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Young Rail Professionals: A call to action

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Speaking at the YRP Annual Dinner, Polly Payne, rail group director general at the Department for Transport, delves into the industry’s diversity problem

Before joining the rail group, I had the privilege of moving between different sectors – most recently higher education. This has given me a useful perspective on how rail compares with other sectors. I am continually impressed by the people who work across the industry. Their passion, their hard work, their commitment. Their ‘can do’ attitude, even if things are hard. And I am enormously grateful for the welcome I’ve received. 

But there is a significant diversity problem in the rail industry. This is not a new revelation. But I have been genuinely shocked by how far behind we are in rail. 

Let me give you a few examples. Within a couple of months of arriving in rail I went to Peter Hendy’s Bradshaw Address. He made a point of mentioning my appointment – because I am part of a job share and he wanted to call out and argue against those in the industry who were saying our job could not be done by a job share. I was very grateful to Peter for doing this – but surprised by the need for it. 

I have just been judging the Women In Rail Awards. In many ways an uplifting experience, with many stories of improved diversity, but in other ways depressing. 

One employer shortlisted for a diversity award provided as evidence, that 25 per cent of its executive team were women – as if a three to one ratio of men to women was a great achievement. But then the overall rail workforce is over 85 per cent male. 

I recently spoke at a Great Western Railway Women In Rail event where a director described how in 2011 he attended a company celebration where most colleagues brought their wives. He brought his male partner and was taken aside the next day by a fellow director to be told how uncomfortable he had made everyone feel. 

Then there was the rail awards dinner last year which hit the headlines, with its mock terror attack, sexist jokes and women in provocative leather outfits. 

And finally the lack of decent female toilets and changing facilities for Network Rail and train operator staff. We have recently discussed this with Network Rail – over £150 million has been put aside to improve frontline staff facilities in CP6 with a focus on ensuring female facilities are up to standard. This is an example of the kind of concrete action we must take. 

I fully believe the vast majority of the industry want a more diverse, inclusive workforce. 

But as St Bernard pointed out almost a thousand years ago ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. It is the actions that count. 

I call on you all to act to improve diversity and inclusion in your organisations. Let’s not accept unacceptable behaviour and barriers to inclusion as normal – just because they have been normal for the rail industry. 

I know a huge amount’s being done by YRP, promoting, inspiring and developing a new generation of diverse talent, sending rail ambassadors into schools, promoting STEM, and organising Rail Week. 

There are other green shoots and islands of excellence which show what can be done: 

I recently met the MTR Crossrail driver apprentices – an inspiring group, including recruits from the ‘working mums’ website;

I was delighted to meet Louise Cheeseman – an equally inspirational managing director at Hull Trains who leads a team made up of 50 per cent women;

Rail companies, such as Southern Railway, are working in partnership with The Prince’s Trust to deliver “Get into Railways” training, targeted at young people from difficult backgrounds;

Women in Rail is also doing fantastic work. 

But there’s so much more to do. 

One area that is close to my heart is flexible working – key to diversity and inclusion. I’ve only worked full-time for four out of the 25 years I have been in the civil service. I’ve had a five-year career break, I’ve had periods with part-time and home working and I have job-shared for the last decade. Flexible working can mean many things, it can be full or part-time – it is about flexibility around when and where you work. 

It is not just for women or carers. Around a third of UK workers work flexibly. 

As you progress through your careers, and lives, I’d urge you to think about what way of working is best for you, will allow you to fulfil your potential, and not to be afraid to ask for what you want. You will not be your best at work if you don’t work in a way that fits with the rest of your life. 

The first job I had after my career break was mornings only term-time. I wasn’t lucky enough to see such a job advertised at the right time. I worked out that was what I wanted and went to an ex-boss and asked for it. 

If you want to work flexibly you need to take the responsibility for persuading people to give you flexible jobs. 

You may well have employers with preconceived ideas about flexible working, who just see problems and risk. You need to reassure them and show them you have thought about how to make it work. Certainly, the interview panel for my current post had doubts. 

We were asking for the first ever jobshare at director general level in the civil service. We tackled this by being open about it in the interview, setting out the concerns we thought they’d have and providing evidence to show our plan would work. In the end I think they saw it as a strength. 

Two brains for the price of one. And a more resilient set-up – we support each other. 

I urge you all to think about flexible working for yourselves and to encourage flexible working when you manage people. You will be delighted by the talent you attract. 

The above was taken from a transcript of Polly Payne’s speech, which has been edited for clarity.