Tuesday 23 Jun 2015
Network Rail's Penny supports Women in Engineering Day
A Network Rail project manager for the new station entrance in Leeds has thrown her support behind the campaign to increase diversity in engineering.
National Women in Engineering Day, organised by the Women’s Engineering Society, is intended to raise the profile and achievements of females in the industry.
Only 14 per cent of Network Rail employees are female. The company’s chief executive Mark Carne has spoken passionately about the need to tackle a macho culture within the company and is fully supportive of its ‘Everyone’ strategy, so it is an issue that is backed at the highest level. Penny, who spent four years studying an Integrated Masters in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cardiff University before joining the Network Rail graduate scheme in 2011, said changing the understanding of the word ‘engineer’ was a vital first step.
“People, particularly young people, think of an ‘engineer’ and picture a man in overalls working under the bonnet of a car,” said Penny, who lives in central Leeds.
“It’s an image that creates stereotypes about what engineering is and who does it, but that image is not really what engineering is about.”
Penny has played a vital role in the construction of Leeds’ new £20m entrance over the river Aire which will allow passengers direct access to the south of the city from the station when it opens in November.
The project, which is being delivered by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Network Rail, has seen the team work on some incredible logistical and engineering challenges, including the use of a giant tower crane between two residential blocks and underwater diving teams to lay foundations.
Penny admits that she didn’t know she wanted to study engineering until after her A-levels.
“One university prospectus that came through to me had on the top, ‘Everything we see around us has been designed by engineers to make the world a better place’. I thought, ‘Yes, that’s for me’.”
Once she arrived at university there were around 120 students studying some form of engineering – but only 10 were girls.
“It didn’t put me off,” she added. “But perhaps knowing that you’re going into such a male dominated environment might have put some girls off taking engineering. That needs to change.”
After successfully completing Network Rail’s graduate scheme in 2012, Penny joined the team building a new rail flyover over the East Coast Main Line at Hitchin in Hertfordshire. She then joined the Leeds Station Southern Entrance team in August 2013.
“I love the creativity of it all,” she said. “The two sites I’ve worked on are totally different. Hitchin was a blank canvas, a greenfield site out in the country where we could build something that solved a problem on the railway. Building the new entrance at Leeds over a river and over a live railway station, which we have never had to close to passengers throughout the build, is the total opposite but an equally fascinating challenge.
“In terms of equality on the sites I’ve been on I have never encountered problems with sexism or discrimination. I was always more conscious of being the new, young person than I was of being a girl but I was determined I was going to do more than just make cups of tea.
“Diversity in all teams is essential, not just in engineering teams. If you get six middle aged white men around a table then the chances are you’re going to get six people thinking the same thing. Diversity means you get fresh, innovative ideas and different ways of working to find solutions. I enjoy bringing that to the teams I work with. The best teams are diverse teams.
“The industry is getting there. Until recently it was difficult to buy protective clothing to go onto a worksite in women’s sizes and some of the facilities at remote sites weren’t really set up for women.”
As well as her day job, Penny works with the National STEM Centre (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in York, which sees her work with youngsters between 11 and 16 to help demonstrate what it really means to work in engineering – with recent statistics produced by Network Rail revealing that 39 per cent of 12-17 year old girls think certain jobs are more suited for boys.
“Getting the message out that engineering is open to everyone is important. My advice to them is to keep their options open for as long as they can because I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was their age,” she said.
In a bid to increase the number of females in the workforce, Network Rail has a three pronged approach to drive change which includes attracting more female graduates so that 30 per cent of the intake are female by 2019, retaining more women by tackling deep rooted cultural issues and creating a strategy to support career development of women already at Network Rail.
Loraine Martins, director of diversity and inclusion at Network Rail said the organisation is working hard to change the culture.
“It’s no secret that the engineering sector in particular is male dominated and trouble attracting talented women into its sector, and organisations like ours are making a concerted effort to change that.
“Our research shows that even girls aged 12 are sensitive to stereotypes, and are ruling themselves out of particular jobs. We must put as much energy into tackling bias whilst girls are still in education, as we do into overcoming gender bias issues in the workplace.”
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We own, operate and develop Britain's railway infrastructure; that's 20,000 miles of track, 30,000 bridges, tunnels and viaducts and the thousands of signals, level crossings and stations. We run 20 of the UK's largest stations while all the others, over 2,500, are run by the country's train operating companies.
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