Gov Kandola spoke to Siân on the Venari Podcast
For Siân Thomas, Director of Engineering and Asset Management at Network Rail’s southern division, going into engineering was a family affair. ‘I was the third daughter of a really proud Welsh railwayman, who is a mechanical engineer,’ she notes, wryly noting that she was his ‘last attempt’ for someone to follow in his footsteps. It’s more than paid off: Siân has enjoyed a varied and successful career across a number of different industries, and has plenty of ideas on how to increase diversity and make a difference in her field. Gov Kandola, Senior Consultant for our Transport & Logistics practice, caught up with Siân on the Venari Podcast to discuss her work, experience of engineering and transport, and making a positive impact on the field via increased emphasis on diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI).
Siân describes herself as ‘an infrastructure professional’. She has over 20 years’ experience in a variety of operational roles and business projects. Not only is Siân a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, she holds a PhD in business administration. ‘I like to list those things off because it’s quite varied and mixed for an engineer,’ Siân notes. Her diverse experience, which has taken in UK water utilities, international oil and gas, and now rail – not to mention some huge construction projects – have given Siân a range of disparate perspectives, informing her approach to her work. At Network Rail, her team looks after engineering and asset management for ‘pretty much more than a third of Britain’s rail services’.
Childhood influence on career choice
Siân’s interest in engineering is rooted in her childhood. Quite apart from having a father who was an engineer on the railroads, Siân remembers many journeys crossing the Severn both by bridge and through the tunnel. ‘I saw the impact of big, heavy engineering quite early [...] my dad inspired me because he was really passionate and opened my eyes really early to the possibility of engineering as a career’. Early aptitude for maths and geography at school, as well as her interest in the environment as a keen canoer, meant that becoming an engineer seemed like a logical choice – though, as Siân recognises, this is not a typical scenario for many people, especially women. ‘I think I was quite slow to recognise that privilege provided to me with my dad introducing me to engineering as a concept,’ Siân admits, though she is making efforts to make engineering more accessible to a broader range of candidates.
Areas to target
For Siân, the three topics to consider for engaging more female and diverse employees are:
Opportunity ‘I was open to opportunity from a really young age, but we’ve got a massive journey to go on as a society to make sure that everybody’s able to see that a career in engineering or related sort of area is something that is accessible to them.’
Attraction ‘As an industry, we’re still in that space where the sort of age-old stereotype around engineering can sometimes fall into that trap of it being dirty and outside [...] being engaged on something on-site was one of the things that attracted me to the industry, but that doesn’t fit for everybody.’
Retention ‘How on earth do you keep people through their careers? Some of that is around making people want to stay for all kinds of different reasons. Making sure we’re creating inclusive and safe workplaces; we still, as an industry, probably have a reasonable way to go in that space [...] and as the world is changing, people want to work flexibly, they want to different things, so how do you balance that in a really challenging and demanding industry?’
Siân stresses that the variety of roles is broad – and, given the environmental and sustainability crises facing society, bringing in people ‘that are driven and enthusiastic for change to play their part’ will be key. She believes that early engagement is key to opening up the possibilities of STEM for young people, and while Network Rail have started promoting events like Bring Your Child to Work Day, she recognises that colleagues’ children will already have head start on learning about careers in engineering; getting into different schools and areas is essential.
Network Rail’s efforts
Other strategies, like Everyone Matters – which sets out the company’s aims to improve DEI nationally – will be important in ensuring Network Rail meets its own objectives. Siân mentions ‘recruitment pinch points’, or the moments in the shortlisting process when the candidate listings become less diverse, as an area of interest for them, leading to the launch of a skills-based recruitment pilot. Names and professional experience were blanked out, which helped to bring in more people ‘through that initial process than they might otherwise have done’; the hiring managers were delighted with the results. Separately, Siân mentions a campaign highlighting nine roles across Network Rail in which females have been traditionally underrepresented, targeted specifically at female candidates. ‘We’re really excited that in just four weeks we got about 15,000 clicks on our recruitment page in response to those adverts [...] how on earth have we not tapped into that interest before?’ The programme is still live, and Siân is keenly observing how the initial interest translates into applications.
Siân recognises that, given her position of influence, ‘I’ve got a huge responsibility to the industry and to other females’ to help remove societal barriers around engineering careers. She views the process as being less of a ‘magic bullet’ to solve these problems, but rather ‘a relentless pursuit’ of ensuring opportunities are open to all, and then supporting people through the process.