Rail Industry Focus

07.11.16

Putting gender diversity to the test

Source: RTM Oct/Nov 16

RTM’s Luana Salles reports from this year’s Big Rail Diversity Challenge, which gathered 30 gender-balanced teams from different rail companies to participate in a series of challenges that proved men and women can, and should, work effectively together.

The Big Rail Diversity Challenge (BRDC), hosted in late September at Leicester’s impressive Hangar 42, was unlike any other rail event in the industry. 

For starters, it busted the myth that the rail industry is strictly made up of an ageing workforce: the median age of attendees was considerably lower than that of most rail conferences. 

But most importantly, the event was, for what seemed like the first time, brimming with women – a 50-50 split, to be more precise. 

Described by the organiser, Women in Rail, as a cross between ‘It’s a Knockout’ and ‘Krypton Factor’, the BRDC brought together 30 teams from across the sector to compete in nearly 20 physically and mentally demanding challenges – from space hopper relays and human table football to blindfolded baking and Haka dances. But there was a catch: all teams had to consist of 50% men and 50% women. The ultimate goal was to prove that teams really do work better when they are gender balanced. 

And, to all those present, this goal shone through clearly in each and every challenge. In the human table football challenge, for example – a sport many women either shy away or are excluded from – all men and women were equally engaged and valued because each played a strategically vital role to the overall success of the match. Much like – you guessed it – in the actual rail industry. 

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Breaking down gender stereotypes 

There was no space for artificially cliché splits of ‘men are better engineers, women are better administrators’ either. In the Le Mans Soapbox battle, where teams had to build a soapbox kart capable of withstanding the pressure of a four-lapped race, women consistently stepped up to the challenge. They also successfully changed F1 wheels armed with nuts, bolts and a wrench gun, as well as raced with Porsches, Ferraris and Aston Martins around the Bruntingthorpe test track.  

Men, on the other hand, often took the lead in the Great Diversity Bake Off, where blindfolded teams had to decorate gingerbread cookies as per strict guidelines. They collaborated with their teams to answer trivia questions about seven different Underground networks without using phones, and spoke for a whole uninterrupted minute about specific rail themes with no repetition, hesitation or deviation. Who said they aren’t as good communicators as women? 

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As Women in Rail founder Adeline Ginn pointed out, these challenges “openly seek to disprove one of the most destructive myths in professional life: that women and men cannot work effectively together”. 

“By engaging both men and women in equal measure, we have started to tackle gender imbalance head-on and create a more attractive, productive and successful industry in the process,” she added. “It was a fantastic day that saw boundless enthusiasm and brilliant teamwork from men and women across UK rail, and goes to show what fantastic colleagues we have in this industry.” 

One of the event’s participants, Inga Doak, sustainability manager at Siemens Rail, argued that while the event demonstrated the importance of working as a team regardless of gender, it was “nice having that 50-50 split, because in the rail industry, typically, it might be more 80-20”. 

“In some ways you’re being forced into that team split, but it doesn’t feel any different at the end of the day,” she told RTM. “It’s a great experience.” 

Elli Katsi, a traction & auxiliary systems engineer at Alstom, added that teams worked very well, with both genders contributing the same amount. “There is no difference in terms of how fast we drive or how far we go,” she argued. “That’s the message. We can all do the same thing.” 

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Teamwork is key 

Many also argued that the tough challenges were reflective of the day-to-day environment in the rail workplace – and how well both genders worked together proved that the 50-50 split was something companies should be supporting. 

But the message also extended far beyond that: as well as diversity, the challenges showed that, above everything, teamwork is key. Robert Johnson, communications advisor at MTR Crossrail, told us: “A lot of challenges are all about collaborating with all of your team members, not just having little groups, to try and get you to the goal. 

“It’s about sitting back, listening to everyone involved, and hearing some other ideas and different approaches. Everybody has a different set of skills and they’re all competing to get to the same outcome, which is great.” 

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Testament to the event’s uniqueness was the fact that several companies brought in multiple teams due to the high interest from staff. Alstom had both the ‘All for One and One for Alstom’ team and ‘The Alstomers’; Angel Trains had the ‘Derby Angels’ and the ‘Angel Trainiacs’; HS2 had the ‘Moving High Speed’, the ‘High Speed Hustlers’, and the ‘Simply High Speed’ teams; and VolkerRail brought in the ‘Road Railers’ and the ‘VolkerRail Rockets’. 

One of the members from the latter, Tina Cator, the company’s corporate communications executive, said her colleagues’ response to the event was “absolutely phenomenal”.

 “We had never been involved with events along the lines of this one,” she said. “Everyone is really motivated, people want to take part, get in charge. It’s something completely different – nice out-of-the-box thinking.” 

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Everyone can play a part 

Cator noted that, as well as accentuating the value of gender diversity, the event allowed team members to “show a little bit more managerial skills” and take charge. 

“The people that usually sit down and might be a little bit quieter seem to be coming out a lot more,” she said. “It’s good to remember that everybody has something they can give.” 

Debbie Francis, managing director of Direct Rail Services, agreed, arguing that the “biggest thing people need to realise is that everybody can play a part, and everybody has equal contributions to make”. 

“It’s that straightforward,” she told us. “One person isn’t any better than the other. I’m managing director, but some of the stuff we’ve done today I’m useless at. But there are people in my team who are not. Everybody has a part to play in everything, and that shows very clearly. 

“And that’s the case with everything: age and experience helps in some things, but actually just diving in there with the blind faith of youth helps in other things. That mix just gives you a slightly better chance of working it out in a more measured manner.” 

While some teams came out as eventual winners – Govia’s ‘Aequalitas et Diversitas’ was named team of the year, and SNC-Lavalin’s ‘Tractive Effort’ team was the most collaborative – others did not, but one opinion was resounding across all participants: the event hit the nail on the head in terms of diversity, sending a clear message to the industry that women must have, just as much as men, a place in the future of rail.

 

Tw: #BRDC

W: www.bigraildiversity.co.uk

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

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