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Women in rail – why the tide is turning

There’s no two ways about it, the rail industry has historically been a male dominated sector. From train drivers to rail engineers and even cartoons, the first image that pops into most people’s head is masculine. However, with society’s growing discourse on greater diversity and the industry’s passionate call for more equality, the tide is beginning to turn. Although females currently represent only 16% of the rail workforce, major gameplayers, like Southeastern, have pledged to take action to increase female applicants for driver roles up to 40% by 2021. While introducing more women into the rail industry is a ‘fair’ and a socially forward movement, it also helps end the sector’s dire skills shortage. Here’s why things must change.

How big is the problem?

Out of 85,000 rail employees across the country, only 14,000 are female. Given the many ambitious and goliath projects in the pipeline this figure is simply far too low. A record £48 billion is to be spent on our railways over the next five years on enhancing stations, tracks and rolling stock, however, we are drastically short on professionals in the sector to support these developments.  During the Women in Rail awards, transport minister, Nusrat Ghani stressed that 50,000 more people will be needed to work in rail between now and 2033 along with hundreds of thousands more across the wider transport sector. This should be treated with urgency as finding workers to complete upcoming and innovative projects such as the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) and HS2 on time is crucial for many reasons. These rail schemes play an important role in supporting the entire nation, by boosting employment prospects and the economy. For example, NPR is expected to support the production of 850,000 new jobs and help towards abolishing the historic North-South divide.

Why is there a shortage of women in the industry?

The lack of professionals, and particularly females, in the industry is unfortunately the result of years of misrepresentation of the sector. For decades rail has been incorrectly portrayed as a male-only industry, labour intensive and lacking in exciting opportunities, deterring many high-skilled female workers. A survey conducted by The Rail Delivery Group revealed that 11% of women attributed their lack of interest in the sector down to it being male-dominated, 23% said that they would not feel comfortable working in a masculine industry and 20%  feared that they lacked the right skills.

How can the problem be solved?

To begin correcting this problem and to overcome the long ingrained cultural attitudes that are attached to the sector, it’s vital that we boost the representation of women across the industry. This begins with increasing the presence of fictional female rail characters for nursery children and extends to placing more women at board level to encourage other female employees to work their way up the ladder.

We’ve started to see a cultural shift in thinking and we need to ensure that this continues until change is made. If we can remove the perception that toy trains are only for boys and that rail jobs are made for men, we can allow more talented females to freely explore their interests in the industry and break through barriers. Women working in the sector must empower each other to follow their passion, work against traditional norms and should also put themselves in the limelight to showcase to others how rewarding a career in rail can be.

However, these are long-term solutions. We still need immediate action to support the development of current projects. And one of the best ways to do this, is to open the doors to career-movers, increase apprenticeship placements and offer flexible working options. By creating a welcoming environment, and continuing to encourage women to join the sector, we can eliminate inequality and eradicate the sector’s skill shortage.


By Lucy Graham

Author bio

Lucy Graham, Rail Consultant at global energy and rail recruitment specialist, Samuel Knight International

Lucy is an integral part of Samuel Knight’s rail team, specialising in the placement of rolling stock rail professionals, delivering on manpower projects for major clients across the UK rail sector. She has a strong technical understanding of rolling stock professional disciplines and has a wealth of connections across the rail industry.




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