Speech

Women in rail

The rail sector is not hiring or promoting sufficient numbers of women.

Claire Perry  MP

Introduction

Thank you for that introduction, Adeline (Ginn, Founder of Women in Rail).

It’s a real pleasure to be here today, for what is becoming one of the most important events in the rail calendar.

Since Women in Rail was established 3 years ago, it has shone new light on the rail sector.

It has shown both the great opportunities that rail has for women.

But it has also shown how the sector must change if it is to draw fully on women’s talent.

I would like to say a little about each side of this story: the good, and the could-do-better.

Rail renaissance

To start with the good, we can say without contradiction today that Britain is experiencing a rail renaissance.

In the 20 years since privatisation, customer numbers have more than doubled and rail freight has grown by 75%.

Figures like these would be impressive in any industry.

But for rail, they are a triumph.

They are a triumph over the decades in which our railways were written off as the transport mode best left in the nineteenth century.

And they are a triumph over the view that our railways had been rendered obsolete by the private car and the short haul flight.

Now, with 20 years of growth behind us, we are making unprecedented investment in our networks as we create a world-class, state-of-the-art railway fit for the 21st century.

Wherever you look, there’s growth and activity.

The new Hitachi train plant has opened in the north-east.

We’re getting on with electrifying the Transpennine, Great Western and Midland Mainlines.

We have reopened Birmingham New Street and Manchester Victoria to a rapturous reception

And looking ahead, we will open Crossrail and start HS2, before beginning a new round of investment projects that will take us up to 2025 and beyond.

So these are great years for our railways and for everyone who is working to ensure their success.

Room for improvement

But it would be wrong for me to pretend to that I am wholly satisfied with the status quo.

Because amid the successes the rail sector is facing two connected challenges.

Skills challenge

The first challenge is our need for more skilled rail workers of all kinds.

More engineers, surveyors, construction workers, signallers and drivers.

In all, we estimate that we need 10,000 new engineers to see through the improvements to the existing network.

And we expect HS2 alone to create 25,000 jobs during construction and 3000 jobs when in operation.

Yet as things stand today, parts of the rail industry are set to lose half their staff to retirement within the next 15 years.

That’s unsustainable.

So we are addressing this skills challenge through the establishment of new training institutions, our commitment to creating 3 million new apprentices, and by the appointment of Terry Morgan – Crossrail’s Chairman – to develop a transport skills strategy.

But these are only part of the solution.

We can’t hope to have the high performing rail industry that the country needs without first addressing the second great challenge facing the industry today: its dismal performance on gender equality.

Insufficient progress on women in rail

It’s not news to anyone in this room that the rail sector is not hiring or promoting sufficient numbers of women.

We make up 51% of the population.

47% of the national workforce.

But only 15% of the rail workforce.

The report published by Women in Rail today reveals that out of the 87,000 people working in rail, only 13,492 are women.

Coincidentally, that is almost exactly the number of women who were working in rail in August 1914, at the dawn of the First World War.

We can’t make precise comparisons between then and now.

But it is significant that in absolute terms the number of women working in rail is no greater than it was 100 years ago.

The result is that when it comes to gender equality the rail industry risks looking like the industry that time has left behind.

And of those of us who do work in the rail sector, half work in the operational, customer-facing parts of the railway, such as catering, ticketing and station retail.

I’m glad that women in customer-facing roles are leading the way for the rest of the sector.

It means that we can look forward to a future in which, for customers, the face of the railway is as likely to be female as it is male.

But it is wrong that only 19% of women in rail are in managerial roles.

Or that women make up only 4% of rail engineers.

Or that only 0.6% of women have progressed to director or executive level.

For one thing, this lopsided distribution of women in rail does damage to equal pay.

The starting salary for station assistants, part of the group in which women are disproportionately highly represented, starts at £12,500 a year, rising to around £17,000 after qualification.

Meanwhile, Network Rail are currently advertising for engineers at salaries starting at just under £40,000 a year and rising far beyond that after promotion.

So when women are prevented from taking the jobs they could at excel at just because they are women, they’re not just having their choices restricted.

They are missing out economically.

Of course, gender imbalance is a problem not just for women in rail.

But for the rail industry itself, its customers, and everyone who depends on a thriving rail sector.

Because as Women in Rail’s report reminds us, there’s good evidence that teams and boards that include women have richer skills and broader perspectives.

As a result, they make better decisions.

So as long as the rail industry fails to properly draw from the 50% of available talent represented by women, it is likely to be less innovative, less efficient and less productive than it ought to be.

Other sectors learnt this lesson long ago.

Among FTSE 100 firms, around a quarter of board members are women and there are no all-male boards left.

Half of all solicitors and most GPs are female.

And Mark Carne has spoken of the difference the visible presence of women has made to the oil and gas industry.

Need for action in rail industry

If other industries have made such progress, there is really no excuse for rail.

There’s so much more to do.

Shift patterns

First, the industry should look at shift patterns.

We know that working in rail can mean working unsociable hours.

Trains run early-till-late and maintenance happens at night or on weekends.

But for many women, particularly after having children, a rigid, inconsiderately-planned shift pattern just doesn’t work.

It’s surely one reason that 22,000 qualified women have not returned to the engineering sector after a career- or maternity-break.

It might take innovation, and a willingness to listen, but a few changes can make a big difference.

Image of the industry

Second, we need the industry to change how it presents itself.

If, as the report says, our daughters are put off careers in rail by stereotypical images of burly men covered in coal dust, we need to use new, more accurate images.

We need to explain the social value of the railway.

How rail professionals improve the lives of millions of people.

And how a rail engineer today is just as likely to go to work wielding a laptop as wielding a spanner.

Value of engineering qualifications

Finally, we need to teach girls the value of transport and engineering qualifications; how those skills are appreciated by employers across the economy.

And how our rail renaissance can provide them with fantastic lifelong careers.

Conclusion

That’s why I am so pleased to support Women in Rail - for showing the rail industry what it misses when it misses out on women, and for inspiring women by showing them what a career in rail can offer.

I am also grateful to every woman who has chosen a career in rail.

You are building a better railway and a better industry.

Women have proven before that they can keep our railways running and improving.

100 years ago, we kept the railway running during the greatest challenge it had yet faced.

We might have started the war with 13,000 women working in rail, but by its end there were 70,000.

It shouldn’t take another World War to see change like that again.

Thank you.

Published 18 November 2015