Human Resources

June 15, 2017 |

Smashing through the glass ceiling

Women continue to represent a small proportion of the railway industry’s workforce. Kevin Smith considers why this phenomenon has come about and asks what is being done to address the imbalance.

“SOMETIMES they would leave me at a switch, or at an engine. They would say “go release the brakes on that engine and wait for my signal.” I would never hear the signal, they would go off and eat lunch and leave me there.”

This testimony from a female Canadian National (CN) employee, the sole woman in her team, was given during proceedings against her employer in 1987. It reflects reports of the company’s systematic discrimination against its female employees at the time, which prompted Action Travail des Femmes, a public interest lobby group supporting women’s rights, to bring a case to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

WIRIn 1987, 0.7% of CN’s unskilled workforce were female, compared with 41% of Canada’s labour force, with the company said to be making no real effort to recruit female employees. Indeed, the commission heard how the company encouraged women to apply for secretarial jobs only, and how CN regularly turned a blind eye to harassment of its female staff.

CN’s protestations against the commission’s initial judgement meant that the case soon ended up in Canada’s Supreme Court. The court subsequently ruled that the commission had the right to impose an employment equity programme on the company in an effort to break the cycle of discrimination.

Since the legislation was passed the situation has improved and by 2015
8% of CN staff, and three of its 11 board members, were female. However, this level of female representation, which is typical at other railway companies in North America and around the world, is still short of where it could and should be. Visit any trade show, construction site, or look at the make-up of most railway company board rooms, and it is soon apparent that those present are overwhelmingly male.

But how did the industry reach this situation?

Images of dirty and heavy machinery working in dangerous conditions reinforced traditional gender stereotypes of what was considered suitable work for men and women during much of the 20th century. Irregular shift patterns and fear of experiencing violence from passengers have also served to put women off service positions. In general, the railway has not been perceived as a particularly welcoming place to work.

“Typically, the industry does not offer working conditions that female employees can count on,” says Mr Libor Lochman, director general of the Community of European Railways and Infrastructure Managers (CER). “Shift patterns require careful planning of the work-life balance to take into account things like childcare. This contributes to the relatively low percentage of women working in the rail industry and the high number of part-time female employees.”

This persisting imbalance is widely recognised as detrimental to the performance of individual companies and the sector as a whole. Labour groups and many employers argue that a balanced and diverse workforce is important for nurturing growth, productivity, innovation and creativity by providing an environment in which different points of view are heard. In addition, with railways serving all manner of people, it is important that the management overseeing operations, and the people delivering services, reflect their clientele.


Europe is experiencing a similar workforce gender imbalance to North America and various efforts are now underway to quantify this with the hope of inciting change. One such initiative is the Women in Rail report first issued by the CER, European Transport Federation (ETF), and European Infrastructure Managers (EIM) in 2012.

Repeated in each of the last three years, the 2015 edition, released in September 2016, included figures from 27 railway companies in 16 countries, which collectively employ 825,591 people.

The results show a slight increase in female representation at the 19 comparable companies which submitted results for 2014 and 2015 to 19.94% from 19.57% previously. The average share of the participating railway companies in each study is 19.7% in 2015, 19.8% in 2014 (when 39 companies participated) and 19.5% in 2013. “There has been a slight increase, but it is only very moderate,” Lochman observes.

The results vary by country: Eastern Europe, as a legacy of Soviet employment practices, and the Nordic countries have particularly strong representation - women made up nearly 30% of the workforce in Norway, Poland and Slovakia in 2015. In contrast, women accounted for 11.69% of the workforce in Austria, 12.87% in Belgium, and 13.86% in Italy and Portugal. Germany’s workforce is 23.12% female, and France’s 19.88%. Just less than 4% of Turkey’s railway workforce are women.

There are also variations in job function. Across the 27 companies that submitted results for 2015, the most heavily populated position is conductors or onboard personnel with 31.77%. Just 2.09% are locomotive drivers while women make up 17.2%
of all managerial positions.

The status of female jobs is reflected in 52.12% of women employees filling part-time positions, although 54.35% of these have some managerial responsibility, which could indicate greater working flexibility. Indeed, in the 2015 study, 80.8% of respondents say they have introduced flexible working time and sabbaticals for employees, and 73.1% have reduced weekly working times. In addition, 34.6% are offering assistance to identify child care, or to organise support for elderly relatives, and 23.1% offer their own child care facilities. 38.5% also say they have introduced initiatives to reduce the gender pay gap, and 76.9% have schemes in place to improve health and hygenic conditions.

Ms Ester Caldana, policy advisor for EU Institutions and Social Affairs at CER, who is leading the Women in Rail study, cites Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) which opened two kindergarten facilities offering teaching in core subjects in 2015. She also highlights several initiatives that are underway to boost female employment and representation in general.

These include work in Belgium to promote the rail sector to young girls as an attractive and beneficial place to work and France’s “Diversity Week” and “Girl’s Day.” As part of these events, French National Railways (SNCF) conducts activities to show female students what a job in the rail industry could mean for them, while the company has also developed a diversity guide, “Living Together” and trains its managerial staff to include women in technical jobs.

Likewise, Italian State Railways (FS) is a member of Valor D, an association promoting female leadership at some of the country’s biggest and most important employers, while ÖBB is targeting women at job fairs and through partnerships with universities. Elsewhere, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (Septa) has introduced a mentoring programme, which is encouraging younger female employees to apply for promotion.

“It is clear that the sector is gradually understanding the benefits of advocating greater integration of women, and it is increasingly doing more to highlight the issue,” Caldana says.

In Britain, the Women in Rail initiative is establishing itself as a prominent organisation for promoting women’s employment in the industry and as a support network for female rail employees.

Ms Adeline Ginn, general counsel for British rolling stock leasing company Angel Trains, founded the Women in Rail group on LinkedIn in 2012 . She says a conversation with Angel’s CEO on the employment and recruitment situation facing the industry, and their shared frustration at the gender imbalance, particularly the lack of women filling senior leadership positions, prompted her into action.

“The LinkedIn group grew very quickly,” Ginn says. “And when I started talking with some of the early members, I quickly realised that there was a demand for a cross-industry group that could make a difference to women’s representation in the industry.”

According to Women in Rail’s 2015 industry survey, in Britain, 16.4% of 85,723 railway industry employees are women. Of these, 60% are working in ground service positions, and 79% are in a non-managerial role with only 0.6% at director or executive level.

Self confidence

However, rather than reflecting a lack of capability, or discrimination, Ginn says these figures highlight a general lack of self confidence among women working in rail today. “The talent is out there,” she says. “We just need to encourage this by identifying and developing the people working in the sector.”

A survey of Women in Rail members emphasised this, with the opportunity to network and meet “like-minded” women considered a way to boost confidence.

With the impetus to expand, Women in Rail was officially founded in April 2013, launching its website later that year. It has since gained the sponsorship of Bombardier, Angel, and the law firm Ashurst, and partnered with numerous industry associations, manufacturers, and operators. Ginn says the British government also backs the organisation, which now has more than 2500 members, with numbers increasing every month.

Led by a seven-member steering committee and a nine-person board with representation from across the industry, the group has since held various regional networking events across the country. It has also established a mentoring programme in which experienced female and male professionals partner and offer professional support to a junior female rail employee from a different company, an initiative which Ginn says is proving a big success.

“The mentor programme now has 200 pairs and it is providing women access to areas, and people, they might not have reached otherwise,” she says. “As the group grows, it can influence the role women play, and hopefully the way the wider industry looks at its workforce.”

As well as supporting existing employees, Women in Rail is actively promoting careers in the rail industry to the next generation.

It is also working closely with Young Rail Professionals (YRP) and the National Skills Academy (NSA) on the issue, and has initiated a survey to identify the “20 most inspirational women working in the rail industry today.” Ginn says the objective is to inspire young women to consider a career in rail by showcasing talent and presenting potential role models. Again, she says this should serve to boost self-confidence and instil a desire to succeed as well as counter the rail industry’s persistent image problem.

“We are working with our partners and with schools to present a positive image of the modern industry and what young women can do here,” Ginn says. “The idea is to foster the female talent that can work in mid-level to senior executive positions which are currently so underrepresented. We are trying to develop a platform for greater inclusion.”

While a solely British organisation at present, Women in Rail has attracted attention from elsewhere in the world, and Ginn reports that similar Women in Rail groups are emerging in Singapore, South Africa, Australia and Malaysia.

As volunteers with day jobs, Ginn emphasised that Women in Rail only has limited time to support and grow other similar groups. However, she is encouraged by their desire to increase women’s role in their respective markets.

“It shows that there is demand in the rail sector for groups that boost women’s representation,” Ginn says. “Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and South Africa are all countries with big rail projects but they are struggling to attract the right people to work on them. Targeting female employees is one way to fill this skills gap.”


Similarly, while Lochman stops short of setting specific representation targets, he says it is CER’s hope that the Women in Rail survey will continue to highlight the issue of female employment and encourage companies to diversify their workforce.

Indeed, despite the Women in Rail study showing the rate of female representation remaining static in recent years, the industry might be on the verge of meaningful progress.

Many railways are, or are about to, engage in mass recruitment drives to combat the generational shift that is occurring as older members of their workforce retire. Of course, the majority of these retirees are men. And with many railways looking to recruit individuals with the skillsets necessary to deliver digitalisation - which is potentially attractive to young female graduates - it is very likely that women will make up a greater proportion of new recruits than ever before.

It is then up to railway industry employers to offer an appealing and welcoming working environment. If they do, they will have a better chance of recruiting the best of the best, both men and women.

“With the newcomers to the industry, it is possible to sell something new,” Lochman says. “We hope that this will make the industry an attractive place to work for young people, many of which will be female.”


Women in rail: the CEO
Agnès Ogier, Thalys

COMPANY board rooms have traditionally been lonely places for women. While 60% of new university graduates are now female, men continue to outnumber women in executive positions at the world’s leading firms.

Agnes OgierBy 2010 the European Commission felt compelled to address the issue and firmly break the glass ceiling once and for all. Through its Strategy for Equality Between Women and Men, and subsequent legislative directive, the EC is aiming for 40% female representation in non-executive board positions at publicly-listed enterprises by 2020. Already there has been noticeable progress, with 23.3% of board positions now held by females, rising from 11.9% in 2010.

Women are also severely underrepresented in senior leadership positions, with only 5.1% of Europe’s largest listed companies having a female CEO in 2015, and 7% a female board chair. The rail industry reflects these trends. While women filled 21.66% of top executive positions at 27 major European companies in 2015, only three of these companies have a female president or CEO.

Ms Agnès Ogier, CEO of Thalys, is one the few female CEOs working in the industry today. In fact, she is indicative of general employment representation at the cross-border high-speed operator which has a 50:50 gender split on its executive committee, and 55% of its staff are women.

An engineer by training, Ogier has not spent her entire career in the rail industry. She started out in the telecoms sector, transferring to rail in 2010 as marketing director for TGV services at French National Railways (SNCF). She was appointed CEO of Thalys, which offers high-speed services in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, in December 2014.

“I was good at maths, and solving problems, and I would say I wasn’t a typical young girl,” Ogier says. “I chose to pursue engineering because I felt that because it is quite a general subject, it could open the door to a lot of things, and at that age I felt there were a lot of advantages in doing that. I ended up working in the telecoms industry but switching to the railway industry later on. I was excited by the challenge of changing industry and becoming accustomed to and an expert in different things.”

Ogier says there are three major obstacles that women of her generation have had to overcome to succeed, which are not applicable to their male contemporaries: being a female in a male-dominated working environment and the unfair treatment - whether intended or not - that often resulted; justifying your engineering competence and right to be in the room because of your gender; and successfully balancing family and working life.

“Most of the time the questions facing a young female engineer are whether they are credible and if they are going to be reliable,” Ogier says. “I regularly faced questions of whether I was strong enough to succeed, and you had to display a level of self-confidence to overcome this.”

Ogier says the situation has changed during her career, with female representation steadily increasing at all levels, and new criteria for evaluating people emerging as a result. She believes that today’s young female engineers are less likely to encounter the same issues that she faced. In fact, she believes that greater female employment, including at CEO level, has already changed the working culture for all employees.

For example, at Thalys, Ogier says the company has introduced flexible working. “Everyone now has a portable device, a smartphone or a laptop,” Ogier says. “You can work anywhere and everywhere you want.

“There is also a focus on greater efficiency, you don’t have to be at the office at 10pm. People now feel that they can leave the office and go home to look after their children, and later on continue with work that they may not have finished. Previously there would have been a pressure to stay beyond hours, and those who had to leave - often women because they were going to look after the children - were perceived as weak and unreliable. There is now greater acceptance of this work-life balance.”

As the chief executive of a leading company, Ogier says she feels obliged to act as a role model for the next generation and regularly visits schools to talk about her career and job. In general, she says she feels that comparatively few young women enter engineering and other similar fields because of a feeling of fear “that maths and physics are not for me,” despite girls often leading in these subjects at school, which she says stems from a general lack of self-confidence. She adds that because of what other women have achieved in the medical profession, where female representation is high, that this is seen as a more acceptable career path.

“Engineering jobs are difficult to explain because it is unclear exactly what job you are going to do,” Ogier says. “There are many jobs and they are all very different, making it difficult to understand generally why they are useful and the benefits they can bring to human kind.”

Ogier argues that in order to counter this trend, it is important for industry leaders such as herself to explain how beneficial these jobs are. However, she rejects assertions that the rail industry is not attractive to prospective engineers and employees. Indeed, she believes that the future success of the sector is dependent on solving this issue.

“There are still a lot of young people who love trains,” Ogier says. “The younger generation are also very aware of the questions of sustainability and they understand that trains and train travel are a qualified solution to help people live in a sustainable way.

“It begins here, and if we don’t succeed in changing this trend, it will only become more difficult.”


Women in rail: the driver
Kerry Cassidy, Great Western Railway

“I was looking for a job with more responsibility, competitive pay, and which warranted respect,” says Ms Kerry Cassidy, a train driver at Britain’s Great Western Railway. “I wasn’t fit enough to go into the forces, and I didn’t want to be a teacher, so I looked at working for the railway and becoming a train driver.”

Kerry CassidyCassidy made this decision in 2008, and while female representation has increased since then, with just 5.4% of Britain’s 19,000 train drivers women in 2015, her choice of career remains unconventional.

This was reflected in the extent of female representation at her job interview. After failing with an application for Chiltern Railways, Cassidy was invited to complete psychometric testing at Great Western, which was part of the initial selection process. Scoring well, she proceeded to the group interview phase.

“There were 12 people there, one of whom was from an ethnic minority, and me, the only female present,” Cassidy says. “For the 10 men selected, who traditionally are the drivers, it felt as though we were the tokens in the room. However, the trainer was quick to dismiss this by revealing the results of the tests, where I secured one of the top scores. That levelled the playing field and made people accept that I had just as much right to be there as they did. As it turned out, two of those people were accepted, and I was one of them.”

For the past nine years, Cassidy has driven trains all over Britain, both for Great Western and freight operators. As a single mother, she says one of the biggest challenges is managing her schedule. Working 24-hour shifts makes arranging child care difficult and expensive, while the unpredictability of the job, where delays to services can leave drivers stuck a long way from home, adds to the complications.

Cassidy says she is able to manage this by having access to her schedule a long time in advance - at the time of speaking to IRJ in early May, Cassidy had access to her roster up to December and the next timetable change. “This makes it easy to plan what care I need because I know exactly where I will be,” she says.

Cassidy is based in Cornwall in southwest England, where wages are lower compared with other parts of the country. Yet she says working in a unionised industry - Cassidy is a Union Learning Representative at the Aslef Union - means her wages are dictated by job function, not location.


However, with such great benefits, the turnover of driving staff remains relatively low, restricting opportunities for women and other minority groups to enter the sector. Indeed, a great proportion of the drivers working today were employed before privatisation of British Rail in the 1990s.

The flexibility in working practices and a good work-life balance means that many drivers are also reluctant to progress in the industry, leaving much of their experience and knowledge under-utilised. “As a salaried manager, you are expected to work more and accept lower pay,” Cassidy says. “There isn’t much incentive to take on that extra responsibility when we have such a good work-life balance.”

For those that have broken through, with the entry age limited to 21, Cassidy says that driving a train is often a second-career. She worked for seven years in the media before applying to Great Western, and she says this should make driving trains an attractive option for women returning to work after having children.

However, with jobs generally not publicised in mainstream channels, Cassidy says improvements are still required to attract female applicants.

Efforts are underway to address this - Cassidy refers to a female recruitment drive at London’s Crossrail and the posting of advertisements for driving positions at Northern in female toilets. She adds that a third of operations staff at open-access operator Hull Trains are women. “Because they started from scratch, this is a truer reflection of the industry today,” she says.

In her role with Aslef, Cassidy is also active in promoting representation in the industry. She leads outreach groups in schools, and is pleased to report that in her experience there is no concept of a gender divide in employment and a restriction on what job a woman can do among the 13-14-year-old girls with whom she comes into contact.

In addition, she says Aslef’s work to promote working conditions suitable for women, LGBT and minorities, is actually improving the working environment for everyone. For example, she says previously freight drivers could spend up to 5.5 hours in the seat without a toilet break. However, by emphasising that after four hours a female driver is required to change a sanitary pad, the policy was changed.

For Cassidy, this is further evidence of progress and that the industry is finally catching up.

“We are using women’s issues as leverage to help everyone,” she says. “I believe that better representation of different groups in the industry will help all employees in the long-run.”

Women in rail: the engineer
Wendy McCristal, SNC-Lavalin

WENDY McCristal is approaching her 17th year in the rail industry, and 23rd as a qualified engineer, and she feels during that time attitudes to women employees have improved.

“I no longer turn up at a worksite devoid of a female toilet, and it is no longer acceptable to be wolf whistled on a daily basis within the workplace,” McCristal says.

Wendy McCristalWhile she finds that her gender is no longer a discussion point, McCristal believes that a conscious and unconscious bias still largely exist in the industry and society as a whole. She says this varies by individual and organisation - for some gender stereotypes don’t exist. But for others there is a clear demarcation.

“I do have memories of being constantly singled out to undertake clerical duties when attending meetings,” McCristal says. “Also, visitors would sometimes ask me for directions or assistance because I was the only female in the room, even though I was one of the most senior members of staff.”

Qualified as a chartered mechanical engineer and a chartered ergonomist, McCristal is currently service development manager at SNC-Lavalin (previously Interfleet) where she leads the company’s innovation programme and develops its service offering. She has experience of design engineering on passenger and freight rolling stock, vehicle interface design, passenger emergency egress facilities and rolling stock approvals. McCristal has also assisted with incident investigation with her career taking in stints in both Britain and Australia.

McCristal did not start out in rail, joining SNC-Lavalin in 2001 after seven years at JCB, which supported her through university.

Despite living in Derby, the home of SNC-Lavalin and much of Britain’s rail industry, a lack of exposure to what the industry could offer meant that working in rail wasn’t even a consideration for McCristal at the start of her career. Things changed when she began to contemplate how she might be able to balance her career with starting a family. She recalls a conversation with an old school friend about the job opportunity at SNC-Lavalin and greater work flexibility on offer for both her and her husband, who also later joined the company.

McCristal says a couple of years after joining SNC-Lavalin she retrained, gaining a second degree in Human Factors and Ergonomics, which enabled her to set up her own team and deliver various projects across the international railway industry. She balanced much of this work with school runs and home life by working part-time for seven years after her children were born.

In the work place as a whole, McCristal feels there is greater tolerance and recognition of diversity than there was 20 years ago, which is giving people greater confidence to succeed. She says this is reflective in recruitment which is increasingly taken into account and adjusting to cultural issues, specifically how they might impact on who is applying for a particular job and the likelihood that they will stay on.

Yet in spite of her positive experiences, McCristal believes that the rail industry can still do more collectively to encourage greater female participation, and points to perceived success at other industries.

“Banking has made inroads into accessing the part-time workforce by offering favourable flexible working arrangements - thus accessing a huge untapped workforce that classically can be shunned by operationally-efficient businesses,” McCristal says. “They are creating strong competition for the rail industry and we need to step up and learn from them.”

She is also an advocate of legislation guaranteeing support for employees when they have children, such as the British government’s Shared Parental Leave and Pay policy, to make rail a more welcoming place to work.

“This move forward needs embracing not only across the rail industry, but further in order for both parents to reap the benefits of its flexibility,” McCristal says.

McCristal says it is important for companies like SNC-Lavalin to engage with the next generation of engineers. The company is involved in various initiatives, including working closely with the National Skills Academy, Young Rail Professionals, local schools and colleges, and the plethora of new rail academic institutions that have been set up to develop specific skills.

In addition, SNC-Lavalin is actively recruiting degree apprenticeship and graduates every year. However, for McCristal, the uneven gender split in applicants - 13% of degree apprenticeships and 0-15% of graduates each year are female - reflects the need to continue to promote rail and engineering to girls much earlier in the process.

Once appointed, the company offers an internal mentoring scheme which McCristal says is proving useful for supporting women in the business.
“We are focusing our efforts through a gender diversity steering group, which is not only active in Britain, but is informing decisions being made at global level,” McCristal says.

SNC-Lavalin is also embracing various working arrangements designed to suit the diverse makeup of its staff. This includes having the option to purchase additional holiday time and offering part-time, and flexible working.

The goal in each of these areas is to present the company as a diverse and dynamic place to work and to offer a welcoming working environment. McCristal says SNC-Lavalin ultimately wants to attract the best possible applicant, male or female, that will drive the industry, and the company, forward.

“We are maximising our chances that employment at SNC-Lavalin suits the needs of our current and future investments, our staff,” McCristal says. “And happy staff means happy clients, which is always great news for the bottom line.”



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