How flexible working could transform the rail industry

An increasing number of women in the rail sector are working flexibly, with slightly more working part time, but the vast majority work over 26 hours a week and over a third do more than 40 hours, a meeting heard this week.

Women make up only 17.8% of employees in the rail industry and the vast majority work in areas which are away from core decision-making. Just 4.4% of engineers in rail are women and just over 4.5% of train drivers are women, although there are many more roles in the industry. Adeline Ginn, founder of Women in Rail, says it is vital to attract more women to the sector and to retain them once they are there to show that rail is a modern, dynamic industry.

She was speaking at a Women in Rail workshop on flexible working this week. It heard that a poll of over 100 women in the industry found that an increasing number are working flexibly, with slightly more working part time, but that the vast majority work over 26 hours a week and over a third do more than 40 hours.

The survey also found 65% work flexibly, up on the 50% figure the year before.  However, a tiny percentage worked less than three days a week –  less than 6% work fewer than 26 hours a week.

Most people said their company had a flexible working policy, but of those who worked flexibly 65% did so through an informal agreement.  Numbers were evenly split between flexi hours, annualised hours, homeworking and part-time hours. Almost half worked flexibly for childcare reasons, but other reasons included having more family time, education, caring responsibilities, health and having more free time.

The workshop aimed to tackle flexible working, one of the three issues Ginn said was holding back women in rail. Speakers included Gillian Nissim of and Michelle Smart, HR & Safety Assurance Director at Abellio Greater Anglia, which is Dutch-owned. Three of Abellio’s eight directors are women and it has a hot desk culture.

Smart said rail had “come late to the party” on flexible working and was well behind the finance and retail sectors. It was still hard to get it on the agenda though employees needed it for a wide variety of reasons.

In Abellio she was trying to promote a why not? approach to flexible working and said work needed to be done to change people’s job descriptions so that roles could be done flexibly. “One size doesn’t fit all,” she said, adding that staff needed support to make a strong business case for flexible working.

Maggie Simpson, Executive Director at the Rail Freight Group which represents freight in the UK, said her organisation would not work without flexible working. It could not afford full-time roles for all the skills it needed so it relied on people working reduced hours, for instance, a semi-retired consultant in Scotland worked three to four days a month. She herself has two young children and her husband is a board director of a rail company.

The future of rail

Rachel Turner, a Chartered Mechanical Engineer and now Project Manager at Porterbrook, spoke of her own career progress. She had worked long hours before reducing to four days a week because she felt her work stress was making it harder for her to conceive. The month after she reduced her hours she got pregnant and came back to her job at Atkins Rail on three days a week, but her role also involved a significant amount of travel to Europe. She left when she was asked when she was coming back full time and was approached by Porterbrook to do a job share. As soon as she arrived, though, the company hit a crisis and she took on a temporary role which lasted two years and involved long hours and lots of travel in the UK. She then returned to the job share which she did until she took on her current role, which is nominally three days a week though sometimes she does four shorter days. She says the support of her manager and HR were vital.  Among the benefits for her employer, including increased motivation and commitment, she said reduced hours made her a “calmer person”. For other women in her position, she recommended prioritising what was important, compromising career goals in line with a longer term view of what was important, working hard and getting help.

Beth West, Commercial Director of HS2, said modern working was no longer about sitting in an office from 9-5. “If we want to keep good people in the industry we need to make work work with their lives,” she said. That could mean more homeworking, reducing the reliance on meetings and getting managers to trust staff more.

She emphasised that the rail industry had to change or it would be left behind. “Our competitors are Google and Facebook and they are sexier. We have to create a culture that is desirable for people,” she said. “The future of our industry depends on us getting that right.”

*Women in Rail is backing #notjustforboys, a government-led campaign that aims to encourage more women to consider careers in industries such as science, engineering and sport.  It does this through showcasing the background of women in today’s workplaces across a variety of sectors and roles. Picture credit: Separate by Rails, Creative Commons for Flickr and Raul Hudson. 

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