Rail Women

Published on 30th March 2012

An article by Elizabeth Louise Williams

I started the anti HS2 campaign in March 2010 and I’m a woman. My background is Project Management in Construction and the British Army so I am no stranger to being a woman in a man’s world and often am the only one! A classic example of this was being the only female speaker at the Railfuture Bletchley Conference 2011.

The Problem

The Rail Industry has a problem. Compared to other industries it is still dominated by men and has made little progress in welcoming women. In fact there is an astonishing brusque, domineering, arrogant, dismissive and sexist culture which seems to revel in bullying women. I am relentlessly pursued online by Railway enthusiasts and “Trolls” on Twitter, Facebook and any blog I contribute to by men who make derogatory, offensive, demeaning comments about anything I say. They don’t just attack me, they attack men as well but certainly treat me differently as a woman. The core issue of being bullied is that there is a victim and a perpetrator, the perpetrator not having any respect for the victim. I have consistently been told by male rail enthusiasts that women are irrelevant to the industry as they do not want to work in such a demanding job! In addition, that I do not know what am I talking about on any subject despite my extensive construction qualifications and 20 years regeneration experience.

This accusation does not, of course, refer to everyone associated to the industry but after two years of viewing Rail as an outsider I am certain it is not just a biased observation it is fact that is backed up by extensive research.

Christian Wolmar

I asked Christian Wolmar about writing a book about the subject and he kindly recommended Railway Women, Exploitation, Betrayal and Triumph in the Workplace by Helena Wojttczak. Having read this excellent book, which is completely unique, I do not believe anything has really changed since it was written in 2005. In fact if you compare the problems women face working in rail with Helena’s book they still seem to be alive today.

Network Rail

ASLEFs 2011 Women in Railway Survey found terms, conditions, facilities and equipment lacking and horrifically more than 1 in 5 women felt they had been bullied or harassed in the last year.

This is totally and utterly unacceptable and backs up the damning media coverage Network Rail has received over the last 12 months including a piece in the Telegraph on 2nd June 2011 reported “The head of human resources at Network Rail, who was condemned by an independent inquiry for a long running record of bullying and using sexist and racist language, has escaped disciplinary action and will retire on a generous, publicly-funded pension.”. A settlement prevented the allegations coming to court. A case of oh dear, poor chap?

Network Rail as a company is taking positive steps towards recruiting more women but it is the culture that needs changing.

The company's new senior management team has spoken previously of wanting to change a prevailing "militaristic" culture inside Network Rail.

A Dft spokesman said the report "highlighted some serious issues". He added: "We welcome the action Network Rail has taken to ensure there is no repeat of these failings, and we hope this report draws a line under the allegations."


I spoke with ASLEF’s equality advisor about their study and “Culture” was the biggest problem raised. ASLEF has a dedicated women’s committee with at least one female representative per district but you struggle to find them online.

Women in Railway is ASLEF’s first ever survey on this subject and looked at why women come into the industry, their backgrounds and how they feel about working in the industry as a woman. It was delivered by the Labour Research Department (LRD) and reported to the ASLEF executive committee. Cultural problems were considered the key issue and a “programme of work” is now on going albeit no formal plan yet exists. The Women’s Committee who instigated the report is now also researching further, collating information and hoping to hold a seminar on their findings later this year.

Women are leading the way yet again.

Recruiting female union members is also an issue as so few women compared to men join the industry, Also, worryingly the survey found “A majority of respondents think women are encouraged to be active within ASLEF, but there is a quite widespread feeling that the union feels like a “boys club”. However the women surveyed did believe ASLEF is doing all it can to change this. I would assume this is the case whichever rail union we are talking about – particularly if you look at officers list on websites which are invariably 99% male.

On talking about flexible working etc. I was told no formal arrangements exist and ad hoc informal agreements are all women have. It appears Rail is reluctantly embracing law rather than seeking to champion in it. This is worrying. You only have to look at evidence from a female worker on whistleblowers.com on health and safety and the Ladbroke Grove Rail Disaster to see why.

Another worrying point is “Women” appear to be lumped in with other minorities on policy by the Rail Industry when the issues are very different.

Against HS2

There have been some positives whilst campaigning against HS2. Firstly I have learnt a great deal about rail. Secondly I have learned even more about Sustainable Transport. Thirdly I have had the pleasure of meeting Christian Wolmar, being a guest of Rail Future at their Bletchley Conference and having many Railfuture friends as a result and I am looking forward to celebrating International Women’s Day in London with members of ASLEF and other women campaigners.

What is clear is my perceptions of the industry are shared with the majority of women in the Rail industry I have found so far.

You won’t like what I’m saying but it has to be said and debated loudly, openly and positively. Do something about it and join the future. This is 2012.


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