Women in innovation and engingeering - Meet some of the current and future faces of the railways
In this month’s edition, we have used International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) 2021, which took place on Wednesday 23 June, as the inspiration to speak to women working in engineering and innovation. We wanted to share their stories, and their takes on the state and future of the rail industry.
Improving the gender diversity of the rail industry and ensuring new ideas and voices are heard, is inextricably linked to improving its performance. I think it also goes without saying, for a sector to respond and adapt to the needs of everyone in the country, it has to be truly representative of people from all backgrounds, and across the country.
For that reason, we have profiled four women who are at varying stages of their careers; an R&D leader and an Assistant Chief Engineer, to a recent graduate and current Masters student. They were all clear that the railways will perform better, be more innovative and be accessible to more, if its workforce better reflects the people it serves.
So, we hope you’ll allow us to use this Innovation of the Month to focus not on products or processes in innovation, but the people who make it happen. Hope you enjoy it.
Veena Kumari is currently a Group Network and Security Engineer for telecommunications company, Telent.
A computer hardware and software engineering graduate, Veena began her career in rail following a graduate scheme at Telent. She spent two years and a half years working as a network engineer including on the Crossrail, North-Western Electrification and SCADA projects.
On why she chose engineering, she explained that it is problem solving that motivates her. And on telecommunications specifically, it is a critical part of the network but largely behind the scenes. As Veena explained, “A lot of people think it’s mainly just civil people on the tracks. People aren’t aware about the interconnectivity that goes across a network for communication. Everything across the industry connects into a network which is how all the infrastructure feeds into it.”
Veena was also positive about her colleagues in the industry who have been nothing but supportive and encouraging.
And although not currently working on rail projects directly, she says she is still very much involved in the sector, currently supporting Women in Rail and as West Midlands Chair of Young Rail Professionals.
Singing the praises of the two organisations, she said it is worth joining “particularly because of the opportunities and support that they offer, especially from a woman’s point of view. From both Women in Rail and the YRP, I can relate to other young engineers across the industry.”
Veena added: “The opportunities are great and anyone is able to join and be a part of this.”
There is often a pattern with those who work in rail. While many enter in the sector by chance or unintentionally, they often stay in rail for years. Helen Kellaway is no exception.
Now Assistant Chief Engineer at Siemens Mobility, she explained that working in rail wasn’t always the plan, starting her career in administration over 20 years ago supporting the engineering teams, she quickly discovered an interest in engineering and rail. She says she is “fortunate” that many people within Siemens have given her the opportunities to develop herself within engineering. She says the company has helped provide training to enable such a dramatic career change.
In her current role, Helen is now focused on working alongside the Chief Engineer, ensuring that all the engineering activities the company carries out are safe, emphasising Siemens’ “Zero Harm” approach – her primary aim is to ensure legal requirements around engineering safety are met and that engineering staff are demonstrably competent.
Despite some of the perceptions around the industry, Helen says she has never had a problem with its historical male dominance. She says that through rail, she has “worked on some fantastic projects, with some fantastic people and travelled around the UK and the world”.
Be interested, be passionate and ask questions.
Helen Kellaway, Siemens
Making a strong case for the sector, Helen was adamant that there are so many different areas and opportunities for a career in the industry. She encouraged: “Be interested, be passionate and ask questions.”
And on where Helen sees the industry going, she said we need to focus more on the passenger. She admits this may seem like an obvious thing to say, but stresses that rail has not necessarily done that in the past. Key to this will be new technology and digitalisation, Helen adding that digital technologies enable the industry to plan, operate and maintain services better, and improve the journey experience for our passengers.
“We are certainly looking at how we can encourage more people to travel by train as part of our decarbonisation strategy, so there are a lot of exciting challenges to look forward to.” She concludes.
A familiar face for many in rail, Luisa Moisio is an experienced leader, well-known for her role as Director of Research and Development at RSSB and work on the Rail Technical Strategy (RTS). (We would thoroughly recommend visiting the RTS website here
if you haven’t already.)
The aim of the RTS, as the name suggests, is to set out how rail can make the most of technology. Luisa Moisio works with a range of engineering disciplines, including systems and digital, to help drive this transformation and innovation across the sector.
What does it mean in practice? “I think the railway clearly has to fix some long-standing problems, such as delivering reliable services,” explained Luisa. “It then must understand its unique selling points, now and in the future, as a mass transit mode to a destination. Rail needs to think about how to integrate more closely with other modes of travel, and how to adapt to new expectations and new needs post-Covid”.
She added: “It is crucial and it really cannot wait”.
Shifting focus to the state of the industry and the barriers for women, Luisa highlighted that “You’d still experience hidden bias – even on simple things, like the tasks that some colleagues would assume you perform as a mother, wife or daughter, for example”.
Although it has certainly improved, according to Luisa - highlighting the availability of support and coaching between women that didn’t used to exist - there is more that needs to be done. Improving diversity or removing barriers to people is crucial for driving improvements and avoiding groupthink. She told us: “Innovation very much comes from both wanting to see things differently and being able to see things differently.”
For many, having a role model or person to follow can help give the confidence to pursue their interests or a new career. Luisa’s advice to other women following her path:
Don’t be afraid to be yourself and find your voice, focus your efforts of what is important to you, and stay true to yourself.
And finally, we spoke to Olive Lau who is a Masters student at the University of Birmingham and shared her great story about being inspired to work in the railway industry.
She said the original inspiration came from her dad who worked as a construction inspector on railway projects in Hong Kong which sparked her interest in engineering. She also described being amazed by the London Underground and taking the train from London to Cambridge, during her first visit to the UK in 2018 as part of a university exchange programme. She says how the experience encouraged her to pursue a career in the industry.
After completing an internship at Loughborough University on ‘Hardware in the Loop’, she started her Masters, focusing on railway systems engineering, with the fantastic team at Birmingham.
When asked about the challenges women faced in the railways she seemed unperturbed, acknowledging that although the proportion of female engineering students is still small, “everybody has their own strengths”.
And looking ahead, according to Olive, the future looks bright. She told us “the railway is a really exciting industry. So many people stereotype that it is a male’s job, but we need to widen that perspective. There are so many different roles.”
Olive already serves on a Young Rail Professionals committee and will be joining RIA Member WSP in September as a Railway System Graduate Engineer.
All the best Olive!
If you haven’t already, it is also worth reading a piece shared by Network Rail on International Women’s Day highlighting three senior women engineers who have been working on the automated train operations (ATO) project under Shfit2Rail. You can read the article here
HS2 also shared a great piece highlighting an ‘outstanding’ female apprentice as part of International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) 2021, which you can find here
And last but by no means least, shout out to RIA’s Technical & Innovation Executive Hannah Brown for recently completing an edX railway engineering course!
As ever, your feedback is welcome. Please send any comments or questions to Alexis King at Alexis.King@riagb.org.uk
Also, don’t miss our upcoming Unlocking Innovation event starting today on Data-driven Maintenance on July 6-7th