With women still representing, at most, only around 16 per cent of both the rail and the engineering sectors’ workforce (Women in Rail 2024 and EngineeringUK 2023). Women in Rail offers an effective vehicle to deliver a better gender balance while addressing the skills shortage.

A great deal of work and commitment across our industry means that it is a much more fair and inclusive workplace on the whole in 2024; however, the gender balance represents a powerful reminder that we are still not attracting and retaining women as effectively as we could and should be. I believe that this indicates a similar situation for people with other protected characteristics, and this was highlighted in the Supply Chain Sustainability School employee diversity report in 2023.

Women in Rail, and its cross-industry mentoring programme, is well established now and has a mature understanding of what a fair and inclusive workplace looks like for women. Crucially, this includes the support and tools that benefit women taking ownership of their career paths.

I have a long history with the organisation and was one of the first Women in Rail Award winners in 2016 at the Rail Business Awards, something that is deeply meaningful to me. It came at a time in my career when I was starting to take on more leadership responsibilities. I had been working for some truly inspirational leaders, men who supported me through coaching and mentoring and ensured I challenged myself with new opportunities. I’ve also had the privilege of some excellent leadership training over the years and have learned to recognise that coaching and mentoring skills are an incredibly useful way of helping people take ownership of their careers.

This didn’t come naturally to me. I come from a family of business women and was brought up to expect to have a career: my right to one was never in doubt. However, a fantastic line manager changed my perspective. He suggested that I had a duty to get involved in supporting women I worked with in this way.

That was pretty transformational for me and, once I started looking at the data, I realised that I had zero chance of ever making it into a senior leadership position – there were no women on the board of that company at the time. This realisation galvanised me, motivating me to engage with the gender equality agenda in a much more constructive way. This was also around the time that the Supply Chain Sustainability School was developing its fairness, inclusion and respect programme, which is very important to me, and coincided with the launch of the Women in Rail organisation, founded by Adeline Ginn.

I began to better understand the connection among the crisis in recruitment and retention, the skills shortage for the construction and engineering sector and the general lack of diversity. It was clear that we were never going to recruit the numbers we needed to deliver the UK infrastructure programme if we continued to recruit only from the same limited talent pool.

Having recently joined RSK, I was delighted to be invited to support the business case to renew the group’s membership, and we are proud to be silver members for 2024. I have previously worked for contractors and client organisations, and when I joined RSK I was struck by two key facts – that it has a much more balanced gender split (28 per cent women) and it is successful in attracting and retaining talent. Many businesses strive for a fair and inclusive culture, but RSK has added to this with a long history (pre-Covid) of supporting flexible and agile work patterns. It’s food for thought, isn’t it?

Our membership allows us to participate in the fantastic mentoring programme, delivered by experts in structured mentoring, Moving Ahead, and we have registered five mentees and four mentors from across RSK. It is a cross-business programme, which means that we are paired with people from other organisations. This is a great way to make sure the mentoring experience is mutually beneficial for both the mentees and the mentors. It also exposes us to different ways of doing things and fresh perspectives from outside our organisation, which is hugely beneficial and a unique opportunity. The impact this programme creates is impressive: 56 per cent of mentees from the 2022–2023 cohort have been promoted, expanded their responsibilities or moved roles; 59 per cent of mentees reported feeling more confident as a result of the programme; and over a third of mentors were driven to make change having participated.

The programme runs for nine months, and I think most of us have had our initial introductory meetings with our partners now. The initiative provides excellent guidance and support to ensure the mentoring relationship is successful for everyone. This is a learning experience that will benefit all participants, as mentoring is a crucial leadership skill to develop. The programme also includes the opportunity to network, which is another great tool for career and personal development.

In order to achieve our gender balance goal and simultaneously address our recruitment needs, I have several priorities for the industry.

We need to find out why there continues to be a drop-off at each stage of a girl’s academic life. I understand that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at A-level tend to be 50:50, but the gender balance changes for STEM subjects at degree level, then post graduate and then gradually erodes at early career stages and onwards. What happens to those women, and why are they not supported and encouraged to stay and progress in STEM careers and into leadership roles if they want to? The sector needs to understand the root causes and barriers and what it means to the next generation entering the workplace now. The good news is that organisations, such as EngineeringUK, are studying this issue and sharing what they have learned, including the need to start engaging girls with engineering and technology activities at a young age, including activities that challenge gender stereotypes around engineering and technology and using role models of a similar age to bridge the developmental gap between students and professionals.

Consider different routes into the sector for different talent pools, and think about transferable skills, particularly for green careers within the sector. Not all roles require a degree, although we traditionally mandate this in job descriptions. For a site environment adviser or a construction supervisor, for example, the majority of the role is about effective communication and relationships, not just technical civil engineering detail.

It’s great to see that the sector is increasingly supporting the apprenticeship route so that new entrants have the opportunity to learn and develop through blended learning and work experience, rather than a purely academic approach. It’s interesting to think about career change opportunities, for instance, as well as the chance to tap into talent from hard-to-reach groups or people with barriers to entry into the workforce. It’s important to have diversity of thought and experience in a team.

Achieving transparent recruitment will ensure our processes are fair, open and accessible to everyone in the communities in which we are working. We want to break the mould of what we traditionally think of as someone working in the construction and engineering sector. My favourite example is one of the major client organisations that used an image of a man’s shirt collar and tie in an advert for its graduate scheme. Fortunately, the CEO intercepted the advert – they had teenage daughters themselves and had a penny-drop moment about what this image was portraying to women. Consider adopting flexible and agile working practices as standard and learn what worked well in this respect during the pandemic, although most businesses recognise the benefit of building collaboration back in, as well as face-to-face team time.

Upskilling leaders and line managers will help them understand their own communication preferences and leadership styles, how they work best, how they behave under pressure and how that translates into their team management. Give line managers and leaders coaching and mentoring skills so that they can properly support women in their career progression. Undertake reverse mentoring as well: leaders need to be prepared to listen to feedback.

Make sure employees are able to call out poor, unfair and disrespectful behaviour that is not inclusive. Senior leaders must model this and people should be supported to speak up. When people leave the business, it is important to understand why they have done so.

Acknowledge the importance of male allies. Most managers and colleagues want to support women in their careers. This comes back to making sure they have the tools they need and they share what works well.

Encourage women to network as part of their career development. Line managers and leaders can help by making introductions, as well as encouraging women to take part in industry events and groups, perhaps even to chair working groups or committees. It’s a good way to grow a group of allies, buddies and informal mentors; to have conversations with people you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to talk to; and to get new and different perspectives. This is something that I think comes more easily to male colleagues, so it’s good to encourage and remind women to do it. This was another leadership top tip that was shared with me in my career.

The skills shortage is impacting on many areas of our sector, and there is a need to recruit new talent over the coming years, so it is important to invest in initiatives such as Women in Rail now. We need to make it clear to women and girls that this is a sector that will support and invest in their career development and demonstrate this with meaningful programmes and commitments. The rail sector has some incredible role models, and giving these women a greater profile is another way of attracting and retaining talent in our sector, one that is so important in the UK’s infrastructure development and where innovation and sustainability provide excellent career options. Our participation in the Women in Rail cross-company mentoring programme is a fantastic example of a practical initiative that can achieve tangible results and impact – I can’t wait to share what our participants this year achieve.

For more information about WR visit https://womeninrail.org/.