Rail can no longer be a male preserve

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Good evening everyone.

And thank you Adeline.

It’s a pleasure to be here this evening (15 May 2019) to celebrate the incredible contribution that women make to our railways.

I feel particularly privileged to address tonight’s finalists because you are all incredible role models.

Not just of course for the colleagues with whom you work every day.

But to women and girls at schools and universities across the country – who may be considering a career in rail but are unsure that it is the right choice for them.

Seeing someone like yourself, doing something you never thought possible, has the power to inspire, to open new horizons and destroy the perception that certain jobs are not for everyone.

So never underestimate the importance of providing a positive example.

As Minister for HS2 – I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting some of you on visits to the railway.

And earlier this year I had the chance to see the next generation of female railway workers in action – when I visited the National College of High Speed Rail.

So, I’d like to start off this evening by paying tribute to all that you have achieved and by saying a big thank you for everything you do.

And actually you are all continuing in a long tradition.

Because women have played a major role at every stage of the development of this country’s rail network.

In fact in the 1850s – there were at least 3 women listed as railway labourers involved in the construction of the very first lines.

Quite a testing job – as according to historic records navvies would have to clear up to 20 tonnes of earth a day. Later in the network’s development women operated crossings, ran stations, checked tickets, as well as carrying out a host of other vital jobs.

While during the 2 world wars they kept the whole railway running – providing great support to the entire UK economy.

So, women helped to build the railways, helped them to flourish and ensured their smooth operation during times of national crisis.

That’s why I find it somewhat astonishing that in 2019 – women are in the minority in virtually every aspect of rail in this country.

From model train enthusiast clubs to the construction of some of our great infrastructure projects.

In fact women account for only 12% of workers across the rail industry – including 8% of engineers and 5% of train drivers.

While women earn less than men at many rail firms.

Imbalance

Of course, a similar pattern is repeated across the wider transport sector.

But I think the railways hold such a special place in the national psyche – that reversing the gender imbalance is not merely a numbers game.

It’s also about overcoming long ingrained cultural attitudes.

Which mean that the railways have long been depicted in everything from oil paintings to children’s cartoons as the preserve of men.

While to this day women train drivers describe how they are greeted by surprise by waiting passengers as they pull into railway platforms.

And in the worst cases insulted.

So, it’s vital that we ensure that women are better represented across the industry.

So that women and girls can take advantage of the exciting array of careers rail has to offer from cyber security to project management and rail engineering.

But also for the long term health of the rail industry.

I think that as we are all probably aware, we need to make sure that our transport networks, including our railways, are ready for the great challenges and opportunities of the coming years.

Future

For the future of rail and the wider transport sector is an exciting one, there’s no shortage of great projects being rolled out.

From new roads to High Speed 2 and Crossrail.

There’s also huge amounts of money being pumped into the sector.

Transport is already a beneficiary of a large – and growing – slice of planned government and private sector investment in our infrastructure.

While a record £48 billion is to be spent on our railways over the next 5 years on enhancing stations, tracks and rolling stock.

Providing a chance to create real, tangible improvements for passengers and freight customers.

And that’s not all.

Over the next few decades the way we get around is likely to undergo a great transformation, with new, cleaner fuels, increasing levels of automation and sweeping technological changes that could alter our perception of transport forever.

So it’s clear that this is a hugely interesting time to be involved in this industry.

But if we are to fully take advantage of this wonderful array of opportunities.

We need the right workforce with the right skills.

Importance of skills

Around 50,000 more people will be needed to work in rail between now and 2033 along with hundreds of thousands more across the wider transport sector.

Addressing this issue requires real ambition, commitment and drive, from the entire sector.

So we need to nurture and embrace talent from everywhere.

For no industry can reach its full potential if it only recruits from a tiny fraction of talent on offer.

We simply cannot afford to hold onto the historic attitudes that have held back women from progressing in this brilliant industry.

Nor can we afford for rail or transport as a whole to be perceived as a male preserve.

Such retrograde views have no place in today’s world.

And when I look around this room and feel its very real vibrancy and energy I am confident that we can get there. But we also have to be honest about the fact we have a real challenge on our hands.

Government and industry work

So how do we overcome it?

Well as I said earlier I strongly believe in the importance of role models.

There’s the famous saying – ‘You can’t be it if you can’t see it’.

So as women become an increasingly common sight in the driver’s cab, or overseeing major project work rail will be become a career on the radar of school and university leavers.

So firstly, we need to encourage more women into the industry.

And in sectors like rail, where staff turnover can be low – apprenticeships are a great way of doing this.

And I’m pleased to say that there is an awful lot happening on this front.

We announced ambitious targets to increase the number of apprenticeships in rail and on the roads.

With a commitment to boost the number of women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds taking them up.

And there have already been some great successes.

In just 2 years over 5,000 apprenticeships have been created in road and rail bodies, through work undertaken by the employer led Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce, with a growing number of apprenticeships being taken up by women.

While through initiatives, such as the Year of Engineering – which I had the privilege of leading.

We’ve been able to highlight the fantastic opportunities offered by STEM careers – including those in rail to young people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

So, these are all real, tangible examples of how we are tackling rail’s gender imbalance.

But it’s pointless encouraging thousands more women to join the industry.

If we fail to support their careers once they are there.

As a government we’re working with the sector to ensure that diversity remains a priority and we’ve introduced a number of policies – that should help support women in all industries – including rail.

They include making it a legal requirement for companies, with over 250 employees, to report pay by gender on an annual basis, helping companies to identify imbalances in remuneration and address them.

And we’ve also brought in a range of measures to aid women continue in their careers after having children, including 30 hours a week of free childcare for parents of 3 and 4 year olds – dramatically cutting the cost of nursery fees for millions of working families.

While couples with a new baby can now share parental leave between them – giving families more flexibility in how they split the care of their child.

And we are consulting on increasing the length of time new mothers are protected from redundancy to 6 months after returning to work, a step that aims to limit the risk of unfair dismissal for women who come back to their jobs after maternity leave.

And I know that many of the companies in this room have their own great initiatives to encourage women to enter and stay in the workplace.

For instance, Network Rail’s Everyone Strategy has set out practical steps to boost female representation.

And HS2’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce is exploring ways to embed these concepts across all of its activities.

Call to action

So, thanks to the hard work, determination and ambition of everyone in this room we’ve come a long way.

But we should be under no illusions that we have much further to go.

And I’d ask you all to think bit harder about what more your organisation can do to bridge the gender gap and create a culture of inclusivity so that everyone can shine.

That might involve considering whether there is more that can be done to allow and promote flexible working, considering how you build on the legacy of the Year of Engineering by encouraging under-represented groups into jobs and training where shortages exist, or ensuring that as well as recruiting more women and other under-represented groups – you support their progression as well.

I’m a strong believer in the fact that we can never stop moving forward on this issue.

We have to keep working hard at improving the gender balance of rail and that of the wider transport sector. And to continue supporting rail’s existing female workforce.

Women in Rail is doing a brilliant job at this, highlighting how a diverse workforce better for people, better for business and better for the industry as a whole.

And of course events like this one also do an incredibly important role at underlining that message too.

For this is a very special occasion.

Because while this evening is about celebrating some very well deserved winners.

It’s also an opportunity to take inspiration from all of the finalists who encapsulate the very best of this fantastic industry.

I hope we can all take some of your magic home with us and share it with those around us.

So finally, it’s my pleasure to once more congratulate the award winners and nominees.

It’s great to see you get the recognition that you so richly deserve.

So well done all of you.

And I wish you all a wonderful evening and great year ahead.

Thank you.

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