Challenges and Opportunities for Women in rail

Posted on 06 March 2024

The rail industry in the UK has long been male dominated field. Despite recent efforts to promote diversity and inclusion, women make up just 16% of the workforce.

From the impact of shift patterns to reshaping the industry's image, our focus is on emphasising the importance of empowering women and fostering a more inclusive environment within the rail sector.

Looking back in history, women have proven their ability to keep our railways running. A century ago, during the greatest challenge of the time, women played a crucial role in maintaining the railways. At the start of the war, 13,000 women worked in rail, but by its end, this number had soared to an impressive 70,000.

We shouldn’t need another World War to see a similar transformation today.

Understanding the Challenges
Shift Patterns

One significant challenge faced by women in the rail industry is the demanding shift patterns. Rail operations often require working unsociable hours, including early mornings, late nights, and weekends. While these schedules may be manageable for some, they pose significant barriers for others, especially women with caregiving responsibilities.

The industry must tackle the issue of shift patterns, recognising that the current arrangements may not be working to attract and retain female talent. It's clear that this factor contributes to the staggering statistic of 22,000 qualified women not returning to the rail sector after career or maternity breaks.

To address this challenge, the industry must be willing to innovate and adapt. By reevaluating and potentially redesigning shift patterns, organisations can create a more accommodating work environment for women. This might involve implementing flexible scheduling options or providing support for childcare services. Small changes in this area can significantly impact improving gender diversity within the rail industry.

Industry Image

Then, there's the perception of the rail industry as male-centric. Stereotypical ideas of men covered in coal dust don't represent the diverse roles and contributions of rail professionals. It's crucial to challenge these stereotypes and highlight the social value of the railway, emphasising how rail workers play a vital role in enhancing the lives of millions.

A striking 41% of rail workers have never had a female manager. This statistic not only underscores the lack of gender diversity in leadership positions within the industry but also reflects a missed opportunity for mentorship and representation for female employees. Without female role models in leadership positions, women may face additional barriers to advancement and opportunities for career development.


Most concerning is that almost half of women in rail claim to have experienced gender discrimination in the workplace. This discrimination comes in many forms, including unequal treatment, bias in hiring and promotion, and barriers to advancement. These experiences of discrimination not only hinder women's professional growth and opportunities but also create a culture of inequality and injustice.

Addressing issues such as the lack of female representation in leadership, harassment, and inappropriate behaviour, as well as gender discrimination, is essential to fostering a more inclusive and equitable workplace environment. By acknowledging these issues and taking proactive steps to address them, the industry can create a culture where all employees, regardless of gender, feel valued, respected, and empowered to succeed.

Promoting Diversity and Inclusion

To address these challenges, concerted efforts are needed to promote diversity and inclusion within the rail industry. This begins with reevaluating and redesigning shift patterns to accommodate the needs of women and other underrepresented groups. Flexible scheduling options, remote work opportunities, and childcare support can enable more women to pursue careers in rail without compromising their personal and professional responsibilities.

Furthermore, reshaping the industry's image is crucial in attracting and retaining female talent. By highlighting the diverse roles and career opportunities available within rail, we can inspire the next generation of women to consider careers in engineering, operations, and management. It is imperative to showcase the value of engineering qualifications and emphasise how these skills are in demand across the economy.

In promoting diversity and inclusion, the rail industry has a unique opportunity to tap into the untapped potential of a diverse workforce. By implementing these changes and fostering a culture of equality, the industry can thrive through the contributions of all its talented individuals, regardless of gender.

It is essential to recognise and celebrate the contributions of women in the rail industry, both past and present. History has shown that women have played pivotal roles in keeping the railway running.

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