Opinion article

Women in rail: breaking occupational gender segregation in the industry

Making the rail sector more appealing and inclusive for women and other candidates from diverse backgrounds is crucial to delivering the projected $155 billion in rail infrastructure investment across Australia over the next 15 years, writes National Rail Leader at GHD John Cranley.

As an engineer, I’ve been trained to think of how systems operate. Some improve over time, while others stagnate or deteriorate.

The rail industry workforce is a system, with people leaving all the time to join other sectors or retire. The workforce needs to be regularly replenished just to keep functioning. If we want to deliver the projects that our cities and communities require, we need to attract even more people into the sector.

The Australasian Railway Association (ARA) estimates that the sector has 70,000 jobs to fill, ranging from engineering and trades to customer service and administration roles. 

Making the rail sector more appealing and inclusive for women and other candidates from diverse backgrounds is crucial to delivering the projected $155 billion in rail infrastructure investment across Australia over the next 15 years.

While debt-constrained governments have recently cut or deferred some transport projects, in the longer term there will still be huge demand for more rail infrastructure to shift people and goods safely, efficiently and more sustainably.

If the rail industry keeps recruiting the same demographics of people we have always attracted, we will stagnate.

GHD’s Women in Rail report, published in November 2023, shows that too few women and diverse candidates are entering the rail sector. This results in what can be described as occupational segregation, though in most cases this is not due to intentional exclusion or discrimination. People are simply not aware of the opportunities rail offers. 

School students, university students and established professionals alike report very little knowledge of rail. Most rail professionals say they fell into the industry by chance.

When GHD surveyed Year 9-11 students as part of the report, we found that nearly all associated rail with images of an engineer on railway tracks (93 per cent), a person driving a train (75 per cent) or engineers working within a signal box (60 per cent). 

Only 1.47 per cent of students associated an image of a scientist taking a water sample and a person wearing a VR headset with the rail industry. At an age when young people are typically making plans for tertiary courses, they are unaware of the breadth of opportunities a rail career can offer.

Even at the tertiary level, engineering students say the curriculum contains very little information about how their degree could be applied to the rail industry.

For 84 per cent of established rail professionals, working in the industry was not their first career choice. However, once people enter the industry, a large proportion of them stay. Nine out of 10 rail professionals surveyed said they would not leave the industry in the next five to 10 years.

It's therefore not surprising that this occupational segregation persists, with society-wide impacts. As CEDA pointed out in its submission to the Federal Government’s Employment White Paper, occupational gender segregation limits job mobility and productivity. In addition to the economic rationale, a more diverse and inclusive workforce would be more reflective of the society the rail industry serves and would be more capable of devising innovative solutions.

In a competitive market for talent, the rail sector needs to shift from being a hidden treasure that people stumble upon by accident to an attractive destination which is a top choice for professionals of all backgrounds.

So how do we do it?

Our research indicates more needs to be done earlier to promote rail industry skills and careers for women. With little awareness of what the rail industry involves, or the types of roles available, many young women will choose other industries.

Changing the industry’s image is crucial to attracting and retaining talent. The rail industry is helping to decarbonise economies, delivering sustainable and accessible transport solutions, connecting communities and creating liveable cities.

It’s imperative for leaders, directors, employees and the community to understand that increasing women’s representation at all levels is a good thing. This includes adopting inclusive mindsets, strengthening and formalising flexible working arrangements for both men and women, and transparently advertising positions that can be done by people with a disability. Executive leaders can also do more to sponsor emerging women leaders as part of succession planning.

Fortunately, change is already happening. In the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a significant increase in the number of women working in rail, with recruitment campaigns encouraging more women to join the industry. For example, the ARA’s Women in Rail Strategy aims to foster an inclusive and diverse industry that is recognised as an employer of choice for women. 

Many organisations are making a concerted effort to increase women’s representation and are seeing positive outcomes. One example of what’s possible is Melbourne Metro Trains, which only had 26 women train drivers in 2009 and now has more than 500.

While this report focuses on women’s representation in rail, we also recognise that gender identity may not be the only facet that is likely underrepresented in the industry.

Measures that will help the industry be more attractive to women will also help increase representation of First Nations people, people with a disability, neurodivergent people, LGBTQIA+ people and other minority groups within the rail sector.

Changing the rail industry’s image will be critical to overcoming occupational segregation. 

The rail industry has a lot to offer women who are looking for a rewarding and meaningful career. With a huge pipeline of work, there are plenty of opportunities for anyone who wants to join.

About the authors

John Cranley

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John Cranley is National Rail Leader – Australia at GHD.