It’s an incredible time to be working in rail. There’s a record amount of investment going into innovation and exciting opportunities are in abundance. The industry is keen to promote careers in rail alongside filling skills gaps and yet, despite the generous pay and promotion prospects, for some reason there’s still difficulty engaging and recruiting women to embark upon a career in rail.

Perhaps this is because historically society has, whether intentionally or not, excluded females from the industry. If we look at even children’s TV shows such as Thomas the Tank Engine, character leads were all male, setting an early precedence for women to believe rail is a male-orientated world. If the rail industry wants to address the imbalance, more needs to be done to engage both females and males and promote the rail industry as an equal opportunities employer.

How many women work in rail?

The rail industry is a massive employer in the UK. There are roughly 85,000 people working in the sector, yet out of this number, only 14,000 are female. The distribution is even less when it comes to certain front-line roles, such as train drivers. Often, you’ll hear male voices making announcements while travelling, and that’s because 19 out of 20 drivers are men. At Samuel Knight International, we have seen an imbalance between roles which men apply for, and those for which women do.

“By having fewer women in high-skilled roles, we further exacerbate rail’s gender pay gap.”

This is a critical problem that needs addressing, as by having fewer women in high-skilled roles, we further exacerbate rail’s gender pay gap. Virgin Train’s 2018 gender pay report revealed that there is a median gap of 19.2% and Network Rail announced that it is 11.2%, which is considerably higher than the country’s 8.6% average.

However, there are companies trying to combat this. Southeastern, for example, has set a target of raising the number of female applicants for train driver roles to 40% by 2021. If more firms implement initiatives likes this, we will certainly start seeing a difference.

Fixing the skills shortage

During the Women in Rail awards, UK Transport Minister Nusrat Ghani stressed that 50,000 more people will be needed to work in rail between now and 2033 along with hundreds of thousands more across the wider transport sector. To fix this dire shortage, she called for a culture-change to create more diverse teams.

“We need all the peoplepower we can get, not just ‘manpower’.”

Ending the skills shortage is time-critical, as it’s expected that there will be a significant loss of expertise and knowledge in the near future. It’s no secret that the industry is facing a retirement cliff, with figures showing that over 40% of all professionally-registered engineers are aged 50-plus. It’s also estimated that the UK will need to double the number of annual university engineering graduates and apprentices to meet demand for job openings by 2020.

This, of course, will not be possible without specific targeting of women. At a time when megaprojects like High Speed Two (HS2), Crossrail and Crossrail2 are being developed, and demand for workers is soaring, there is no space to ignore females – we need all the peoplepower we can get, not just ‘manpower’.

A shift in cultural thinking

Over the last few years, there has been a notable increase in women joining the sector, however, the number is still far too low. To get to where we need to be, it is essential that we encourage girls to study STEM subjects and pursue engineering-related qualifications. We can do this by boosting the presence of successful women in the industry – by having more inspiring female STEM teachers, strong women in the boardroom to look up to and motivational advisers from the rail sector visiting schools.

“It is essential that we encourage girls to study STEM subjects.”

It’s also time to eradicate the myths associated with the sector. Historically, the industry has been painted as “just for boys”, labour-intensive and unrewarding. However, this is far from the truth.

Groups such as Women in Rail celebrate female success in the industry and there are so many paths in rail to choose from that lead to fulfilling careers.

Women working in the sector must empower each other to follow their passion, work against traditional norms and should also put themselves in the limelight to showcase to others how rewarding a career in rail can be.

Practical steps to increase diversity

To encourage more females to join the sector, we also need to take some practical steps and ensure that they’re accommodated and in a supportive environment. In every sector, more and more businesses are adopting flexible working practices, allowing them to access talent and skills that may have been impossible before due to rigid working hours. The rail industry can learn and benefit from this to ensure female talent finds rail an accessible, valid career option.

“If we can remove the perception that the industry is male dominant, we can create a truly diverse sector.”

Forward-thinking businesses are also implementing return-to-work schemes, which make the process of getting back into work easier and more efficient. Network Rail, for example, has a fantastic returners programme which has proven to be a big success.

If we can remove the perception that the industry is male dominant, and present the diverse range of opportunities to women, we can create a truly diverse sector which draws on different perspectives and strengths to continue building a leading and innovative rail system. By getting the representation of women to where it needs to be, and encouraging females to reach their full potential, we can perhaps finally end the sector’s skills shortage.