Interview with Lee James

Equalities Advisor at ASLEF

What do you do?

I work for ASLEF, the train drivers union. I am responsible for overseeing the union’s equality work which includes designing policy, assisting our executive committee with equality matters such as legislation.  I also oversee the work we do with the National Committees, we have one for women, one for LGBT members, one for ethnic minority members and one for retired members, I help to co-ordinate the work they undertake.

What is a typical day?

My day tends to be desk and office based: answering phone calls and emails, drafting policy documents or responses to a government consultation and attending meetings. It may not seem as action packed as some of the other vocations within rail however my day is usually packed full of numerous people, which keeps me on my toes. Once a month our Executive Committee come into head office for a week when my workload tends to increase considerably. Occasionally we work with politicians; there have been times where we have been lobbying or have produced a report and need them to action it.  In recent years I’ve started to speak more to train and freight operating companies about the equality work they are doing, particularly around recruitment and how to encourage more diversity amongst applicants. I have been doing this job now for 6 1/2 years and when I first started TOC/FOC’s  weren’t really interested in speaking to us about equality but over the years they have got more and more interested in equality and diversity so that tends to reflect in the nature of work I’m doing.

What aspects of your job do you find most challenging?

The rail industry as a whole is traditional in its views; it can also be frustrating that rail is very slow to adopt changes. I have found that people within the rail industry are fearful of change rather than against it everything has been done the same way for years and years and therefore the prospect of a different way scares people.

In terms of recruitment, the rail industry doesn’t reflect the diversity of society here in the UK and that is something I feel is challenging, particularly as rail is such a local industry, so when communities are small recruitment opportunities are limited and that makes the industry less diversified than it should be.

How did you get into the rail industry, was it by choice or accident?

I just fell into it by accident, I was at another public sector trade union, and was only working part time because I have a son. Naturally he was growing up and became less dependent on me so I decided that it was time to go back to work full time. This job came up and I applied for it on a whim, I didn’t know anything about the rail industry before I joined and now I find myself knowing more than I would probably admit to.

What makes you stay in the rail sector?

Other employment sectors, for example the public sector, are well versed on issues such as equality and diversity. So rail is far more challenging, particularly as there is a strong gender imbalance. As much as that can be frustrating it also keeps my work interesting there’s still so much to be done and so many challenges to take on. We’ve already come a long way, six years ago the proportion of female train drivers was  2.5% and now is just above 5%, but this is far from what it should be.

Ultimately, though, I think one of the big things that make me stay is that the train drivers I work with are a really nice bunch of people and really enjoyable to work with.

Do you think men and women handle leadership roles differently?

Interestingly, in terms of some of the stories that I have heard from members that work in the rail industry, women who work in senior roles tend to deal with things in a stern manner, especially when it comes to equality issues. One reason for this could be due to women being aware of not being seen to ‘side with’ other women, or possibly because to get to a senior position in rail they have had to fight quite hard in a masculine industry.

What would you say is the biggest achievement of your career to date?

I think in the role I am currently in it was being involved in a report we published called ‘On Track with Diversity’ which was an independent report we commissioned that looked at the recruitment of females and ethnic minority drivers, and why these groups are underrepresented within the driving grade. The report then also provided suggestions on ways that this could be changed and rectified. I oversaw the project from start to finish which I am really proud of. The report was a big step for ASLEF because we had never committed that much money towards something for equality before. It was a great opportunity to open up dialogue with train and freight operating companies about their recruitment practices. I think the biggest thing it achieved was changing the charter Aslef aspires to. Previously the union didn’t openly endorse part-time working, but on the publication of the report the charter was changed to declare its support for part-time working. That was a really big policy shift.

What would you say to a young graduate considering a career in train driving?

I would say YES! definitely consider it, it is a field with long term career options, because once people become train drivers they don’t tend to leave, and there’s scope for going into different grades and movement into management from being a driver. I know so many train drivers and they all love their job and they have all been doing it for donkey’s years, they’re all passionate about their work and about rail in this country. It’s a growth industry too, partly due to level of people using rail in this country to travel, but also big projects like Crossrail, HS1 and HS2 mean there are plenty of employment opportunities.

What do you think could be improved within the rail industry?

I think the rail industry needs to work on the fact that it still has a very traditional image. Culturally it’s seen as  ‘boys play with train sets and girls play with dolls’, a viewpoint that is doing nothing but limit young children’s opportunities later in life .  I think it’s great that we have Women in Rail and they are starting to break down those barriers, but to a certain degree I think that train operating companies need to do more work on encouraging young women into the industry.  We need to show people it’s not a dirty job for the boys, people don’t realise the scope of opportunities that lie within rail for them.  The rail industry is for everyone.

 

Interviewed March 2016