The Women in Rail blueprint


Blindfolded facepainting: participants at the 2019 Big Rail Diversity Challenge.

Having identified the current situation and what needs to change, how as an industry can that change be achieved?

Since launching in 2012, Women in Rail has entered the rail industry’s consciousness. It has more than 6,500 members across all grades and roles in UK rail and has many influential supporters in business, politics and the media. Strong links have been forged with the Department for Transport, Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Government Equality Office, National Skills Academy for Rail and Rail Delivery Group, to name just a few. It is also the Diversity Champion on the Rail Sector Skills Delivery Plan.


‘The regional groups have created a powerful network of women who support women.

Not only do they bring women together, they provide opportunities for women to develop, grow and achieve their potential.’

‘Having a regional network allows you to develop a group of local contacts who you can work with to help growth and support. It enables greater collaboration between industry organisations like a Train Operating Company and infrastructure maintainer and increases the ability for events to be more tailored and relevant. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know more people in the region through my work with the South group, it’s opened up conversations I would otherwise not have had, gained different insights and I believe it’s helped me with my day job.’

With eight regional hubs, the Women in Rail regional groups give women working in the railway access to a networking and development platform in their area.

In addition, in September 2017 Women in Rail Malaysia (which operates as a collaboration for legal reasons) was set up following discussions with Natasha Zulkifli, Stakeholder Director at YTL Malaysia. Working closely with the Women in Rail head office in London, current activities include leadership talks with industry experts and illustrious transport and female leaders, as well as a mentoring programme. Discussions are ongoing between the Women in Rail head office and Women in Rail Malaysia to create Women in Rail Connect (WR Connect), a digital knowledge and resource platform for women operating in the railway anywhere in the world.


Women in Rail runs a highly successful cross-company mentoring programme endorsed by the Department for Transport and the Rail Delivery Group.

This unique programme in the industry was created to provide a personal and professional development platform for men and women in UK rail, to stimulate a better understanding of gender diversity by championing diverse thinking, cross-fertilisation of ideas and networks, and to promote diversity in rail.

Mentors are senior male and female railway professionals and mentees more junior male and female colleagues, matched based on the requirements entered on their profile. Male mentees are, to the extent possible, matched with a female mentor to promote inclusion and diversity of thoughts. Female mentees are given priority in terms of their matching preferences and matched with either a female or male mentor.


‘Being accepted as a pro-bono mentee in 2020 changed my life, opening doors to opportunities and supercharging my self-confidence. Prior to starting the mentoring programme, I was at a low ebb in my career and self-confidence. My mentor was phenomenal; she used her expertise to support me in closing my skills gap and enhancing my employability. This has given me such a confidence boost that I am now taking charge of my career, driving the changes to the way my organisation manages our response to incident management –a platform I wouldn’t have envisaged before being mentored. I am truly grateful for the opportunity given by the programme, and I have also seen how the change in me has translated positively to my daughters.’

Since its inception in 2014 the programme has gone from strength to strength, growing from 12 pairs to 270 pairs in 2018. In 2019 the programme was repowered after Women in Rail partnered with Moving Ahead, the specialist company behind the design and management of the mentoring algorithm for the hugely successful 30% Club. In the last two years, participation has almost doubled in size, increasing to 19 participating organisations and 340 mentors and mentees.

As part of the 2021 cohort, Women in Rail is encouraging participating companies to put forward more male mentees and inviting applications from female mentees within their own diversity network, in line with the EDI Charter. At the time of writing, 22 organisations had already signed up, making a cohort of over 400 participants, of which 30% are from ethnic minority background.

The repowered programme also features a charitable fund, the Pro-Bono Fund, which gives women out of work (either because of a career break or redundancy) free mentoring support from a more senior industry professional to enable them to restart or further their career in rail. In 2020, 12 mentees benefited from the support of the pro-bono fund.


‘In the same way that being selected for the Siemens Women in Leadership Programme gave me confidence to focus on my strengths and be the best version of myself I could be, the Women in Rail Awards provides a great way to recognise and reward women in the industry. What makes such recognition and support from the network successful is the clear focus on highlighting women with potential and structuring their career development.’

‘Prior to being nominated for the Women in Rail Award, I’d never quite realised the importance of male allies in the development and progress of female colleagues within our industry. I’d always taken pride in mentoring, supporting and encouraging high potential colleagues that I’d encountered, and it felt like I was only doing what any leader, who has the privilege of position and authority, should be doing by default. Winning the award has given me an added impetus to encourage more male colleagues to become involved and to recognise the influence we can have in driving greater diversity in rail.’ 

Participants in the programme report overwhelmingly positive experiences: in 2020, 95% of mentors and mentees said the programme has provided them with a fresh and different perspective as well as given them energy and inspiration; 80% said they felt the programme was making them a better manager/ leader/colleague; 80% confirmed that the programme was assisting them with career development planning; and 82% felt they were developing transferrable skills and behaviours and expanding their network.

Following the repowering in 2019 with Moving Ahead, the Women in Rail mentoring programme is now sustainable, expandable and scalable, and the next step will be to introduce an executive/ senior leaders’ cohort and international collaborations.


Each year Women in Rail hosts two flagship events: the Big Rail Diversity Challenge and the Women in Rail Awards.

Created by Women in Rail and Nimble Media, the Big Rail Diversity Challenge involves gender balanced and diverse teams competing head-to-head in mental and physical challenges, thus showcasing the benefit of diversity in teams. BRDC demonstrates that gender-balanced teams work better together and raises awareness of the business benefits attained when engaging an equal ratio of men and women.

The 2019 event, held on 27 June at Newark Showground, was the biggest so far, with a record 620 delegates attending. The 2020 event was not able to be held in person due to the pandemic, but an adapted online version took place instead via Microsoft Teams, with over 100 participants going head-to-head in various mental challenges.

The prestigious Women in Rail Awards celebrates people, teams and companies who push the boundaries to develop the gender balance, equality, diversity and inclusion agenda in UK rail. It has become one of the most important events in the rail industry calendar and is attended by a cross-section of the UK rail sector.

After a debut event in 2018, the 2019 ceremony saw 70% growth in participation, highlighting the popularity of the awards. Due to the pandemic, the 2020 event could not take place in person, but the awards continued with the release of a digital supplement announcing the winners. The 2021 event returns to its traditional format at the Roundhouse in Camden on 30 September 2021.

Local support: Women in Rail’s Regional teams are spread across Great Britain.


‘The UK rail industry is a beacon of light, but with the increasing gender imbalance SWiFT is working towards developing a strong and diverse pipeline of future leaders. SWiFT is not about excluding men or even changing women, it’s about leveraging what women bring to the table; it’s about creating more diversity of thought and increasing the capabilities of our sector now and in the future. We work on the premise that seeing is believing! Role models are key in gender diversity so it makes sense to increase gender diversity in senior positions, so that we can encourage younger talent to follow suit.’


Senior Women in (or Formerly in) UK Rail and Transport (SWiFT) was set up in 2019 to provide space and support for Women in Rail’s executive members and male allies through a peer-to-peer network (the Teal Network) and to offer support and foster the development of high potential women in the industry and help them progress to more senior roles (the Blue Network). By creating two levels of memberships, SWiFT aims to bridge the gaps identified in the Women in Rail survey of 2015, by supporting the retention of executive women in UK rail, by fostering the next generation of female leaders in UK rail, and by welcoming male allies, sending a clear message of collaboration between genders and of a commitment from both senior male and female executive in UK rail to improve diversity in senior leadership roles.

This February, SWiFT launched a survey of senior leaders in UK rail to gather their views on – amongst other topics – what they perceive as the barriers to improving gender balance at senior levels in the railway and how to support the progression of women to leadership roles in the sector. The outcome of the survey will feature in a SWiFT report to be published in the autumn.


A further initiative is ‘Never Mind the Gap’, created by Women in Rail East Midlands chair Sarah Reid as a pilot scheme.

The scheme aims to address the challenge of getting females to apply for roles in rail, building on the growing focus on schools and colleges and attracting women onto apprentice and graduate schemes. ‘Never Mind the Gap’ is designed to offer women currently not in employment – whether through a career break, care leave, redundancy or other issues – free training and two-week work placements with a UK rail company, giving them the opportunity to experience work in the rail industry. In 2021/22, this will be expanded nationally thorough the remaining WR Regional Groups.


‘Whilst on resettlement from the Army after 25 years, I saw a poster for Never Mind the Gap. I attended the open day and from there I got selected for a placement with Network Rail. The first few days were all about interview techniques, confidence building and a brief insight to CV writing, which was really useful to me as I haven’t had to write a CV before. Then from there I had two weeks with the company getting to work alongside all the different departments – each department I visited was very helpful and friendly and answered any questions I had. I really enjoyed the signalling part and going out for the day with a MOM (Mobile Operations Manager). Nearly a year on and I am now on an Initial Signaller Training Programme. Without the opportunity from Women in Rail, I would have never known about such a wide range of jobs Network Rail has to offer. It was a great experience and I would recommend this to anyone in the future.’ 


Women in Rail’s view is simple: EDI is not just about fairness. It is about strategic planning and making the most of the opportunity to make businesses and the rail industry stronger and more efficient for the future. True change means thinking about customers, suppliers, communities and staff.

Shortly after the launch of the EDI Charter in November 2020, a working group was created to drive forward the EDI agenda. Supported by Women in Rail and RIA, its remit includes educating the industry on what individuals and organisations can do to attract and retain a diverse workforce. It shares insight into what the railway can start doing, change and continue doing to attract and retain people from underrepresented groups. It also identifies and shares best practice from other companies and industries to support businesses in how to develop successful EDI strategies in the future.

Women in Rail’s success is in no small part due to the commitment and hard work of the people who lead and support the organisation. The charity is run by around 100 unpaid volunteers, all committed to pushing forward the Women in Rail agenda alongside their day job. The testimonies from those who have become involved with and support Women in Rail demonstrate the difference the organisation’s work has made to individuals and the value it has added to the industry.

Over the last nine years, Women in Rail has shifted the dial in its efforts to create a better future for the railway. A huge success story already, as the railway prepares for major structural change, Women in Rail will play its role in creating a Great British Railway which genuinely represents the country it serves.


‘Women in Rail has been both a safe place to share the experience of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, and also a source of energy and inspiration for me. I come away from every event or WR exchange with a renewed sense of collegiality with my fellow WR members and passion for our mission to support the ongoing diversity of the rail industry.’

‘Diversity and inclusion and addressing the gender imbalance in rail is now a serious agenda item across many companies in the rail sector thanks to the great work of Women in Rail. Providing a network for women to feel supported and grow in confidence is something quite special and I have personally benefited from real friendship and practical help at a time when I needed it most when I was made redundant last year. I will never forget the kindness shown to me. Thank you, Women in Rail.’ 

‘I can still pinpoint the Women in Rail selfdevelopment workshop that had a significant impact in building my confidence and self-belief. And so my journey began, amidst which I found a clear purpose. I’m passionate about empowering women, particularly those who find themselves hindered in exploring their full potential and need additional support. This is why I have been committed to raising awareness around domestic abuse since 2017. Our industry has rallied to support the Rail to Refuge scheme and more recently implementing online safe spaces to their websites. As a collective we are driving real change and making a lasting difference.’

‘They who give have all things; they who withhold have nothing’ – Indian proverb