The rail industry is at a point of huge transformation.The Covid-19 pandemic has changed travel patterns for many passengers, and how long the railway will take to adapt and recover is uncertain. Added to that is the major restructuring of how the railway operates following the publication of the long-awaited Williams-Shapps Plan and the creation of Great British Railways.
Before the pandemic, the focus was on fostering innovation, driving revenue and gaining market share. Today, rail leaders must take quick decisions on how best to control costs, maintain cash flow and continue to secure business performance, whilst at the same time managing an unprecedented level of staff anxiety and protecting employee wellbeing. The potential for restructuring will only add to those pressures.
To navigate these challenging times, it has never been more vital for our industry’s workforce to be truly representative of the public the railway serves. This includes attracting, retaining and fostering the progression of far greater numbers of women and of people from under-represented and protected groups.
Renewing the railway’s commitment to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) is key to our sector’s recovery from the crisis. Studies predict that the most successful organisations emerging from the pandemic will be those which harness the skills, knowledge and insight from a diverse talent pool, representing people from all parts of society. Businesses with EDI stitched in at the deepest levels will be able to draw on the full spectrum of diverse talent available to them, resulting in broader perspectives on challenges and the development of richer, more complete and innovative solutions. The rail industry has worked hard in the last few years to improve gender balance and diversity in its workforce but more needs to be done. Losing diverse talent now is a risk rail simply cannot afford.
At Women in Rail, the words ‘woman’, ‘women’ and ‘female’ span the nine protected characteristics, including age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability and sexual orientation, as well as broader behavioural and background diversity, such as thinking and personality types, socio-economic background and life experience and include women who are transitioning and non-binary people. Similarly, when used, the words ‘man’, ‘men’ and ‘male’ span the nine protected characteristics and also include men who are transitioning.
Focusing on EDI is also a moral and ethical priority. Women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities have been most affected by the pandemic and there is a real risk that existing inequalities could further deepen if organisations do not renew their focus on EDI. This is even more significant for rail, where women represent just 17% of the workforce and where ethnic minorities and other protected groups are underrepresented, particularly at senior levels.
In the last few years, companies have become more open to the need to adopt a business-led approach to EDI and to take bold, concerted action to embed an inclusive culture within their organisations and, crucially, sustain these efforts over time. There is near universal acceptance that only an industry-wide co-ordinated effort will create a step change: more than 160 companies and organisations have signed the Women in Rail and Railway Industry Association EDI Charter since its launch in November 2020.
With the launch of the EDI Charter, we have an opportunity to renew and refocus our EDI efforts and create the systemic and culture changes our sector needs. Just as importantly, a more diverse and fairer railway will be more flexible, efficient and quicker to respond to challenges and to meet passenger and freight customers’ needs as they evolve through the post-pandemic recovery. Now is the time to demonstrate our industry’s commitment to EDI and to transform an unprecedented level of disruption into a truly rebalancing force for the benefit of all.