley’s Be Inspired Award in 2016 in the category Innovation in Rail and Transit. With a long history of success in the industry, Gita said, “There are lots of opportunities for a career in rail and less competition!” she lWomen in Railaughs. “I can only see my role positively because it means your skills are noticed even more. Rail needs more women, and together a synergy between men and women can be created to make affective changes to the rail industry around the world.”

And this neat summary of what our industry needs from Gita, leads us into next Wednesday when SmartRail World will be looking into some of the reasons why more women should pursue a career in rail; why it is such a rewarding sector to work for and the advice they would give to young women beginning in the industry.

*The above statistics were provided by UTIP, Amtrak and Rail Talent.


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About the Author

Emily O'Dowd
Emily O'Dowd
On graduating with a degree in English Literature at Royal Holloway University of London, Emily joined the editorial team. When she isn't writing articles for the website or interviewing experts in th...read more
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