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Analysis | Can Network Rail keep its female employment targets on track?

Network Rail

Network Rail is used to challenging projects, whether that is the electrification of the Great Western Main Line or engineering the Ordsall Chord. But perhaps one of the most difficult challenges it has yet to overcome is that of recruiting women.

In 2010 Network Rail launched a new drive to get more women to join the organisation. At the time, just 12.7% of its workforce was female.

Just four years later the proportion had limped up to 14%, with new chief executive Mark Carne saying he was aiming to increase the proportion of women in his workforce to 30% by 2018.

Fast forward another three years and Network Rail has just launched another campaign to recruit more women. It says the previous figures were just aspirations, but this time it has set a genuine target of 20% of its workforce being female by 2020. Now 16% of its 37,000 strong workforce is female.

Based on these figures, between 2010 and 2017 the proportion of women working at Network Rail grew by an average of just 0.47% per year. In order to hit the latest target, this would have to increase to 1.3% – almost trebling the current average growth each year.

So can it be done?

There is no doubt there is a problem in recruiting women into the rail sector, but where does the problem lie and what can be done about it?

According to Network Rail director of diversity and inclusion, Loraine Martins, the challenge is the same across the industry: too few girls are choosing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at school. A shortage of girls having these qualifications and applying for apprenticeships in this area is a major cause of the shortfall. Although that is not news to the industry,  there are subtle ways this can be encouraged.

“I do also feel that the understanding about what our work entails can be oblique – we often describe the output, such as a new building, or piece of track. However, we need to do more to promote the wonderful people that work in the rail industry, and the positive impact that our work has on communities, business and connecting people,” she said.

Network Rail says that this can be carried out effectively through early engagement with school and college pupils – including its “People like Me” campaign. Martins said the 20% by 2020 target is “focusing” its efforts.

There is evidence that the drive to get more school girls to study STEM subjects is working, as reflected in increasing numbers of women doing civil engineering degrees and registering as engineers.

Network Rail says it is starting from a deficit in terms of recruiting women and there’s a shortfall in the female talent pipeline. Women now make up 25% of its board and executive committee – including route services director Susan Cooklin and network strategy and capacity planning director Jo Kaye – but the overall choice of female candidates at intake level is low.

One of the reasons often cited for a shortfall in female employees, is potential candidates – particularly those with children – ruling themselves out of jobs that have awkward or long hours. So what’s Network Rail doing to help women stay in jobs or return after a career break?

“Potential candidates should also be assured that as a business, we offer flexible working arrangements which we know are important to many people when choosing an employer, especially those with families. This can help to accommodate a range of ways of working, such as working from home, flexible hours, job-sharing and part-time working,” said Martins.

Pictured: Network Rail assistant asset engineer Olivia Devan taking part in “People Like Me” workshops this week. They were meeting female pupils from nine schools in Wales who have interests in STEM subjects.

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