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100 Years of Women in Transport – where do we go from here?

Guest blog by Debra Charles, CEO at smartcard technology company Novacroft

When London's Maida Vale tube station opened in 1915 it made history as the first to be completely staffed by women. Then, as the First World War engulfed Europe, women stepped up in vast numbers to keep London's transport system running. And now, 100 years later, we're celebrating these women and the role they played in paving the way for future generations to join the industry.

I’m really excited to be taking part in Transport for London’s ‘100 Years of Women in Transport’ initiative. It's important to reflect on this rich history and where the industry is now. It's also vital to use opportunities like this to inspire our young people to see transport as the vibrant and innovative industry it is and to motivate them to study the subjects they'll need to get involved.

Despite headlines like those last month about maths and computing getting a welcome boost in the number of students taking these A-levels, alarm bells are still ringing very loudly. We are still struggling to recruit enough STEM talent to meet our needs. In the transport sector alone, there are billions of pounds worth of large-scale infrastructure projects like Crossrail and High Speed 2 coming down the track.

We’re right to worry that skills shortages could derail the government's plans and the country's progress. According to the Royal Academy of Engineering, we’ll need 100,000 new STEM graduates every year until 2020 just to keep up with demand, let alone grow. We're currently producing just 90,000 a year – including international students, who don’t always stay – and a quarter of these students end up working in other sectors.

So what can we do to bridge the gap? I think it’s critical that we forge better links with both boys and girls coming through the education system – not just to increase diversity, but because there simply won’t be enough boys to tackle all the challenges ahead. And it's vital we capture their imaginations with insights into the incredible variety of careers on offer in the industry before they make their subject choices.

This is one of the biggest barriers. A study carried out by Nestlé last year revealed that while four out of five 14 to 16-year olds would consider STEM careers, more than half knew very little about the opportunities available to them. Transport, in particular, also faces some tricky prejudices, with young people typically picturing labour-intensive roles in boots and hard hats, when actually there are so many different paths they could take.

The upshot of all this is that it’s time we upped our game. It’s down to us as an industry – to me as a business owner – to demonstrate just what we have to offer and what a difference one more girl or boy taking STEM subjects could make. We need to go in to schools, to mentor, convey our passion and generate excitement so we don’t lose talent later down the line. Whatever we do, we need to be vocal and visible, because at the end of the day, we can’t wait for talent to stumble across the industry – we need the next generation to walk straight through the door, ready to hit the ground running.

As part of Transport for London’s 100 Years of Women in Transport programme, Debra will be taking part in an Industry Speed Mentoring event at the Institution of Civil Engineers tomorrow evening (29 September), providing attendees with one-on-one 15 minute sessions of education and career advice. For more information, visit:


Helena Wojtczak   15/12/2015 at 08:05

Why am I repeatedly seeing stuff about "100 years of women in transport"? Women have been employed on the railways since the 1830s. Should be "180 years of women in transport".

RTM   15/12/2015 at 09:04

Hi Helena - TfL's point is that 1915 was a transformative and particularly significant year in the history of women in transport, as the link explains

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