Executive gender gap persists at Class I railroads

Railroads aim to attract more women to male-dominated industry
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“We used to hire women in positions set aside for them, such as stenographers. Of course, they never had a chance to develop. We start the boy in at the bottom as office boy and give them a long ladder to climb. Things are changing now. If the women are started at the bottom like the boys and given the chance, they will climb, too.”
– Unnamed railroad official, cited in a January 1920 Railway Age article summarizing a U.S. Railroad Administration report on women in the workforce.


Nearly a century later, women are still trying to climb the ladder in the male-dominated railroad industry.

A stubborn gender gap persists in top management ranks at Class I railroads. And railroads slightly lag other large companies in the percentage of women who hold top executive positions. By how much depends on the survey and the definition of executive.

Some 22 percent of the senior-level executives at the seven big railroads are women, according to a Trains News Wire review of the corporate leadership pages on their respective websites. That’s slightly below the 25 percent of women who hold executive and senior-level positions at S&P 500 companies, according to Catalyst, an advocacy group that tracks workplace inclusion.

The percentage of women declines when measured by C-suite positions, those at the executive vice president level and above, whose titles generally include “chief.” Only 18 percent of C-suite positions at the Class I railroads are held by women, versus 19 percent in the LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. Women in the Workplace Study 2016, which surveyed 132 companies.

And none of the Class I railroads has a woman as its chief executive, compared to 5.8 percent of companies in the S&P 500, according to Catalyst.

Perhaps the numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise. Women make up less than 10 percent of the Class I railroad workforce, versus 44 percent in S&P 500 companies.

The two biggest obstacles to having more women in the executive suite are the lack of women in field operations and cultural bias in even the most well-intentioned male executives, says retired railroad executive Kathryn McQuade.

McQuade has a unique perspective on women and railroads: She served in C-suite positions at both Norfolk Southern and Canadian Pacific. McQuade was chief information officer and executive vice president of planning at NS from 2004 to 2007. She then became chief operating officer at CP, before serving as its chief financial officer from 2008 through 2012.

During three decades in the industry, McQuade witnessed both progress and positive trends for women who wanted to climb the corporate ladder. Yet much remains to be done. “When I retired I said, ‘I can’t believe it hasn’t changed more in that period of time.’ “

McQuade recalls her first days on the job at Norfolk & Western in the 1970s.

“The first thing I did was say that I wanted to have a job in the field,” she says. “They said, ‘Absolutely not. We don’t have women out in the field.’ ”

Today that’s changed. But there are still relatively few women working in field operations — the male-dominated jobs that typically have no set schedules, require time away from home, and often don’t appeal to women.

“It’s tough for women in the railroad industry,” McQuade says. It’s really hard for women to get operating experience. And so it ends up limiting females in their overall value to railroads.”

It’s no coincidence that the women who are top executives at the Class I railroads are in financial, legal, and marketing positions rather than operations. (The lone exception is Cindy Sanborn, who is chief operating officer at CSX Transportation.) This is not unique to railroads. In big companies women tend to fill executive support roles, the McKinsey study notes.

While at NS, McQuade was among the founders of a support network for women railroaders. WiNS, as the group is called, was started in 2004 to impart leadership skills, attract and retain women in management roles, and provide members with access to career development resources.

An almost invisible barrier that women have to overcome on their way to the executive suite is cultural bias. Most men are hard-wired to be overprotective of women and are reluctant to promote them to roles where they might fail, McQuade contends. This leads to women getting fewer opportunities to prove themselves and to get promoted to the highest levels.

“You have to make an effort to put women in positions where they can fail,” McQuade says. “And that’s why it has to become a priority of the CEO.”

McQuade credits former CSX CEO Michael Ward and former NS CEO David Goode for putting women in decision-making roles.

All of the Class Is say they value workplace diversity and are committed to increasing the number of women in the workforce as well as in management positions.

“From a business perspective, diversity improves the company’s decision making, problem solving, and strategic thinking, which translates into a competitive advantage with bottom-line results,” Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz says in the railroad’s sustainability report.

“We’re better as a company when we have women involved in our operations because of the diversity of views and experience,” Mike Wheeler, chief operating officer at Norfolk Southern, says in the railroad’s sustainability report.

“So many of our sons follow in our footsteps at the railroad,” Wheeler said at the railroad’s Lead It summit last year. “We need to find ways for our daughters to want to follow us here, too.”

Railroads are taking steps to attract women to the industry.

Canadian National recently was named one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers for 2017 for its internship program that provides women with exposure to transportation, mechanical, engineering, and intermodal careers. And this month it held a Women in Rail webcast to recruit new supervisors and entry-level managers.

UP aims to recruit women to science, technology, engineering, and math-related careers at the railroad and supports programs such as the University of Nebraska’s Women in IT Initiative. It also has a program designed to foster opportunities for women to be recruited, retained, and advanced in the company.

Canadian Pacific, which no longer has any women at the vice president level or above, “is committed to increasing diversity throughout the company,” spokeswoman Salem Woodrow says. “This includes striving to maintain and increase diversity at the Board level through to our executives, senior management and employees. Women currently represent 40 percent of CP’s directors, including the chairs of the Compensation Committee and the Governance Committee.”

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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