08.03.2016 : Katharina Gerstmann

Tips for women navigating the rail industry

The key for women in any male-dominated industry comes down to both self-belief and approaching work without predisposition toward a common but misinformed viewpoint.

Although very male dominated, the rail industry is hugely dynamic, constantly evolving, employs many smart individuals, and most of us could not imagine working in any other sector. However, it can be challenging, especially for females. So based on my 18 years’ experience in the railway world, I’ve compiled my top tips for women who want to break through the symbolic glass ceiling and succeed without sacrificing family or sanity!

Embrace what sets you apart from your male co-workers
We tend to diminish our abilities or doubt our qualifications far more than men do. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the case studies that suggest that if a male can do 10% of a job description, they’ll apply, whereas if a woman can’t do at least 90%, they won’t. Imagine if all the women who do this had the support of a mentor to help give them that confidence boost they need to ‘have a go’….

It’s fair to say that all of us have worried about the need to be ‘one of the guys’ in order to fit in with our colleagues and customers, and have felt we must mirror our male colleagues. However, women are different than men. It’s not necessary for us to act this way and no one has asked us to be one of them. We speak differently, we act differently, and we are innately compassionate, great listeners and excel at problem solving. You can wear a dress, look beautiful and still be an excellent engineer. Be yourself and play to your personal strengths.

Be vocal and make sure your boss knows your aspirations
Be sure to establish open communication with your boss – and maybe even your boss’ boss – especially in terms of your career trajectory. Men are more aggressive about letting everyone know what they’ve achieved and where they want to go, whereas women tend to be more passive or equate their success to good luck, rather than their own skills. Put yourself on the radar of the people who not only need to know you have goals for yourself, but can help you achieve them.

Invest in building your own brand
Identify your personal qualities and understand how these can benefit your team and your business - and make sure these are recognised. Visibility is important – don’t be shy in highlighting your successes to ensure you receive the appropriate credit. Use all opportunities to share your thoughts about your company and the industry, be that via networking, writing articles or publishing blog posts, to bring you greater exposure and position yourself as a source of expertise. Also take advantage of any speaking opportunity that might arise: although conference agendas are dominated by men, I know from own experience that organisers are crying out for good female speakers to address this imbalance.

Talking is good: find a mentor you relate to
Your mentor should be someone who you feel can offer both the emotional and technical perspectives you need to grow your career. They need to have experienced the work and family challenges you’re facing and make you realise that you actually aren’t crazy when attending a dance recital or ducking out of the office early to go to a paediatrician appointment the week before a big deliverable is due.

The Women In Engineering Mentoring Program for example, aims to provide career support to young and mid-level women engineers, and is free of charge for mentees and mentors. In addition, most companies offer a mentoring program.

Throughout my career, I have had mentors who have taught me valuable lessons, helped me make tough decision and guided my efforts to achieve better results. Some of my mentors were my managers, and others were my peers and personal friends. Each of them has had an impact on my career to date, and their advice has stayed with me over time, providing continual guidance. I am also a mentor to some young engineers, both male and female, who range from young people starting their careers to seasoned professionals, in need of an advisor to help them reach the next level in their goals. Having mentors and being a mentor are both wonderful gratifying experiences.

Talking is positive; you should never perceive mentoring as a form of weakness. Men do it all the time, but just in a different environment.

Working long hours does not mean working effectively
Who says that the person in the office for 12 hours a day is more effective than someone who works seven hours? It’s simply not true. Rather than leaving your calendar entirely open, book time for key activities such as research, brainstorming, keeping up to date with the industry, etc. See if you can even book days to leave early to spend time with your family. By striking a balance, you will probably find that you are more efficient and effective.

Base hiring on improving your team’s strengths, not who may be next on maternity leave
When in a position to hire, women will often focus on the person and their qualifications rather than predict what their family might look like in a few years. All of us have been in a position multiple times to hire female candidates despite our male counterparts questioning whether the prospective employee may go on maternity leave in the future. This should not be a determining factor and women themselves should not stop forwarding their careers because they are planning a family. If someone is right for the job, that’s all that matters.

Learn as much as you can from as many people as you can
To succeed and lead within any business, you are expected to know the services or products and its underlying infrastructure. For many women, this is the hardest part of their job. Don’t be afraid to sit in a room with an expert (either an engineer or a sales person who knows their stuff or a veteran who has been in the industry for decades) and get answers to your questions. The deeper your knowledge of the industry and your own offering, the more success you will have in your career, and the more valuable you will become to your company.

Don’t pay attention to what everyone else is doing
Success in the railway industry doesn’t mandate that women prioritise work over family – but that impression is often what drives many women away. While women like Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, may have cut back their maternity leave, this is their personal choice and others may choose a different career and parenting approach that works for them. No one should have to put their life on hold. Find a way to make it work for YOU.

Make a plan to balance your personal and work lives
If you find that you love your career and also have a family – or plan to start one – don’t immediately assume you can’t do both. Make a plan with your partner as well as your manager to balance work and family, rather than simply reacting to demands on your time. That way, you both will know what’s happening, there won’t be any surprises and you can support each other in both career and personal aspirations. Expecting my first child early January 2016 this is close to my heart. My career is very important to me and I certainly plan on coming back, I am committed not only to the company but also my job. Speaking to my managers, they even encouraged me to keep my foot in the door while I am on maternity leave by calling in to see how projects are progressing and stopping by with the baby for a visit.

In summary, the key for women in any male-dominated industry comes down to both self-belief and approaching work without predisposition toward a common but misinformed viewpoint.atharina Gerstmann

About the Author

Katharina Gerstmann

Principal - Transport

Katharina is our market segment manager for rail with experience in high-speed rail, heavy haul and light rail systems across Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Europe. She was the first female Executive Chair of the Railway Technical Society of Australasia (RTSA) where she led academic, industrial and commercial relation-building initiatives. She is also a strong advocate for the application of modern railway technology and good management practices.

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