Encouraging more women into rail freight

By Majorie van Leijen, Editor, Railfreight.com

Only fifteen per cent of UK’s rail industry workforce is female. Furthermore, of all train drivers in the UK only six per cent is a woman. In Scotland, female train drivers represent only four per cent. This comes down to one single female driver. These statistics, based on 2015, have led various industry players in the UK to actively look at the attractiveness of the railway sector for women.

“With so many talented women in the UK this is not the way that it should be and there are things that can be done to show women the great opportunities that are available to them in rail”, said Amy Pressland, specialist HR Projects Manager at DB Cargo.

Network Rail recently found that better performing teams are those that are diverse in their make-up, especially in their gender mix. Following business consultancy giant McKinsey, the British national railway company conducted a research, concluding that teams evenly balanced between men and women perform best. A twenty per cent critical minimum threshold mix delivers notable improvements, such as more engaged and motivated teams, lower sickness rates, higher productivity and more collaboration. Stumbling upon these findings, the company decided to engage in a range of initiatives to improve the gender balance in its workforce and in doing so, it is not alone. Also DB Cargo has appointed a specialist HR Projects Manager to expand diversity in its work force and support and encourage women to work in rail. ”With so many talented women in the UK this is not the way that it should be and there are things that can be done to show women the great opportunities that are available to them in rail”, said the appointed Amy Pressland.


“There is a general perception among women that it will be more difficult to have children when working in the railway industry”, said Pressland. For a period of nine months, she has been collecting data among women in the railway industry in the UK, France and Spain. She asked them about the main hurdles they faced. Especially when holding management positions, finding suitable daycare for their children was believed to be an obstacle, she said.

Appropriate clothing and facilities for female proved to be another issue of concern. “Many of these women complained of a lack of female toilets in and around trains. In terms of clothing, ground staff for example pointed out that there was never a pair of gloves their size. In general, there was a perception that the industry is a male dominated world, where women are just not meant to be working.”

Recruitment policies

According to Scottish secretary Kevin Lindsay, the lack of female train drivers in the northern country is caused mainly by male managers repeatedly hiring men. He made the comments in response to a resolution submitted to the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) by train drivers’ union Aslef. In Herald Scotland he was quoted explaining: “It is hugely concerning that Scotland has got the worst percentage in the UK. It is a shocking figure, but it is because of the recruitment policies of the companies and we are trying to get them to address that.

Recruitment policies should be as gender-balanced as possible, agreed the Freight Transport Association (FTA), representing freight train companies in Scotland. Striving to recruit more female drivers, FTA said to work hard to raise the profile of the industry and the opportunities which it offers for women. Scotland’s rail operator the ScotRail Alliance made similar statements.

Gender-balanced language

Gender-balanced recruitment is also on the agenda of DB Cargo. “It may be hard to explain, but without being very aware, we tend to use terms describing certain factors of the job that indicate the position is meant for a male. We must be careful to use gender neutral terms in a recruitment procedure”, said Pressland.

Pointing out the benefits of the industry is equally important, she believes. “In the UK, work in the railway industry is well-paid and you get nice perks, such as train tickets for life. The industry is not really visible to women, we must make them aware of the opportunities they have.”


The idea that being, for example, a rail freight driver is a typical man’s job is a perception, she states. “It is a challenging job. A driver may face loneliness on route and has long working hours. But this is difficult for any person and if it suits you, it can be a very appealing job, for a man or a woman.” Ironically, it is the position of train driver women find most daunting, although this is especially the job where women face relatively low barriers, she concludes. “It is just that we are pushed into social roles from a very early age. We learn that women have certain jobs, and train driver is not one of them.”

Based on her findings, DB Cargo aims to develop an effective recruitment strategy, in addition to education to increase the number of women in the railway industry. “We can change perception from an early age by approaching children in schools.” Similarly, Network Rail aims to reduce gender stereotyping of children that limits their options and potential. “We live in a world where 51 per cent of people are women and our workforce should reflect that. We provide a public service and we will do a better job if the people who work for us reflect those we serve”, Mark Carne, chief executive of Network Rail said.


About the author

Majorie van Leijen is editor of RailFreight.com, an online magazine for rail freight professionals.