Female railworkers, source: Women in Rail

Women in rail: Yes, we still need International Women’s Day

Female railworkers, source: Women in Rail

The 8th of March is International Women’s Day, and during the European Year of Rail, there is no better day to emphasise the role of women in rail. This role is increasing, but there is still room for more many more women, as they currently represent 21.41 per cent of all employees active in the sector. 

The railway sector’s workforce is largely composed of men due to historical reasons. This is something that large organisations in Europe would like to change. Studies show that companies with a balanced workforce and an inclusive culture are six times more innovative and have significantly higher problem-solving competence, the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) points out.

“In the railway sector, increasing automation and digitalisation is leading to new job opportunities that are attractive for women. In the future, it is important to ensure that diversity is guaranteed, removing the obstacles that hinder competitive equal opportunities.

Women in position

It is not all that bad. When you look at the situation today, you find a lot of women in high positions, something that was much less true ten years ago. For example, the CEO of the leading railway undertaking, DB Cargo, is a female. Sigrid Nikutta was appointed head the operative division of DB Cargo by Deutsche Bahn’s supervisory board end 2019, after she held several management positions within the company.

In the Netherlands too, the freight division of Deutsche Bahn is led by a woman. Nanouke van ‘t Riet Visser was appointed the CEO of DB Cargo the Netherlands around the same time. In a recent interview, she explained that she is the working force, whereas her husband takes care of the household.

Both women are part of a company where the role of women is explicitly advocated. DB Cargo has one of the few executive boards of a large company where the proportion of women is 50%. “Yes, we still need International Women’s Day”, says Ursula Biernert, member of the board of management human resources at DB Cargo. “Until we no longer have to talk about quotas, special programmes, rules of conduct etc., until the topic of equality and diversity are a natural part of our society and our company.”

Yes, we still need International Women’s Day”

Continuous effort

Even though the number of women in rail is increasing, this needs to be accelerated, the CER also thinks. “CER members are strongly committed to the development of women’s employment in the European railway sector and have been investing to enable this.

“To achieve these goals, commitment at all levels is a prerequisite. To be successful as a business and avoid future labour shortages, talent must be hired and young women must be attracted and retained. Amongst the various measures CER members have been putting in place to achieve this, some of the most popular include for example more flexible working times and welfare systems to help with the work-life balance, measures to promote women’s employment and career development, mentoring to attract young women and encouraging STEM studies (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

Soft power, people skills

“A heterogeneous workforce reacts more flexibly and can adapt to different requirements more easily. We encourage agile teams – creative, flexible and go-ahead – to transform our industry and turning it into a dynamic environment. All the different perspectives, experiences and skills promote creativity in the driving innovations forward”, writes RailCargo Group in its blog about women in rail.

Jolanda Plomp, CEO of LTE the Netherlands acknowledges that women probably pay more attention to the person behind the employee. I do find communication with our staff very important, I call that ‘warm professionalism’.” At the same time, she realises that this skill must be combined with that of leadership traits. “I sometimes think I may look a little too much at personal needs. Then I really have to remember that I also run a business and have to be a bit tougher. I think that women might be a bit harder on content and softer on people, and this brings me in a difficult situation sometimes.”

“I sometimes think I may look a little too much at personal needs

The UK, Belgium

In the UK too, the presence of women is apparent, with not one but two leading women representing the industry in last week’s UK edition broadcast of sister magazine RailFreight. “The more we encourage people and explain what our jobs are about and how much we can make a difference, the more women we can get onboard”, said Charlene Wallace, director of freight at UK’s Network Rail. “We do have the skillset and capacity to be able to do that, in any job in the rail industry.”

And one last country to refer to is Belgium, where Sophie Dutordoir holds the position of CEO at SNCB, in addition to membership of the CER Management Committee. “At SNCB, the openness to women is reflected more and more in the figures every year. However, the question of diversity is not just about gender distribution. A company is a reflection of the society in which it evolves, with its wide range of diversities in terms of age, abilities, gender, lifestyle choices, social status, culture, etc. Diversity is natural: every talent has its place at SNCB. It’s a state of mind that must permeate the whole company.”

The question of diversity is not just about gender distribution

Joint European binding agreement

On a legislative level, the claim for more women continues. Within the framework of the Sectoral Social Dialogue set up by the European Commission, CER and the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) have been active in this field since the beginning of the 2000s with various joint recommendations to have a better representation and integration of women in the railway sector. In July 2019, the social partners agreed to start negotiations on a joint European binding agreement in accordance with Article 155 TFEU. “We look forward to pursuing our negotiations with ETF to reach a social dialogue agreement on women in rail, thanks to the help of the European Commission.

CER Executive Director Alberto Mazzola concludes: “In my previous position, I was an Ambassador of Women in Transport and as the new Executive Director of CER, I am fully committed to keeping this issue at the top of the policy agenda. My wish for the European Year of Rail is that we will be successful in increasing the presence and responsibilities of women for a more gender-balanced railway sector.”

Author: Majorie van Leijen

3 comments op “Women in rail: Yes, we still need International Women’s Day”

Stephen Hartley|10.03.21|12:56

I would be interested to understand the source quoted for “[women] currently represent 21.41 per cent of all employees active in the sector”. Is that a Europe-wide figure, and does it cover the total supply chain of the railway?

Thank you

Esther Geerts|11.03.21|15:01

Hi Stephen, it is data from the latest report on Development of women’s employment in the
European railway sector from CER, from 2018. It is the average share of women from 28 railway companies in 21 countries. Among the companies are infrastructure managers, and operators in both passenger and freight. You can find the report here: https://www.cer.be/sites/default/files/20200402_Sixth%20Women%20in%20Rail%20report_FINAL.pdf

Stephen Hartley|11.03.21|18:16

Thanks Esther, that looks like a very interesting report, although it looks like it will take a little time for me to read and absorb its content!

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