Engineering, and the rail industry in particular, have always represented wonderful career opportunities for women, and in the UK women are increasingly joining the senior table in the rail sector. Not only is our rail minister a woman, but so too is the Director-General of the Rail Executive, Bernadette Kelly, and the Head of HS1 Nicola Shaw.
However this was not always the case, and arguably it was only due to the catalyst of World War I that women entered the rail workforce. Within a month of war being declared, more than 100,000 men who had been working on the railways in Britain were enlisted, giving women an unprecedented foothold in an industry that they previously did not dream of entering.
By 1918 women ran the railways, holding almost every job. They literally kept the wheels turning and ensured trains kept moving to support the war effort.
It was diversity ahead of its time and a period of great national pride. However the end of the Great War spelled the end of diversity for the rail and many other industries. Here we are 100 years later and only 18 per cent of the people working in rail today are women, and less than five per cent of the engineering workforce is female.
That’s not to say that there aren’t positive developments being made to tackle this problem. Last year Mark Carne, the chief executive of Network Rail, went public with his view that the key to getting the trains to run on time is hiring more women. He plans to more than double the proportion of female staff employed by Network Rail to one in three, from 14 to 30 per cent. It’s an ambitious plan, and as he pointed out it will require women to be fast tracked given that, at current recruitment rates, it is a goal that will take 65 years to achieve.
A further example of tremendous progress is HS2’s workforce, which is 45 per cent female and has an average age of just 32.
Diversity and inclusivity is at the heart of my management approach – it is a thread that has run through every role I have ever held. Experience has taught me it is the key to creating winning teams.
In order to make progress happen, we need first to be clear about what diversity actually is. Diversity is about more than gender – it is also about background, skills, age and experience – and while higher financial returns are not guaranteed, there is an abundance of research to demonstrate a strong trend towards better performance achieved by companies with more diverse workforces.
Speaking from my own experience, I firmly believe there is a diversity dividend available to any organisation that wants it.
My ambition has always been for UK business to better reflect the people it serves – to equally represent people across genders, ethnic groups, ages and educational backgrounds.
I look forward to that day and I ask you to join me in the task of making it happen by remembering in every conversation, in every project or programme you run, please do your bit to support diversity.