Attracting More Women to Rail

Written by Nicole Theophilus
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March is Women’s History Month in the United States. It’s a time when we recognize the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. As we have been celebrating these past few weeks, I’ve also been reflecting on the incredible groundswell of support for gender equality we’ve seen this past year. We’ve watched women find their voices and have seen the world begin to listen more actively and with purpose.

I have been inspired by the push for gender equality. People are no longer just asking questions, they are looking for ways to understand inequality, seek inspiration, speak out, and act. In the workplace, women are making their presence felt, including in the rail industry. We have seen women like Katie Farmer, who was named President and CEO of BNSF last year, break through the glass ceiling. 

This progress fills me with hope, but also with determination to continue forward, because there is so much more that needs to be done. According to a recent research report by McKinsey, since 2015 there has only been modest signs of improvement in the representation of women in the corporate pipeline. When looking at the rail industry, the Federal Railroad Administration’s 2020 Workforce Development Survey shows that diversity remains a persistent problem. A vast majority of respondents “Strongly Agreed” or “Agreed” that despite efforts to diversify the workforce there are still areas that need to improve. It is clear the industry’s workforce doesn’t reflect the country’s overall demographic. That needs to change.

Fortunately, the rail industry recognizes the problem and that is where real change must begin. An industry’s ability to innovate and evolve depends on its people. For the rail industry to continue to grow and prosper, it requires a workforce with unique and diverse talents, experiences and viewpoints. That diversity inspires the creative thinking and collaboration needed to drive innovation.

Changing the rail industry’s workforce makeup will require everyone’s support and collaboration. Appropriately, this year’s International Women’s Day theme was #ChooseToChallenge, with a call to action for accelerating gender parity. I “Choose to Challenge” inequality and celebrate the strong, courageous women who are pushing us toward a more equal future. 

At Wabtec, where I serve as Chief Human Resources Officer, increasing representation of women remains a high priority for our company and we must continue to build a culture where our female employees – and everyone else – feels welcomed and included. This commitment requires support from senior executives to be successful and ours have taken a hands-on approach to driving gender parity and diversity. 

The Wabtec Diversity and Inclusion Council is a key part of that initiative. Led by four members of the executive leadership team, the council oversees the policies and initiatives needed to promote a diverse culture and workforce. Actions speak louder than words and it is inspiring to our employees and myself to see leaders so involved and passionate. 

To strengthen these efforts, we have Employee Resource Groups like the Wabtec Women’s Forum, dedicated to providing networking opportunities, training and establishing an elevated voice to our female workforce. It is a platform for our employees to take an active role in fostering diversity. In fact, the Wabtec Women’s Forum devoted several days this month to host a variety of company-wide virtual events, spotlighting all those that are stepping up to drive inclusion and parity. 

Wabtec is not alone in this diversity effort. Many in rail industry have similar programs for their employees. It was evident this month as rail companies were actively celebrating women’s history. As we honor Women’s History Month, however, it is important to remember that gender equality is not an initiative to highlight once a year. To be successful, we must maintain our diversity efforts on an ongoing basis and keep it at the forefront of the rail industry’s priorities. Such vigilance will attract more women to a male-dominated industry and promote their career growth as rail professionals.

I’m a firm believer that lasting change starts from within and am committed to bring diversity and inclusion efforts to the forefront, by challenging norms and ensuring every voice is heard and respected. If we all seek and celebrate women’s achievements and do our part to create an inclusive world, we will make a sustainable difference. 

Nicole Theophilus is Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer for Wabtec Corp. She joined the company in August 2020. Theophilus has more than 20 years of senior leadership experience comprising roles in human resources and legal departments.

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