Ellie BurrowsEllie Burrows is the Train Services Director for Southeastern, operating 2k trains and 640k passenger journeys per weekday and the UK’s first domestic high speed train service.

She has over 20 years’ experience working in the Rail industry and has worked in a wide variety of roles across the UL for Network Rail and more recently as Train Services Director for Southeastern.

Ellie is also the Executive sponsor of Southeastern’s network colleague group ‘W.I.R.E (Women in Rail Empowerment)’, a group that are working hard to drive the development of a better balanced organisation and she is also championing Gender Diversity issues across the industry.

Ellie is working hard to increase the awareness for women drivers and has been on Women’s hour Radio show and has had a piece published in the Independent.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

My name is Ellie and I’m a 39 year old mum of three, aged 3, 7 and 9. I’m the Train Services Director for Southeastern – which essentially means I oversee the operation of over two thousand trains, carrying around 620,000 passengers on their daily commute. I have my amazing team of around 1400 staff supporting me across the various areas I’m responsible for, which can again be very varied on a daily basis – covering anything from how we drive continuous improvement, planning services and delivery of significant projects and infrastructure works. I’ve worked in the rail industry now for over nineteen years, however I actually studied a degree in Applied Economics and Business. It just goes to show, nothing is fixed in terms of where you want to go with your career – after University or just simply as your career move.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

To be honest – I had a keen interest for working with people, love a role that challenges me and I was always commended for my natural leadership skills. Though I never sat down early on in my career I suppose I took a lot from the great mentors who I have been privileged enough to work with and talk through how I can progress my career. With regard to working in transport –  I always had an interest in rail, I remember sitting in an A Level Economics lesson and talking about the impact the introduction a new train service would have on the economy, it feels like a role that has a broad impact and societal impact and that’s important to me.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

I’d say one of the hardest obstacles I’ve had to overcome was returning to work after having my children – not just the separation element but adjusting myself to be able to work again and having confidence in my role after such a lifechanging experience. In the first few months back, establishing a rhythm and managing a balance between my work and my family was really difficult, as both require so much time and focus. The advice I would give to any other new mums, carers or perhaps  those working more than one job, is to make sure you try to surround yourself with a strong support network, people who can help you prioritise the important stuff and lend a helping hand when you need it. There’s so much strength sometimes in just asking for help.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

The day I found out I was going to be trusted with operating one of the biggest rail businesses in the UK, as a woman, was definitely up there. The railway industry itself has a very poor gender balance – out of 85,000 employees across the country, only 14,000, or 16 per cent, are female.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

When you work in a job that requires you oversee the operations a role as important as the journeys people are making on a daily basis, whether this be someone’s commute to work or a perhaps a trip they are making to go on holiday – if we get something wrong, it disrupts that persons plans entirely. Being resilient is a core skill you need to have when working under pressure – if something goes wrong its crucial to keep a cool head and not let it shake you. Resilience doesn’t just apply to my outlook in regard to coping with the stress of my job, but also in navigating me to where I am now. Being resilient to the boundaries keeping women like myself from accessing such positions within companies all over the world.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in rail/transport?

I’d start by saying, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and take a job on the front line – whether this be in operational roles like my own or more generally speaking managerial roles, the experience will be invaluable to you later on in your career. In a role that requires you to manage it team, it’s really important you listen to and engage with what your team are telling you – your team are often your greatest asset, so learn from them and let them empower you and themselves. I’d finish by echoing what I said earlier, don’t be afraid to seek mentors and support in your journey to progress. Everyone has had to work hard to get to where they are, and most senior people are willing to help others, because they were afforded some level of assistance along the way too – whether this comes from their family, their employer or any other channel of support. As women I also feel it’s important we focus on supporting each other as much as possible.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in these roles, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

 Women remain significantly under represented at senior levels in the Rail industry – in part I believe this is because Rail isn’t something Women necessarily instantly consider as a career. This goes back to a point I made recently where a colleague told me what her daughter had said, “I can never be a train driver because in books, they’re all boys.” I found this to be such a profound moment as the point she made, and at such a young age, was entirely true. Career perceptions, at an early age, are vital. If we want to close the gap in pay and career attainment between men and women, we need to begin at a young level. I also think that the pressure of operational roles can be hard for anyone and can put some people off, after all, it’s a lot of pressure sitting on your shoulders. In the end though, the sense of achievement makes it, for me, the best job in the world.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in STEM focused jobs?

I think it’s important we see more role models for women, so they know they can break through to those more senior positions of influence and decision making – really impacting change. Within the rail industry, a lot has been done around mentoring and coaching programmes for young women and I support the various networking and support groups, like Women in Rail. Their annual awards celebrating the most influential or impactful women in rail, provide an opportunity for many women to connect with ‘role models’, create relationships and engage with a network of support.

What is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the rail industry?

Southeastern already has a number of things in place to attract and draw in top female talent; they offer recruitment days, exclusively for women and have had a total rethink of their approach towards engaging women in their recruitment campaigns. I think it’s important not to overlook the importance of retaining women within the industry – as the more women are retained, the more we see them rise to higher level positions and catching the eye or more women not just internally who see a path for their own career, but women from the outside looking in. More policies around flexible working would definitely make women considering joining feel more comfortable. Should they wish to have children, their work can accommodate them spending time working different hours to suit their childcare arrangements.

What resources do you recommend for women working in rail, eg Podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?

Employee groups have been great when it comes to navigating my career in rail, meeting women in a similar place as you can be invaluable for both support and confidence. At Southeastern, we have a women’s group called WIRE and there are a number of groups operating in the industry that provide both career support and networking opportunities.