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Gender diversity at Network Rail

Loraine Martins, director of diversity and inclusion, tells Stewart Thorpe what Network Rail has done to tackle three things that have traditionally hindered women in its workforce

Stewart: What is Network Rail’s policy on flexible and home-based working?

Loraine: We’ve got a great policy on flexible working. It encourages all line managers to explore with their employees the options for flexible working. So, if somebody wants to change the time they come to work, then we are encouraging our managers to have that conversation. 

Sometimes we think things aren’t possible because we’ve got a roster or because of the demands of the work; it’s a real challenge. What we’re saying to our managers in relation to flexible working is let’s be open and see what we can do. And, if you trial it and it doesn’t work, then that’s fair. But we really want to start from a position of the ‘art of the possible’. 

S: There are a couple of high-profile job shares – Polly Payne and Ruth Hannant, directors general for rail at the Department for Transport, and Porterbrook recently appointed two women to the position of innovation and projects director – what’s Network Rail’s policy on job sharing?

L: That’s an area for us to improve. What we have done around our vacancies is to begin to talk to our hiring managers and ask whether those jobs can be done in different ways. When we advertise, we can increasingly say that flexible arrangements are part of what we do. I think what the DfT does well is that most of those jobs, if not all of their jobs, are offered on a flexible basis. We have some operational considerations to make and so we need to think a bit more creatively about how we get to that stage, but it’s somewhere I’d like us to get to.

S: Do you know when that shift in different working arrangements started to occur at Network Rail?

L: I describe our approach as evolving. When I joined in 2012, the whole environment was less amenable to flexible working and, over time, we’re beginning to see the benefits.

As we’ve begun to promote it, we’ve seen some interesting things which we didn’t anticipate. For example, in our Wales route, some older male workers were looking at retirement and took up the offer of flexible working. They decided to have a job share and reduce their hours. This is a good outcome for everyone, and we want to promote that kind of arrangement more across the business. As we mature in our approach and as more young people are coming into our business want different work arrangements, we need to be able to accommodate that range. 

S: Why is it important?

L: It helps us to attract a wider range of employees. Also, where you give greater flexibility to your employees, you get greater discretionary effort. If you feel that your employer is able to accommodate your life circumstances, you are generally going to do more for that employer and be more loyal and your productivity goes up because you’re able to manage your work in a more autonomous way that gives you greater empowerment and greater freedom to live the life that you want to lead. 

S: Another obstacle that’s come up in conversations with women and from research is the provision of PPE. How have you seen it change?

L: When I started at Network Rail, what was more commonplace was that women would wear men’s PPE and it would be ill-fitting. You’d roll it up at the ankles or at the waist and, really, you weren’t as safe. Now we’ve got suppliers that provide PPE that is designed for women. All of the PPE is now available and so it’s a real shift in being able to make sure everybody can be safe in their working environment and not feel it is something special. 

S: A final obstacle that gets mentioned is the provision of trackside toilet and changing facilities. I know it’s traditionally been an issue, either not having them or having to travel some distance to get to them. What is the current situation at Network Rail?

L: This is something we’ve been working on for the last 18 months. We made a commitment as we started a project to increase the representation of women in our organisation by 20 per cent. The project is called 20by20. One of the key things has been to improve and increase the availability of toilet facilities with a view to making them more appropriate for women.

If you’ve got those essential facilities, you make your environment better and healthier for people. We’ve been working with Selectequip and other suppliers to design some bespoke facilities that we can put up near track. Before this, people had to walk quite a distance to go to the loo or they would go to the nearest McDonalds or they may have had to use where they are. So we want to try and reduce that, as it’s not good for our employees or for our lineside neighbours.

The facilities have been trialled and are now being manufactured and ready to be rolled out. They are designed in a way that means we have the toilet provision that we need, they’ve got the signs on them, they’re hi-vis so you can see them in the dark, or at night, and it will drastically reduce the need to relieve oneself trackside, but also make you feel much better about yourself. 

From the trial we’ve conducted, we’ve seen an increase in women working on track, we’ve seen better engagement and better safety for all of our employees. The outcome and benefits are that everybody is much healthier, feels that we as an employer care for them, and that we’re taking their welfare seriously.

S: How widespread will these be rolled out?

L: Currently we have a minimum standard of loo facilities being 20 minutes away, which is probably about a mile. This new facility enables us to put something 10 minutes away and radically reduces that distance. 

S: Are there any other obstacles in the workplace that need to be overcome in order to encourage more women to join and stick around?

L: Those things that I would class as the facilities and physical environment are vital. If you make your physical environment much more pleasant and more manageable then you increase both staff engagement and the opportunity to attract a wider range of people. Following on from the physical environment is the type of culture, things like inappropriate banter. That’s the next thing for us as an organisation and as an industry, so that it becomes an easier place to be. 

S: There will be people in the supply chain reading this who haven’t placed these issues so high up their agenda. What would your message be to them?

L: This is a good business benefit for our supply chain. Increasingly, as we have an aging workforce, as we have a skills shortage and are looking to improve the skills and the range of people working in our business, it’s really important for our supply chain to think about how they attract different people into their workforce, how they work with their contractor workforce and the conditions in which they deploy them.

I would encourage them to match, if not exceed, the efforts we’re making around employee welfare, and diversity and inclusion.