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Network Rail, Chief Executive: Engineering Equality - creating a level playing field

Category: Employer Focus

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Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne has signed up to WISE’s 10 steps initiative, but has also gone a step further by setting even tougher targets, including more than doubling the proportion of women in his organisation in just four years. 

With only 14% of Network Rail’s workforce being women, chief executive Mark Carne is as clear as he is remorseful that the numbers must improve: “We know we have issues regarding gender that we have to address. So I start from the premise that there is an inherent bias which is preventing women getting a fair crack of the whip at appointment stage and progressing to senior levels”.

Network Rail, like many organisations with a strong focus on public service, aims to have a workforce which represents society, so Carne is disappointed that at best, women make up only 40% of staff in just a few departments. This stronger representation dominates nontechnical functions such as human resources, legal services and communications. “Where we have to improve [our numbers] is in leadership and technical disciplines,” he says.

Network Rail already has initiatives in place to support minority groups and has a diversity and inclusion strategy, known as “Everyone” to create a more open and inclusive workforce by 2019.

“I want our community to be more representative of all elements of diversity. I want people to be able to come to work and be 100% themselves – that’s sometimes difficult to do if you’re a minority,” he continues. Tackling the low proportion of women at Network Rail is “an enormous part” of this strategy and focusing on targets is the best way, he believes, of achieving change. Ultimately, Carne wants to create a steady pipeline of talented women who join the company and progress to senior levels.

Increased proportions

He is aiming to increase the proportion of women in his workforce from 14% to 30% by 2018. Driving this change is a strategy to attract more female graduates (see graduate intake box), a strategy to retain more women through having a more welcoming and open workplace culture and a strategy to support the career development of women already in the company to reach senior positions. Currently only 6% of senior positions are held by women. The target Carne has set for women in leadership positions is 20% by 2016. These targets are more urgent than those campaign organisation WISE is hopeful of achieving – for 30% of the UK science technology engineering and mathematics workforce to be women by 2020.

Carne is not interested in recruiting from outside the organisation to fill quotas at senior level, nor does he think it is possible to find suitable female candidates in the market place as there are too few to choose from. Nurturing Network Rail’s own pipeline of female talent from graduate to director, is his aim.

The reason for setting targets, he says, is to provide focus. “If you don’t set those targets, you don’t force yourself to think differently.” However, he does not expect his supply chain to follow suit until he feels Network Rail has cracked the gender issue. But he does allude to the fact that, in time, gender issues will be thought of much like safety is considered today: safety was once an issue that was a tough nut to crack, but when it was, Network Rail expected the highest standards from itself and its supply chain.

Attitudes towards diversity are slowly creeping into discussions between Network Rail and its supply chain, however, although no contractual obligations have yet been imposed. At prequalification stage, diversity policies are required. However there is little monitoring of their implementation later on. Since research suggests that companies with a higher proportion of women perform better than those with a lower proportion, Carne was confident that most of the companies Network Rail would work with in the future would naturally have a high proportion of women.

Business sense

He adds emphatically that the drive to increase the numbers of women at Network Rail is not driven by a skills shortage, but by good business sense. “It is absolutely about creating an environment which generates more ideas and where people are valued for their ideas,” says Carne.

Carne’s conviction that increasing the numbers of women in the workforce is good for business comes from past experience. Prior to joining Network Rail, Carne spent 22 years in the oil and gas industry, predominantly with Shell (his last position was executive vice president for Royal Dutch Shell in the Middle East and North Africa). He says that the last 25 years has seen the “rough and tough” environment of North Sea oil platforms transformed since the strategic decision was made to introduce women to these working environments from the 1990s. “They [women] fundamentally changed the atmosphere: having a humanising effect. As a result, health, safety and well-being improved and people started listening to each other. There was no longer a culture of ‘who shouts loudest wins’. It became all about ‘who has the best ideas?’”

The benefits to business also took hold very quickly, he recalls. “Look, men behave differently when women are in the room and women behave differently when men are in the room. Having a mix means that you have better ideas and people are valued more on their ideas than anything else.”

On another equality issue, Network Rail, has just a 1% pay gap between men and women doing the same job and is working on reducing this to zero. It also has a very positive attitude towards flexible working to help employees have a better work/ life balance.

Network Rail also has six active staff support networks, including Inspire (the women’s network), which feed into management strategies. Established between six and 18 months ago other networks include: Cultural Fusion (black, Asian and minority ethnic staff network), Archway (lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender staff network), Can Do (disabled staff network), Myriad (network for staff who are carers) and the Multi-faith forum.

Sexist behaviour

Inspire recently collected first-hand accounts of sexist behaviour within the company so that the firm could understand the challenges faced by women. Common themes included comments relating to appearance and comments about pregnant women never returning to work after maternity leave.

“There are still examples of shockingly inappropriate behaviour, but this will soon be seen as unacceptable,” warns Carne. To the question of whether Carne would describe himself a feminist and support NCE’s equality campaign, he said that he supported feminism defined as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”, but was not comfortable with labelling himself a feminist. “I believe in equal opportunities, but I object to being labelled. I believe everybody – irrespective of gender – should have the same opportunities to succeed. My aspiration for gender equality in Network Rail? I hope to be succeeded by a woman”.

Positive action

Carne is setting an ambitious target of 30% of graduates joining Network Rail to be women by 2019. The percentage currently stands at 20%. To achieve this, he has taken the step of shortlisting for interview every female graduate applying for a position with the minimum skills and experience required for that position. “It’s not something that has been popular with some women already in the company as they are worried that people might think they were only offered a job because they are female.” But the action is being taken, he explains, because of his view that there is bias within the company which has historically undervalued female graduates and stopped them joining the workforce.

The automatic shortlisting of female graduates bypasses any bias in the recruitment system, says Carne. “After being shortlisted, they have to fight for that job, and prove their worth like any other candidate”. He maintains that the process will still recruit the best person for the job, but will offer a higher proportion of women than before in the final stages of the selection process. “I think we have to take this sort of positive action to deal with the inherent bias within our organisation,” says Carne. Outwardly, Carne is also keen to shed the company’s image of “burly men in orange suits”. “This gives the public an inherent bias towards us,” he says. “We have to over-represent women in our promotional material to show that people from a range of groups can have a career with us.”

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