Amanda White, Head of Rail at TfGM, talks about Equality, Diversity & Inclusion in engineering
For Amanda White, Head of Rail at Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), a career in rail wasn’t necessarily the track she’d envisaged going down as a child. Yet some years on and in a senior role within her predominantly male sector, Amanda admits she’s “attached” to the railways: “I’ve invested in them and making a difference to people’s journeys every day is what gets me out of bed!”
Rullion was keen to meet with Amanda to learn more about what’s happening in rail, along with her professional accomplishments, challenges and advice for other females wanting to smash through the barriers in traditionally male dominated industries.
She may climb fewer literal ladders nowadays, but Amanda continues to make her way up the rungs of her career, with days filled with meetings with politicians, local authorities and the Lord Mayor of Manchester.
“I wouldn’t always be this involved [with the Mayor], but an early Autumn and bad weather conditions for the rail network has led to operational challenges”, she explained, “so I’m involved in bringing key industry stakeholders together to shape communications that need to go out to the public.”
Amanda told us, “You don’t naturally wake up one day and think ‘I’m going to go and work in rail’ or even transport – it just doesn’t feel exciting.” Although listening to her enthusiastically sharing insights into her variety of responsibilities at TfGM, it’s hard not to get excited about what’s on the organisation’s agenda.
TfGM’s 2040 transport strategy was published at the end of last year which lays out plans for things such as improved mobility, state-of-the-art transport systems, automated vehicles, decreased congestion and better air quality, to name just a few. Olympian Chris Boardman is involved as Cycling Commissioner and is “massively ambitious” about making cycling work in the city. There’s a lot of work to be done.
“We’re driving the direction of transport for the north” Amanda explained, “and are involved in a number of working groups both in the UK and overseas. We’d love to see an integrated system at [Manchester] Piccadilly where we have HS2, the existing railway and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) all connecting. We’d also want to bring Metrolink into that mix which would mean major redevelopments of a third of the city to accommodate and capitalise on those plans. The economic impact will be huge resulting in thousands of new jobs and homes.”
Yet despite this, according to Amanda, there still isn’t enough being done to encourage young people into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subjects), or into considering a career in a sector like transport.
She continued, “Transport planning’s a technical skill and a fascinating subject and I don’t think people understand how involved it is. You can shape an entire city’s development and the future growth of a place like Manchester. It’s creative and you can be part of making it happen.”
So with stereotypes existing, what was it about engineering that initially attracted Amanda? Despite her role now having evolved into a strategic one, it wasn’t always this way, and we were eager to learn about what brought the now Head of Rail to the sector.
“I did physics, maths and geography at ‘A’ level and loved all three subjects, but had no idea what I wanted to do.” Flicking through a prospectus looking for subjects involving maths and physics, Amanda was led to mechanical engineering and in her second year at uni, was given the opportunity to do a placement. “I looked down the list of companies, opting for the one closest to home, which just happened to be Network Rail in York. And that was it – my random introduction to the world of rail,” she smiled.
Amanda stayed in touch with Network Rail, going on to work in their electrification department, post degree. Broadening her experience so she could work on major projects, she next became a chartered engineer and studied for an MSc in Railway Systems Engineering.
Today, Amanda described how she has accountability to local politicians as well as members of the public about the outputs of the railways, but no direct levers to be able to control those things. “This is a particular challenge for me” she said, “so I need to be well educated on what’s happening day to day.”
Stakeholder management and keeping up with what’s going on in rail aren’t the only challenges Amanda faces. With workplace gender equality issues still widely reported and as not only a female in a senior role, but also a woman in both a male-dominated industry and sector, we were keen to hear about Amanda’s experiences on the subject.
She began, “As an engineer, being the only woman at work was all I’d known. I was so used to being in very technical environments and completely surrounded by men that when I moved to HS2, it actually felt strange to have more women in the room.” When thinking about the more senior role she has now, Amanda admits “It was actually more difficult when I was junior. It was harder to get respect. Now I feel like my experience has earned me more respect and I’m able to carry that into meetings and relationships. But at the beginning it could be tough.”
She described how working in maintenance depots wasn’t easy: “The men aren’t used to having a woman in the workplace and there’s a perception that they feel they have to work differently because you’re there. I sometimes felt like an alien in the room.”
Amanda cited one specific time when she turned up to a placement and the manager had several attempts at persuading her that the work will be too difficult for her, adding “why do you want to work here anyway? It’s not a nice environment, the guys swear, there’s night work and you’ll be lifting things.” But, Amanda would always stick to her guns and developed a knack for breaking the ice. “It helps to be a bit of a ‘personality chameleon’ and to mirror the environment you’re in. Be human!” she advises. “I just got stuck in and showed willing, letting the guys know I was their equal and was going to lift and move things like they did. They soon trusted me, relaxed, and we were soon laughing and joking. Unfortunately because of societal stereotypes that exist though, it was a little uncomfortable at first.”
Talking us through advice she’d give to other women in similar situations, Amanda stated, “I refused to stop being myself. Always focus on what it is you’re aiming to achieve. Remind yourself, and others, of the exciting things you can do to influence and change things in that sector.”
She also feels that stepping outside of her comfort zone has been instrumental to her progress. “A Chief Engineer once asked me to set up a power strategy. I initially asked ‘why me?’’ as I wasn’t sure I could do it, but there was no one else to do it, so I worked hard and rose to the challenge. After successfully leading and completing the project, my lesson learnt was ‘why not me?’ and I’d encourage other women to ask themselves that question throughout their careers.” Contrary to common perception, TfGM and the rail industry now provide an exciting environment to work in.
Amanda added, “We need to let people know, and particularly women, how brilliant some of these opportunities are and that working in the rail sector doesn’t just equate to fixing trains and digging up railways in orange overalls.”
Developing existing traffic signalling to automated train control is a huge and exciting challenge for the rail industry. We need technical experts, digital geniuses, project managers, planner and integrators. There are endless fascinating areas of study for the next generation.
Looking back over her career so far, Amanda said “I’m passionate about engineering and I do miss being ‘hands-on’ from time to time. However, I couldn’t do this job without having all of my engineering experience behind me and an understanding of how everything works. Being an engineer means I’m able to speak credibly about different scenarios and I’d urge women who have an interest in the subject to break through the stereotypes and to follow their dreams. When you think about the difference you can make to people’s lives, why wouldn’t you want to work in this exciting industry?”