Supporting women in rail

The rail industry is still very much perceived as a male-dominated one, but women across the industry are banding together to change that. Among them are Kai-Nneka Townsend, chair of London Overground Rail Operations Ltd’s Women’s Group.

Rail Industry


The idea for the Women’s Group came after Kai-Nneka, who has risen up the ranks from working in a ticket office to her current secondment as a Stakeholder and Community Manager, attended some management courses run by LOROL’s HR team in 2013. They covered everything from coaching to interviewing skills.

One focused on women in leadership and explored the challenges of getting more women into senior roles and the need for a support network. The network was intended to be restricted to the duration of the course, but Kai-Nneka missed the course and caught up later with others who had been on it. “The feedback I got was that it was great to have women talking about these issues together, making connections and hearing each other’s stories. That sparked something in me,” she says. “I thought it was important to keep that going.”

She had read an article about Women in Rail, the cross-industry initiative set up by Adeline Ginn, which had started the same year. “I thought ‘wow’. That is what we need at LOROL on a smaller scale – a network that supports and encourages women,” says Kai-Nneka. She met with Adeline before she started the group in November 2013 and says she has been totally supportive and has helped with guest speakers. “We have followed the Women in Rail model, but tailored it to our business,” says Kai-Nneka.

Early days

Her first task was getting a group of people together to thrash out ideas to make the business case for how it fit in with LOROL’s overall business objectives. The company had been pushing its diversity agenda in recruitment and retention. In fact, that was how Kai-Nneka came into LOROL. She had seen an advert in East London saying the company was particularly interested in hearing from minority groups. “From the beginning of my time here I felt LOROL was trying to achieve greater balance and diversity. The Women’s Group seemed to fit in nicely with that,” she says. “As well as promoting gender diversity internally, it was also promoting the business as a company that wholly supported that agenda. It has been proven that having a more diverse workforce drives success. Part of that is the gender agenda and I have focused on that because there are relatively so few women in the industry.”

The Group’s official launch was in April 2014 after an earlier meeting with the board to outline their vision and to get senior leadership buy-in. Kai-Nneka says they fully backed what the Group was intending to do.

One of the main focuses is its mentorship programme. A survey identified that confidence is a big issue for women, says Kai-Nneka, so mentoring focuses on building that confidence and supporting women to go for promotions or to carry on in their current role with more confidence. This includes ensuring they have access to the information they need. “We are trying to create an environment where everyone can flourish so equal access to information is vital,” she says.

She says the first year was one of slow progress, promoting the Group around the business, building the network and launching the mentorship programme and getting women to speak at schools’ career events. At the end of that year the Group held a networking event. They now hold two a year and have extended their mentorship programme past its initial one-year term due to popular demand.

Not a girl’s club

This year several men have come on board and there are two on the Group’s committee, one of who is currently on Shared Parental Leave and both of whom are mentors. “It’s not a girls’ club. It’s about men and women partnering together to improve the male/female balance in the business,” says Kai-Nneka. “They can help shape the agenda to get that message out to men and women in the business.” The Group plans to have a focus on men’s health in November and hopes to highlight the experiences of men who have been on SPL in the future.

Other initiatives include school visits and partnerships with other groups, such as City Gateway women’s project, Inspire!, Transport for London, Crossrail and Dress for Success, on activities ranging from motivational courses to return to work workshops. Kai-Nneka says the Women’s Group has sought to partner with local community groups and charities, which is part of the business’ key objectives.

It is also working on a parental buddy scheme offering informal support and tips to people returning from parental leave and are taking part in National Rail Week, promoting rail as a top career for women. The Group wants to see more action on the way rail jobs are advertised with more women represented. Kai-Nneka says there are misconceptions about what the industry offers women and lists the ability to move jobs as some of the key benefits at LOROL. “When we go into schools a lot of the girls still perceive rail as mostly a male industry. They are surprised to see women representing the industry and to hear about the roles we cover,” she says.

Kai-Nneka is aware there is a lot still to do. When the Group started women made up 17% of LOROL’s staff. As of January this year they made up 17.9% and a woman has joined the board. She says the numbers of women in the business tend to fluctuate, but she says there is definitely more awareness of the issues, more focus on gender diversity in recruitment and questions about how many women are in the talent pool. “Because we have raised this agenda, people are now thinking about it and asking questions,” she says.

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