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STEM with a difference

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Paul Darlington joined a STEM event with a difference as 32 young women from Manchester took a train to Liverpool

Many roles on the railway today are hidden from the public. Passengers see station staff and on-board hosts and train managers. They are aware that the trains have drivers, though they don’t often see them, and, through their train’s windows, they catch glimpses of people – too far away to take in whether they are men or women – in orange suits standing alongside the railway as they pass. They don’t see all the work that goes on in offices – some of which are railway jobs and some more-conventional company management roles – to keep the railways running.

As a result, many young people do not consider the railway when looking at their career options – they do not appreciate the wide range of roles available. Diversity is also a problem and a survey, conducted by the Rail Delivery Group, found that 81 per cent of women in Britain have never even considered the rail industry as a career path.

A number of organisations and programmes have been created to understand and overcome the tradition of gender disparity and to encourage young people to consider rail as a career. In January, Community Rail Lancashire, with the help of Network Rail, organised a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) event with a difference. Around 32 young women from four different Manchester schools joined a number of senior female rail managers on a normal service train from Manchester to Liverpool.

On the train, over ten Network Rail managers moved around the groups of young women who had prepared interview questions to ask. With just under 10 minutes allocated to each interview, the idea was to give the groups as much information about the managers’ railway roles as possible – their path into the role and their thoughts surrounding the industry as a whole, both positives and negatives.

The initiative was a great success as it did not take much time from the managers’ diaries (some were travelling to Liverpool for a business reason anyway) and the young people were able to experience the railway for themselves, rather than hear about it in a classroom. The fact that some of the young people had never ridden on a train before was one of the first (surprising) observations.

Rebecca Styles, community and sustainability manager for the North of England, said one of the young women told her they assumed all train drivers were male. Rebecca said that Manchester Piccadilly “now has about 10 per cent female train drivers”, up from the two per cent when she first started as a train conductor in 2011. She became an assessor a year later and went on to be the conductor team manager at Manchester Piccadilly. “Now I’ve gone back into what I enjoyed doing most, which is working in the community and working with stakeholders,” Rebecca added.

Rebecca Styles.

Daisy Chapman-Chamberlain – equality, diversity and inclusion lead at Community Rail Lancashire – said she had never thought of working in rail and had only applied for a role in the industry while working as a teacher. She felt that diversity is incredibly important for any industry: “We know that the more diverse a company is, the more efficient and creative it is, and it’s a happier place to work in general.

Daisy Chapman-Chamberlain with a student.

“Not only are we trying to get more women in rail because it’s the right thing to do, but, factually speaking, it should make the industry more efficient and should bring in new perspectives that we need as we move into the future.”

Karen Hornby, head of performance and customer relations, said that many of the young women she spoke to during the journey didn’t realise the variety of roles available. She explained: “There’s people who do accountancy, big HR departments, you can drive a train, you can be a conductor, you can work on a station, there’s a lot more to it and they didn’t know that.”

Karen Hornby explained the variety of roles available in the rail industry.

Karen is responsible for London Euston, Birmingham New Street, Liverpool Lime Street and Manchester Piccadilly stations on a day-to-day basis. She said she “absolutely loves” the role, but did often struggle in her early days. “I would go to a meeting and I would be the only woman – things have changed in that respect and there are a lot of female managers now.

“I didn’t have the confidence when I started work on the rail industry and, without people supporting me and encouraging me, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

Karen now wants to do the same for young people today.

Claire Beranek, senior route asset manager for signalling and telecoms, explained to the group that she joined the railway in 1990 and, 30 years on, it’s now very different.

Network Rail’s Claire Beranek manages 50 engineers.

When Claire started her career, it was strange to have a woman working out on the track doing engineering jobs. There were no female toilets, so she had to ask permission to go to the men’s toilet and check there were no men in there before entering. Today one of Claire’s teams is responsible for providing new trackside facilities for both men and women.

She now manages around 50 engineers, but says she would often be the brunt of a joke at the start of her career – because she is a woman. “The men would try to have a bit of a joke, saying predictable things like ‘shouldn’t you be doing the washing up?’

“At the time, I just joked back and didn’t get offended, but some people today would find that offensive and it wouldn’t be accepted.”

Claire added that women “only make up about 10 per cent of roles in engineering. For a lot of years, females have been underrepresented in engineering and we want to increase it. The way to do that is to educate people around the opportunities available to them – especially to young girls who might not be aware.”

Once the group arrived in Liverpool, they were welcomed by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Ann Rothery, before heading to the museum to continue researching and write up the day. The group has entered Community Rail’s writing competition, which communicates young women’s views of rail and launches on 9 March at the National Railway Museum, York.