Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Ninarita Williams, Project Manager at Transport for London (TfL), about helping young women into construction and STEM related roles, increasing female and minorities representation at mid and senior levels and being named STEM Rising Star at the Black British Business Awards

Ninarita Williams is a Project Manager at Transport for London (TfL) working on the signalling and construction for the £5 billion Four Lines Modernisation Programme (4LM). With a reputation for successfully managing large-scale and influential projects, Ninarita has also managed award-winning projects including the operation to bring cooling and ventilation to underground hotspots on the Jubilee, Bakerloo and Victoria lines. She is also an active mentor coaching young people in STEM and has mentored one young person into a higher-level professional role each year for the past three years. She recently on STEM Rising Star at the Black British Business Awards.


You graduated in Politics and International Relations, what inspired you to choose a career in rail?

I wanted to work in an industry where I could make a positive social impact, particularly on a local level. Having used the railway daily and also been on journeys impacted by ongoing problems, I was keen to understand the cause. Furthermore, I was motivated to help with finding and implementing solutions. I hoped to help enhance the lives of thousands, by making their journeys better with much needed improvements to rail infrastructure. As a goal-oriented individual who endeavours to thrive in high-pressure, dynamic environments; Project Management seemed like an apt career choice.


Tell us about the ground-breaking DCA Sim project, how will it change the way trains are tested and maintained?

 The DCA Sim Project changes the way trains are tested and maintained at TfL as it allows for testing and maintenance to be done via a test tool kit in a suitcase. The test tool kit is essentially a Depot Commissioning Area simulation in a suitcase, making the requirement for some of our costly physical Depot Commissioning Areas (DCA) redundant. The mobile test tool kit was produced to ensure trains can be fully tested after failure or intrusive maintenance. It allows trains to be statically tested and will provide the same test coverage as a dynamic test on a DCA.

Bringing the concept to an assured reality has saved TfL in excess of £1.5 million on 4LM alone. The DCA Simulator test tool kit was conceptualised, designed, developed, manufactured and assured in-house. Since completion it has been rolled out for use across the wider network and is intended to replace some future DCAs. Consequently, TfL will benefit commercially from cost, time and resource savings for years to come.


How have you handled working as a Project Manager during the lockdown?

There have been challenges but effectively managing change is an integral part of project management. Unforeseen circumstances arise, constraints shift, and we have no choice but to embrace uncertainty. I view it as part of my job to adapt and subsequently seek the best possible outcomes within revised parameters.

Managing teams from home was challenging at first, but this was mostly due to technical issues! Nevertheless, my team has adapted to our new working environment exceptionally well. We’ve pulled together and found ways to ensure that we keep our commitment to London, get our project delivery back on track and mitigate any impact where possible.


You are currently helping to coach young women into construction and STEM related roles, what barriers do you find young people face today and has anything improved in the years you have been a mentor?

 A lack of knowledge of the varied career paths and opportunities available, and negative perceptions pertaining to industry stereotypes, appear to be persistent barriers. However, if I compare the current climate to what it was like when I first started, I believe that there has been some improvement. When I was younger, a career in STEM was not necessarily a career I thought wholly accessible to me.

When seeking mentors, I was often unable to find mentors that faced similar challenges and barriers to entry. Just by virtue of being a mentor and occupying space in the industry with my presence, I am able to demonstrate accessibility and defy some of the stereotypes. Today there appears to be a slightly wider network of mentors like me and young women seem to have a more diverse range of people to identify with and connect with for advice.


What can be done to encourage more women into a STEM-based career?

Research shows that the use of role models, case-studying individuals, targeted campaigns and direct engagement can be very effective. Visibility and role models help to dispel myths and counter some of the negative perceptions of STEM-based careers. They also help to spread more awareness of industry opportunities. They show many people who didn’t think it possible, that there are a variety of opportunities available to them. When you don’t see people that look like you in an industry, it can make you to think that it’s not meant for you.

In addition, the current effort tends to be a consequence of feedback from historic data, which is of course useful in some respects, but it also lends to a differing contextual landscape. With time, some things will have undoubtedly changed. Obtaining contemporary feedback from young women, particularly before entry to work, could also be an efficient way to determine the direction of the effort going forward.


In the rail industry, women make up less than 17 per cent of the workforce, with a majority in non-managerial positions. Do you believe our sector is working hard enough to increase female and minorities representation at mid and senior levels?

 I believe that the industry has made some strides and a somewhat notable effort to increase representation, but the figures are indicative that there’s still a long way to go. My research on the barriers women and minority groups face in attaining leadership positions showed that covert barriers are still pervasive and require more focus. We need more focus on the systemic cultural and structural industry barriers to ameliorate the sluggish pace of progress. From what I can see today, the industry does appear to be waking up to these issues, people are having more open and honest conversations, and within my working community, I am seeing a promising start in addressing them.


You are on the YRP judging panel for the National Rail Awards. Having experienced both winning and handing out awards, how important are they for increasing diversity in the industry?

It’s important to have diverse judging panels as studies show that diverse teams perform better. Having diverse judging panels assist in driving creativity, the stimulation of new perspectives and broadening the discussion, all of which is likely to increase diversity.

Awards highlight what is possible to achieve. Not only do they showcase laudable contributions and industry innovations, but they can do a great job of recognising diverse unsung talent, and also increase their visibility. By increasing visibility of the underrepresented, we create role models, and by creating role models, we have more people who see themselves in others and are inspired to join the industry. The more we celebrate, the more others are encouraged to join.