There was a time when women ruled the railway. By the end of the First World War, an estimated 70,000 women worked on the network. Then, as their male counterparts returned from the front line, they were either let go or shuffled back into their pre-war roles.
Things have moved on in the decades since. Now the railway wants them back.
In some areas the industry has been progressive: women now occupy senior leadership roles in a way they didn’t 30 years ago and female students are no longer blocked from certain careers on the railway altogether. But the number of women in the rail industry, and engineering more widely, hasn’t radically improved, and if things don’t change soon it could be several generations before women are fairly represented.
NATIONAL WOMEN IN ENGINEERING DAY
Engineering consultancy, AECOM made this point in the run up to National Women in Engineering Day last month. The company suggested that if action isn’t taken, it would be at least another generation before women are equally represented in engineering fields. AECOM quoted figures from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, which indicated that women make up less than 8 per cent of apprentices in engineering and manufacturing technologies and that the numbers have been tumbling, not rising, in the past few years.
‘I suppose it’s not really bothered me that I’m the only female in meetings,’ said Philo Daniel-Tran, head of strategy at Thales. ‘What is nice as well though is to see that there are more girls/women starting in fields of engineering and that the diversity has improved, which just makes it a more natural working environment.’
Philo, alongside her colleagues Lydia Saunders and Lisa Walker, visited Prospects College of Advanced Technology (PROCAT) in Basildon last month to speak to a group of female students from the Chelmsford County High School for Girls about what it is to be an engineer.
Thales, along with the likes of Eurostar, Virgin East Coast, Bombardier, Atkins and TfL, sponsors PROCAT’s railway academy and uses the facility to train its apprentices. The academy has its own full-size, functioning station platform, which includes equipment donated by Thales.
The specialist technical college says it is engaging with its employers to encourage more young women to pursue apprenticeships in rail engineering, but currently only 5 per cent of PROCAT’s engineering apprentices are female. Numbers did improve last year, but it was a small increase overall.
Reflecting on what it is like to be a woman in the engineering sector, Philo said that throughout her 20-year career she had ‘never felt wrongly done by’.
‘I’ve always felt like I’m just another individual,’ she said. ‘I’m good at what I do and I’ve been there doing my work and I’m the best at what I do, which is why I’ve got to the next position… so I’ve never really felt that I’m a female and I’m special or unique in that way.
‘I’m just another engineer doing my day job and working with my colleagues, and they just happen to be mostly male, sometimes they’re female.’
Lydia (pictured above), a human factors engineer, and Lisa, a systems engineer, both agreed. It’s a scenario they’ve just grown to accept. Speaking to one of PROCAT’s female apprentices, it seems the new generation share this view. ‘You just learn how to handle it,’ said Sarah Stoppel, 20, a telecomms apprentice with Thales. She is the only woman on her course, but that doesn’t faze her.
Says Sarah, who is at the end of her second year at PROCAT, ‘I started doing electronics when I was like 13/14, and I was the only girl in that… I’ve only ever been the only girl and I just get used it.’
Are individuals like Sarah and Philo the exception? Is engineering really just for boys or is that rubbish? ‘Yeah, I think it is rubbish. I think it’s about knowing what’s out there,’ says Philo.
Thales’ transportation business, as part of a wider UK STEM outreach programme within the company, has so far visited more than 25 schools, addressing in excess of 3,000 students aged between 14 and 16. It appears to be having some success already. Of the applications Thales received for its most recent work experience week, around 40 per cent were from female students.
Says Philo, ‘I think if you give them all the same information, they make the decisions based on their preferences, that this is actually a viable career and a great, rewarding career to have.’
Some of the other stories to come out of National Women in Engineering Day showed that many want to see the end of the ‘used to it’ mentality shared by women in the rail industry.
Women in Rail announced its list of the 20 Most Inspirational Women in Rail, illustrating some of the notable female role models within the industry. Women in Construction, another organisation which promotes the role of women in STEM fields, said it had placed its 600th candidate into paid employment since 2011. The press release announcing the news included a quote from Sir Terry Morgan, who spoke about the success Crossrail has had in the area.
‘Crossrail is doing everything it can to make construction an exciting and attractive career option for women,’ said Sir Terry. ‘Thanks to partnerships with organisations like Women into Construction, Crossrail has been able to give opportunities to hundreds of women who would not have considered construction as a career. The benefits of a diverse workforce are clear, but the construction industry must continue do much more to grow its talent pool and create a workforce capable of delivering the huge pipeline of projects planned.’
To mark the day, Network Rail published testimonies from several of its female engineers and managers, including its chief engineer Jane Simpson, who believes that the industry’s acceptance of the need for a diverse workforce will lead to change.
‘The railway industry has and hasn’t changed since I joined in 1996,’ said Jane. ‘The core of what we need to deliver and the passion and ambition of our people to deliver a safe, reliable service is the same.
‘When I joined I couldn’t fail to be impressed by how much passion staff have for the industry to be successful and this hasn’t changed. What has changed is the understanding that we need to be more inclusive if we are to get a more diverse workforce that is representative of the UK population.’
The railway once fielded 70,000 women in the UK’s hour of direst need. In a challenging future rail bosses see Jane, Lydia, Lisa and the returning thousands are the cavalry.