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A woman’s place

We take a look at the story of women in the railway industry and how today we are encouraging and supporting more women to get involved in the railway as a career.

A brief look at the titles of books and articles relating to people working on the railway shows that almost all refer to ‘railwaymen’.  It is quite difficult to find much reference to the vital role that women have played over the years.

Traditionally the railway has been a highly structured organisation where roles, grades and personnel have been very defined. At the centre of this was the ‘railwayman’, surrounded by a family who were supported by the railway.  As well as a wage, the railway company might have also provided a home, education, community, training and welfare. Sons followed their fathers into railway service and daughters often married into other railway families.

Women working on the tracks in the olden days

There is evidence that women played a part in the early construction of the railways. Helena Wojtczak in her book ‘Railway Women’ shows that in the 1851 census there were 3 women listed as ‘railway labourers’, and in the 1850s Elizabeth Holman worked for the Great Western Railway as a navvy by pretending to be a man.

Typically women’s work on the railway was low paid, low status and linked to traditional housekeeping roles, being employed as cleaners, cooks, laundresses, seamstresses and as attendants in ladies’ waiting rooms.

Where women were involved in operations, this centred on level crossing gatekeeping. Women often looked after the gates if their husbands or fathers were involved in other railway work. This was a great responsibility for the safety of both railway workers and passengers but women working in this area were often not paid, the gate coming as it did with lodgings. Women were sometimes taken on as gatekeepers and occasionally as station mistresses in their own right if they were widowed or orphaned.

Only at the end of the 19th century were women employed in increasing numbers in administrative work and telecommunications.

The 20th century’s two world wars changed women’s employment opportunities on the railway.

As railwaymen went to fight or operate railways abroad, the railway companies had to re-evaluate the contribution women could make. In the First World War women were restricted in the type of work they were allowed to do and were generally employed as porters, locomotive cleaners and train guards.

Women had more than proved themselves at ‘men’s work’, so when war came again in 1939 the opportunities presented to them for work were far greater. Women were now able to work in railway operation and infrastructure maintenance, including operating signals and recording train movements, inspecting tunnels and bridges, maintaining signals, oiling points and track maintenance.

The experience of women’s railway work during the war did not secure a bright future in peacetime.

However the experience of women’s railway work during the war did not secure a bright future in peacetime. Although in theory there was no bar to women doing certain jobs, in practice women were not retained or recruited into operating, maintenance and engineering roles.

In the decades after the Second World War the struggle for equality in opportunity and pay gained increasing popularity. Through the 1960s and 1970s equal pay and sex discrimination legislation made it possible for women to be employed in any railway role on the same terms as their male counterparts and there were a number of ‘high profile’ women such as Karen Harrison who in 1978 became the first woman train driver’s assistant on British Railways. Yet even with equality in terms of the law women working on the railway were often isolated and faced opposition from colleagues.

Today it is recognised that a strong and safe workforce is a diverse workforce.

In 2018 16 per cent of Network Rail’s 38,000 workforce were women and we work hard to engage more women to enter the railway industry. ‘Everyone’, our diversity and inclusion strategy, commits us to supporting women in the workplace. We have introduced a flexible working policy, which has helped overcome a significant barrier for women in the workplace, and Inspire, our employee network for gender equality, supports women in Network Rail to fulfil their potential.

In 2017 we announced our ‘20 by 20’ target, to increase our take-up of female employees across the business to 20 per cent by 2020. Our Strategic Business Plan for Control Period 6 (2019-2024) set out our plan to increase the number of women in our business by 50 per cent by the end of the Control Period and to have gender balanced recruitment of apprentices and graduates.

This is being achieved through investing in recruitment training, creating a more inclusive workplace culture and supporting development and progression of women through the business.  We are also engaging with schools and colleges to encourage young people – girls and young women in particular – to choose science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) as worthwhile subjects at school and in higher education.  By doing this we are inspiring future generations to get involved in the railway and engineering as a career in order to develop, maintain and operate our railway for decades to come.

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