NCE has embarked on a campaign to shake up complacent industry attitudes towards gender equality. To start, we talk to Transport for London, which is leading the way with its ambition to have a workforce that reflects the truly diverse population of London. Ruby Kitching reports.
Setting a 51% target for the proportion of women working in an organisation, especially one operating in the realm of transport and engineering, could be considered both impossible and unnecessary. There is a skills shortage in engineering, and the talent pool for both sexes makes it impossible to achieve such a target any time soon.
The 51% target, nonetheless, has been set by Transport for London (TfL) - the organisation responsible for the capital’s transport system.
Formed as part of the Greater London Authority (GLA) in 2000, TfL believes that to provide the best service to its customers it needs to understand their needs.
So its key employment objective is “to achieve a workforce across the GLA group which reflects London’s diversity”. The objective, therefore, includes representation of diversity in terms of faith, age, race and mobility, as well as gender. Currently 51% of London’s population is female.
Interestingly, the organisation is performing well, having met its customer satisfaction targets for the past two quarters - and with only a 22.5% female representation. Yet it is still serious about its commitment.
“You can’t represent and talk with people of London if you are all white males,” asserts TfL director of asset management (surface) Dana Skelley.
Opening up the mix
“Why is diversity important? Because opening up the mix means opening up a team’s skills, which contributes to making a better final product. We also run massive projects like Crossrail, which need teams with not just one set of skills.”
TfL’s 23,000-strong permanent workforce is responsible for around 24M journeys daily in the capital across all modes of transport, and Skelley feels that certain skills needed by TfL are much more apparent in women than in men.
“Women tend to be more articulate and in touch with stakeholders,” she says, adding that this makes them better equipped to communicate with customers and an extensive supply chain under operational, maintenance and new-build contracts.
“Why is diversity important? Because opening up the mix means opening up a team’s skills, which contribute to making a better final product”
Dana Skelley, TfL
Working on long term contracts with its supply chain, continues Skelley, gives TfL the opportunity to instigate systemic changes in working practice, which have a better chance of taking hold.
“In 2006 we decided to change the way we tendered contracts. Instead of purely focusing on the quality of the submission and its price, we introduced a third envelope (which would be opened first) for equality and inclusion,” she explains, adding that, for a submission to go any further in the tender process, its demographic data and statement of aspirations for equality and inclusion had to pass the test.
“To bring about this procurement change, we worked closely with our supply chain to help them ‘get it’,” Skelley adds. Aspirations could include working with local communities, going into schools to give talks or being aware of the diverse needs of its workforce.
On a very basic level, these companies were being made to think and to realise that “store rooms shouldn’t just have size 9 boots and XL jackets - that just makes women feel alienated on site”, comments Skelley.
With TfL now entering its 14th year, Skelley likens the organisation’s outlook on life to that of a wide-eyed teenager embarking on the world without prejudice or bruises from past endeavours. The whole world might think it’s impossible (and/or unnecessary) to achieve a workforce that reflects the diversity of London, but TfL is an optimistic child determined to make change happen for the better.
First choice employer
“Its Single Equality Scheme (SES), now in its second year, marks the organisation’s maturity towards meeting its aspiration “to be the first choice as an employer for all groups of people”.
The SES action plan was developed following the Equality Act 2010. The plan seeks to “ensure that the needs of all communities are considered in the services it provides and in the behaviours it demonstrates as an employer.
This means ongoing dialogue and engagement with stakeholders and, where possible, ensuring plans are shaped by them”.
TfL’s annual workforce monitoring report ensures the organisation also understands the needs of its diverse workforce.
TfL HR equality manager Laily Thompson adds that having a diverse workforce means that there is a ready assumption that there might be a “typical” commuter, but also many more that are “atypical”.
For example, not everyone has a typical nine to five, Monday to Friday commute into the centre of London, she explains: “We have a workforce which understands that women, half of whom work part time, make very different daily journeys.
- Classroom to Boardroom: Pupils, particularly girls, aged 16 and 17 get a taste of working at TfL
- Ambassadors Programme: TfL staff visit schools promoting science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)
- Paid work experience: For ‘track and train’ graduates who have been unemployed for over 18 months
- Royal Greenwich University Technical College: TfL is co-sponsor of this college and inputs into course content to educate 14 to 19-year-olds, particularly girls, to develop engineering and construction skills.
“A typical day can involve multiple journeys - work, shopping, visiting a relative - before returning home. We want to incorporate that sort of thinking.”
Accepting that there is a business case to achieving a 51% target for women, how is TfL hoping to meet this target? It has not set a date for when it hopes to reach it, but does have a range of grassroots and internal initiatives to attract and retain women and support career progression (see box).
Currently, 22.5% of the overall TfL workforce is female, with 22.1% of senior management being women, including head of London wide policy & strategy Elaine Seagriff and managing director for planning Michèle Dix. Its Women’s Support Network also organises lectures and workshops on development topics and explores women’s roles in TfL and the transport industry.
A simple outcome from early discussions, recalls Thompson, was to hold events at lunchtime so that those needing to return home promptly after work can attend.
TfL has also just launched a job share register for jobs that require more than 35 hours per week. The register allows anyone to advertise internally for a job-share partner - particularly popular for women returning after maternity leave.
Keeping in touch with staff on maternity leave is extremely important, says Thompson, so that they still feel part of the company, and the organisation can be prepared for their return. Without that communication, women could easily feel estranged and decide not to return.
“Essentially, to achieve the target, we are moving away from just thinking about the numbers, and focusing on activities to get a bigger pool of women in engineering, so there is a bigger pool to choose from,” says Thompson.
Flexible working has already been granted to over 1,000 employees, and unpaid leave can be requested for those looking after children during school holidays. For the occasional school play, there is a friendly culture of organising informal cover within teams.
But doesn’t all this flexible working, job sharing and varying working hours result in extra pressure on fellow workers and managers, and even cause a strain on the service provided?
Striking a balance between meeting the needs of the workforce and running a safe and efficient transport system is essential, says Thompson, and working with managers is essential to understanding which jobs are suitable for flexible working. “We have to take the managers with us, rather than thrust change on them,” she says, adding that managers identify roles that can be carried out flexibly, “which has required them to think less rigidly”.
“We have a workforce which understands that women, half of whom work part time, make very different daily journeys”
Laily Thompson, TfL
Despite a slight increase (0.6%) in female workers between 2012 and 2013 at TfL, Skelley, a civil engineer, points out that it is becoming more common to see women at all levels within the company - apprentice, graduate and director - reflecting the wider world. “The ICE has had a woman president, two of the current ICE president’s apprentices are female [and work for TfL] and there have been female NCE graduates of the year,” she says. “The whole world is changing, thankfully. It goes against what I was told at university by my lecturer that ‘women always underachieve in engineering’.”