Big Rail Diversity Challenge 2017

RTM’s Josh Mines reports from an exhausting, exhilarating and enjoyable day after taking part in this year’s Big Rail Diversity Challenge at the East of England Arena.

Where can you go to herd ducks, drive a motorised bathtub and take part in a quiz in an inflatable pub? No, it’s not in a modern reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, or something from the surreal world of Salvador Dali, but in the less magical surroundings of Peterborough’s East of England Arena, where on 9 June the second Big Rail Diversity Challenge was held.

 Masterminded by Women in Rail, the event is described as a cross between ‘It’s a Knockout’ and the ‘Krypton Factor’. Teams with a 50/50 gender diversity split from across the rail industry come together to compete in a range of challenges that test the mental and physical skills of participants, as well as their ability to work as a team.

Big Rail Diversity challenge logo t shirt

 But the event also aims to deliver a serious, pertinent and incredibly important message, as Adeline Ginn, head of Women in Rail, told RTM. 

“There’s a huge skills gap which needs to be breached,” she explained. “There are a lot of fantastic women in the sector, but we must work to create a gender balance and diverse culture in any industry and any company. 

“The Big Rail Diversity Challenge gives people the chance to network, the chance to have fun, and the chance to demonstrate that diverse teams work much better together.”

JB BRDC09062017-6193 

A chance to learn about your colleagues 

The event, which was attended by a team of highly trained RTM delegates, is most definitely diverse in its choice of challenges on offer for attendees. From human table football and blindfolded Land Rover racing to a fiendishly difficult tongue twister challenge, there’s something there to test a number of different skillsets, including fitness, creativity and mental resilience. 

Some challenges stand out as particularly bizarre and especially fun. The best way to describe Zorb football would probably be ‘organised chaos’, as players tended to knock into each other more often than they actually kicked a football into the net.

Zorb football

One delegate, Barbara Williams, director of membership and administration at the Railway Industry Association, summed up this element of the event as “taxing, challenging and really fun”. 

But interestingly, she also explained how eye-opening it was to see colleagues work together to complete tasks in a setting that was removed from the office environment. 

“You get people on the team that are doing things they’ve never done before, and your colleagues learn what your strengths are that you may have had absolutely no idea about,” she stated. 

“You need teams with different skills and different strengths to make things happen. It’s ever more important and it’s proving to be more effective in teams; it’s becoming a well-known fact that you need all types of people to be successful.”

JB BRDC09062017-6475

This was also a sentiment voiced by Katherine Lancaster, co-chair of the gender equality network at the DfT. 

“We’re really excited about today and I think we’re proving that a mixed gender team yields the best results — although that should be obvious anyway,” she said. 

Lancaster was also quick to mention that for governmental departments, diversity was an absolute must so that their employees properly represent the wide range of people who benefit from their work. 

“If we are representing the people we are serving, then that means we literally must represent them as a government department,” she explained. “In our department, we are coming up to 14% females and in terms of our employees we are getting more and more senior employees who are women. 

“We’ve got a permanent secretary who’s a woman, so it’s important not just for gender but for everything, that we represent the people we’re serving.”

pub quiz

Diversity ‘not a token gesture’ 

However, despite the success and positives of the day and the hard work that is being done by many to diversify the industry, there is still a lot of work to do. 

“If we don’t get more diverse and bring people in from different backgrounds then we are just going to have skills shortages in the future,” said Irum Malik, head of benefits management in the business transformation team at Arcadis. 

“We need to start attracting in really good talent from women, ethnic minorities, all sorts of different groups and be welcoming to them so that the next generations of people can join our industry.” 

Malik also warned that diversity was still seen by many corners of the industry as a “token gesture”, with some organisations looking to keep up appearances. 

“As an ethnic minority female in our industry, I’ve had those conversations with people and they will say things like ‘we are always going to look at a few people like you so we can do well’, but that’s not the point,” Malik explained. “Diversity shouldn’t be a token gesture.” 

Her colleague Astrid Berkman, business director of design and development, rail, at Arcadis, elaborated on this sentiment: “There is still a little bit of a stigma around diversity. Some people ask why we need it, and it’s really important to start answering that question.” 

Berkman also highlighted that more organisations in the rail industry still needed to be involved in events like the Big Rail Diversity Challenge. “Although there are quite a few companies around who are doing very well with diversity, there’s also a lot of companies who are not here,” she stated. “But if events like this are growing then that’s a great thing.”

crazy golf

At the end of the day, one of HS2’s teams (of which there were six) topped the leader board with 218 points. RTM came in a respectable fifth place, with 210 points. But ultimately, what delegates can take from the event goes far beyond winning (although a bottle of champagne would have been appreciated). The key message from the Big Rail Diversity Challenge is that it is now absolutely crucial that outdated ideologies that have existed for so long are quashed and stigmas attached to driving diversity within the rail industry are silenced. 

Diversity should not be seen as a target that organisations aim for to tick off boxes for inclusion. As Women in Rail’s event shows, a diverse workforce is one that yields better results by having staff with a range of experiences, opinions and skills working together towards a common goal. And with events like the Big Rail Diversity Challenge getting bigger (this year’s event took on 52% more competitors in 2017 than it did in 2016), it’s clear that attitudes are changing. 

The path to an equal industry is still some way off, but there’s no doubt that the sector should, and needs to, build a diverse and inclusive workforce to prepare it for the many challenges on the horizon.



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