Nowhere is the shortage as acute as in the rail industry and especially in the train control & communications and electrification disciplines. The National Skills Academy for Rail Engineering (NSARE) predicted back in 2012 that the number of ETP (Engineering, Technical and Planning) skills requirement will fall short by around 30% of people in the near future. This in an industry that employs approximately 90,000 staff in the engineering sector.

Whilst some progress has been made to recruit and train more engineers, particularly with government initiatives to re-start apprenticeships and the creation of training centres within the wider rail industry, there is still much to do just to stand still. So what else can be done?

I went with Jennifer Gilleece, telecoms project engineer in Network Rail, to meet chief executive Mark Carne (pictured below) and discuss both Network Rail’s strategy to bring more women into the engineering sector of the railways and their views on some of the barriers that have to be overcome. The session was timely as it preceded the National Women in Engineering Day on 23 June 2015.

The nature of the challenge

Nationally, only 7% of the engineering workforce is female and this drops to 4.4% in rail. Immediately this indicates that there is a huge untapped resource available if only the right formula can be found to release the potential. So why are these figures so low?

The problem has been researched on many occasions, concluding that there is no single answer but there are some dominant issues. In the world of equal opportunities that we are now supposed to live in, there remains an inherent bias that engineering is a profession for men. Even fair-minded people can be caught out by questions that drill down into the basics of what an engineer is expected to do. The requirement of having, on occasions, to work shifts, weekends and long hours together with some physical strength can stereotype particular jobs to a man.

That, however, is only one element of the challenge. The problem is likely to begin at an early age, where the roles of men and women in society begin to be set out in secondary education at school. Only 7% of parents encourage their daughters into engineering and 76% of girls are influenced by their parents’ advice. This leads to only 13% of girls choosing to study science and engineering during further education and included in this are the more ‘gender neutral’ subjects of information technology, chemistry and such like, where opportunities in research establishments can have wider appeal.

In Network Rail, 14% of the workforce are women, across all grades and jobs. It might not appear too bad when comparing these statistics to 50 years ago when it was around 4%, but at this rate it will take another 65 years to achieve a target of 30%.

Some ideas for implementing change

Getting more women into engineering (not just the rail sector) needs traditional thinking to change. It has to start with the 11 to 13 year olds where more efforts must be made to tease out the subjects that they like and to build on that appeal by creating the right opportunities within schools for that interest to be developed. There is no physical or psychological reason why a female brain should be any different to that of a male when choosing subjects to study. It is much more a matter of past roles and prejudice that steer women away from science and technology.

That said, there is much more that can be done by the engineering profession to portray an image that accurately reflects what it’s like to work as an engineer. The photographs that accompany many of the project- related articles in Rail Engineer show people in orange suits working on the track, thus giving the impression that engineering is only about outside tasks in difficult conditions and often inclement weather. There is a vital need to demonstrate the diversity of skills that make up engineering, particularly the design element with its high intensity of computer expertise.

Balancing work and home

We are seeing change that supports women to continue a career while still being able to raise a family. Employment legislation can be part of this progression, together with a change in employment attitudes to facilitate the work / home life balance, for the full potential of women engineers is to be realised. The opportunities for flexibility of working hours by split jobs, part time work, working from home are all ways in which a parent can be gainfully employed whilst still being able to look after the needs of very young children. The internet society and the use of computers to carry out design work makes this challenge that much easier but it does mean a more flexible approach from employers.

The modern family unit will often see both partners in employment pursuing a career, while at the same time raising a family. A case known to me reflects the woman engineer rising at an early hour to commute to a London office and starting work around 7:30, leaving the man to get the children up and taken to school. He then goes to work and does a full day whilst the woman returns home in time to collect the children from after-school activities.

There is no prescription as to how such work activity is managed and each family will establish a routine whereby both partners can be gainfully employed. It does require the co-operation of employers and the families themselves must have contingency plans to cover for differing day-to- day requirements. The willingness of grandparents to help out can be important, and I speak from personal experience.

TeenTech founder Maggie Philbin talks to finalists at Network Rails Could IT Be You IT for girls competition event [online]

Specific initiatives and other industries

The WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) campaign has been around for many years and is currently focussing on the challenge of getting 1 million more women engineers nationally. A 10-point plan exists, ranging from the education of teachers, increasing transparency of opportunities and retention of women engineers right up to retirement age. Many major industrialists have signed up to this initiative including Mark Carne on behalf of Network Rail and also senior people from Atkins, Arup, Babcock, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Thales UK and Unipart, all of whom are major players in the rail supply chain.

Within Network Rail, Mark Carne has set out a programme to attract more female graduates with the goal of having women make up 30% of the intake by 2019. Career development for those women already in Network Rail will focus on getting 20% of its talent pool of future leaders to be female also by 2019. The tackling of deep-seated cultural issues is another action being pursued with the aim of making the industry more transparent and welcoming.

Whilst Mark is relatively new to rail, he has spent many years in the oil and gas industry, another sector with a perceived male dominance. My own knowledge of that industry by being the Engineering Council Liaison Officer for BINDT (the Non Destructive Testing Institute), heavily involved with competence certification of staff working on North Sea platforms, would indicate a totally male workforce coming forward for registration to IEng or CEng levels.

Mark indicated that, whilst this is true at engineer level, the growing number of women employed in the hospitality element of oil and gas platform operation is having a knock on effect in attracting women from other disciplines to go and work in these harsh environments. When increased numbers of women started working on the platforms there was a ‘humanising’ effect which significantly, and almost instantly, reduced the macho culture and resulted in a reduction of safety incidences.

Succeeding and satisfaction

Jennifer Gilleece became an engineer because her father was a maths teacher at school and, with her mother, he encouraged her to pursue her interests that ultimately led to her current career. Having a mentor throughout the training period, covering both college and university education, and especially work-based activities, can be very beneficial, particularly if the mentor has a determination and passion for their student to succeed. Jennifer was fortunate in this respect and remains in contact with her mentor to this day.

Senior engineers reading this article will identify with this role and may take satisfaction from the success that the ones they looked after (be it male or female) have made the grade and are making an important contribution to the industry. From an S&T perspective, I acted as mentor for a number of women who have enjoyed successful engineering careers. They invariably say that their training period was fulfilling and being out trackside and in equipment rooms was especially enjoyable.

When challenged about the risk of positive discrimination, Mark Carne was adamant that this must not happen. When appointing a person to a post, it must be done on merit and only the best candidate should succeed. However, in the selection of candidates for interview and to counter the inherent bias that can exist, he would advocate the inclusion of all qualified women candidates on to the short list to ensure a level playing field. I don’t think anyone could argue with that.

So, while progress is being made, it is still too slow. It is a national issue but one where the rail sector may well become a role model. Working together we can make Britian’s railway a more diverse and welcoming place for women engineers and benefit from the improved safety records and profitability that diverse workforces have produced in other industries. Mark Carne’s statement for everyone is: “What can I do today to make the railway better?”

For those of us with daughters and granddaughters, I guess we all have a responsibility to raise the possibility of a career in engineering and should a spark of interest be shown, to follow this through with all possible encouragement.