Women in rail - is the industry on the right track?

Source: RTM Feb/March 2019

RTM sits down with Samantha Smith, sole female member of the TransPennine Route Upgrade Alliance Leadership Team, to find out more about encouraging more women to enter rail.

Improving gender diversity in the rail industry is firmly on the agenda, especially following the recent announcement from Mark Carne that just 16% of National Rail’s 38,000 staff are women. How can young women be encouraged to pursue a career in the transport industry? And how can the industry help empower those that do to realise their ambitions?

Samantha Smith has worked at architecture and building consultancy AHR for 30 years. Starting her career as a building surveyor in the Huddersfield office, Smith was appointed as a director in 2004 and went on to work with many of the industry’s biggest players including Virgin, First, Northern, Arriva, and Network Rail. Most recently, Smith has recently worked to secure AHR’s place on the TransPennine Route Upgrade Alliance, and was appointed as the sole woman on the Alliance Leadership Team.

Why do you think it is difficult to attract women to work in the rail industry?

Samantha Smith: I don’t think there is an easy answer, but there are certainly a few key obstacles at play. The first is the small number of young women taking STEM subjects. Currently, only 20% of girls go on to study maths and science at A Level – a figure that has barely changed in 25 years. The current situation limits our female intake year-on-year. 

Secondly, and sadly, there are still old-fashioned preconceptions around gendered careers in general. When I recently volunteered at a local primary school, many of the girls I met had never considered the transport sector as a path for them. Although it can be uncomfortable to address gender stereotypes, it’s important to challenge these beliefs and ensure that youngsters are empowered to pursue a range of careers that are as diverse as they are.

How can businesses or individuals within the rail sector help to attract more diverse talent?

SS: Careers education is crucial. The rail sector has changed enormously in the last decade and there are a huge variety of careers available now which simply did not exist before. Industry professionals need to work closely with schools and colleges to showcase the new and exciting career options on offer. As well as the obvious advantages of giving back to the next generation, this will also allow industry operators to take a long-term view of their talent pipeline and nurture it accordingly. For example, the TransPennine route upgrade is a 10-year programme, which means the young students of today will become our workforce of tomorrow.

What do you think are the main challenges women entering the rail industry face?

SS: I think one of the main challenges is representation. I often attend industry events and meetings where I am the only woman in the room, never mind at the top table. This can be intimidating, particularly for those starting out in their career. I am a firm believer in the power of mentoring. By linking up and building strong professional relationships between both men and women, we can provide a powerful support system. I’m mentoring a fantastic professional at the moment and the mentoring process is working both ways – we learn a great deal from each other.

Do you think there will be positive changes when it comes to gender diversity in the rail industry over the next 12 months?

SS: Many large-scale operators are now introducing quotas to increase the number of women in their workforce. While on the face of it this is an admirable goal, I think we need to think about more than just quotas to make a sustainable difference to the industry. I would like to see more operators providing diverse roles that fit a more diverse workforce. Women need to see opportunities that excite and inspire them, and that is about how we package and promote the great work that we do in the transport sector.


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