Women in Rail: A Q and A with Debbie Bewley
How long have you been in the rail industry? What inspired you to join the rail sector?
I have worked in the rail industry for nearly 20 years – time flies when you are having fun! Corny but very true.
When I first graduated I didn’t know exactly what industry I wanted to work in. To be honest I didn’t even consider the rail sector as I knew very little about it. I was passionate about using my degree to make a difference in reducing environmental impacts. I got the opportunity to join the Laing Construction Group to complete environmental surveys for property development and was excited to be working in the construction industry. After being with the company for 3 years some of my colleagues who were working on a project associated with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link asked me to support them to manage construction noise issues. This was my introduction to rail and I have been in the industry ever since. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else!
What does your role consist of and what is a typical day?
Working with Carillion as Sustainability and Assurance Manager for a portfolio of rail infrastructure improvement projects across a wide geographical area including London and Yorkshire, my role is very varied – one week is never the same as the next. I manage a team which provides sustainability support to projects to deliver social, economic and environmental benefits in line with specific project scopes. This involves integrating sustainability into the feasibility, design, procurement and delivery stages of a project to achieve cost savings, risk reduction, and opportunities for innovation in addition to compliance with regulations, standards and planning requirements.
Two years ago I was given the opportunity to join the Senior Management Team for the Operations Director that I work for. This means I now also get involved in other aspects of project management at a strategic level which has been really valuable for my professional development. This has included more involvement with Health & Safety management – the top priority on rail projects, and I have been recently working on the launch of an exciting Safety Culture Improvement Programme for Carillion.
There is generally never a typical day – it depends on project requirements. At the moment I travel to projects based in Yorkshire 2-3 days a week. I try to divide my time between being in the office attending meetings, analyzing data or producing reports, and getting out on site to view progress with construction works. I find it a challenge to get out on site as much as I would like to – It is really important to be in touch with the reality of what is happening out on site and one of my targets for this year is to spend more time with the site teams.
What is it about the industry that you love?
Firstly, I love the wide range of people that I work with from a variety of disciplines; designers, buyers, health & safety managers, engineers, quantity surveyors, commercial managers, construction managers, project managers and operations directors. I work with a fantastic group of people and I am always learning from their knowledge and experience of the rail industry.
Secondly, I love the diverse nature of rail projects and the challenges of dealing with a wide range of issues. I can be working in both rural and urban locations which means that at any one time I could be dealing with a broad range of environmental issues; from reducing noise impacts to local residents, making effective use of resources and minimising waste through to protecting wildlife and working with local communities to create social opportunities.
What would you say is the achievement you are most proud of?
The achievement I am most proud of is being part of the Carillion Thameslink Team that developed and delivered several innovative award winning health, safety and sustainability initiatives, which are now being rolled out across the Carillion rail business. It is really rewarding to see the legacy that our team has put in place for the rail sector as the positive outcomes we delivered are now being cascaded into the new projects we are working on.
These include Lifeguards Don’t Walk By; a safety engagement campaign that has demonstrably changed the way rail workers think and behave to embed a genuine safety first culture. The Lifeguards Don’t Walk By Campaign was recognised externally when the Carillion Thameslink team won the Safety Excellence category at the 2014 Rail Business Awards.
We also delivered a practical campaign to embed a culture of ‘Health Like Safety’ across the Carillion Thameslink projects, encouraging people to consider long and short term health issues in just the same way as they consider the risk of accidents. This included focusing on issues such fatigue and exposure to ballast dust in addition to encouraging people to participate in fund raising activity events. The success of our Health and Wellbeing Programme was recognised when the Thameslink team were awarded the Carillion CEO Star Award for Health in 2015. The programme was selected from initiatives across the whole of the Carillion international business.
In addition I believe that by embedding a culture for delivering positive outcomes our team have helped to raise the bar on sustainability and enhanced the reputation of the railway in the local communities we worked in. This was recognised recently when the Carillion Rail Thameslink team won the Sustainable Excellence category at the Network Rail Partnership Awards in 2015.
In your career, what is the biggest challenge you had to overcome?
As I have progressed in my career I think the biggest challenge I have had to overcome has been lack of confidence. This has led to a tendency to over analyse situations often creating unnecessary stress! With very few women in senior roles in rail – I often found myself to be the only women in meetings which at first I found daunting. However, I realised that my male colleagues didn’t have all the answers either. By being curious and asking questions I found that I was naturally part of the discussions. I also sought to increase my confidence by getting constructive feedback from respected colleagues who were genuine in highlighting my achievements and areas for improvement.
Has anyone inspired you during your career (and, if so who and why?)
I have met many inspirational individuals in my career. Recently four people specifically stand out. The first person is the Carillion Operations Director I currently work for. I have worked with Simon Fowler for nearly 7 years and have been inspired by his genuine leadership and commitment to deliver excellence in everything he does. He genuinely cares about everyone that works for him and his top priority is always the health, safety and wellbeing of his team.
Two are fellow environment professionals that I have worked with for many years. Shane McEntee and Rachael Riley were both originally working with clients that I worked for as a consultant but are both now working with Carillion and it is fantastic working with them to continue to raise the bar on sustainability in the rail industry. They are both genuinely passionate about the sustainability agenda and have a real talent for engaging others. Rachael is particularly active in promoting opportunities for women in rail and introduced me to the Carillion Project SNOWE (Support Network for Operational Women Engineers) which was launched in Carillion in 2014. Project SNOWE is a network where women from across the business are able to draw upon the experience, support and encouragement of their colleagues when working in operational roles.
The forth person is Lindsay Deering our communications expert! She has a wonderful way of engaging with people and picking up on the real issues that people want to talk about. I have learnt a lot from her approach to communications.
In your opinion, what is the recipe for success?
In my opinion the recipe for success in both working in a team and in developing your career is to be a good listener ensuring you understand and respect other people’s opinions even if you don’t agree with them. I think that developing effective communication skills is crucial in so many aspects of life. Also being prepared to be flexible and open to alternative approaches.
If applicable: Do you think women handle leadership roles differently from men?
I think that women and men do handle leadership roles differently as they can have different leadership styles, for example in terms of approaches to communication and influencing behaviours. However in my experience these styles can complement each other to form effective and robust management teams.
What do you see as the challenges to attracting more women into rail and what do you think could be done to make a difference?
I think the challenges to attracting more women into rail are really about changing perceptions – changing the perception that the rail industry is a macho man’s world. To achieve this there needs to be more focus on raising the profile of the rail industry at schools, colleges and universities using positive role models to promote the diverse range of career opportunities and the entry routes that exist in our industry.
What advice would you give to young women / other women working in rail?
My advice would be to always have the confidence to go for the opportunities that come your way. It might mean stepping out of your comfort zone – but it will be worth it. When I have done this it has helped me develop my skills and increased my confidence. Also be yourself – don’t feel you have to be ‘one of the boys’ to fit in. Your individual skills and qualities as a women bring another dimension to the team and this diversity helps consider issues is a more holistic way.
It is possible for women to do great things in the rail industry, to enjoy a satisfying and challenging career in which there are great opportunities for continuous professional development and promotion, and where you can make a real difference.