Embrace and celebrate the differences

Swietelsky Rail Australia understands that diversity spans more than just gender: it includes age, background, abilities, race, religion, sexuality and circumstance.

By Anne Modderno

Date: 1 September 2023

I’ve come to realise that rail is in my blood. My grandfather and uncle gave their entire working lives to the industry, with Pop sharing his felt experience of comraderie in the sector, which is truly unique.

But my professional career didn’t start in rail. I was one of only two females in my civil engineering class at the University of Newcastle and we didn’t spend much time leaning about it.

When I moved into the workforce I started in the water industry, gaining engineering and project management experience before swinging in to rail over a decade ago. I can honestly say that the rail industry has hooked me, having returned this year after three years in local and state government sectors.

Reflecting on my time in the rail industry, I recall starting to hear the word ‘diversity’ over a decade ago. Like many, my first tangible experiences with it were primarily focused on gender diversity. I was the only female project manager on the team.

I am proud to have held badges of “first female” and the “youngest” in roles throughout my career to date, most recently the appointment to Managing Director at Swietelsky Rail Australia (SRA): the first female and youngest ever appointed to the role, and the first female managing director of any international subsidiary of Swietelsky.

Genuine and encompassing diversity spans more dimensions than just gender.

I acknowledge that I write this through my lens, which is that of an Anglo-Celtic Australian female person without a disability, civil engineer, project manager, leader and now managing director within the Australian rail industry. But we all need to share and talk about our own experiences with diversity in order to see change happen.

In this piece I share examples that, at face value, may be considered light. This is intentional. There are other examples with much greater depth and worse impact (not all from the rail industry), but many of the lessons from them are the same. Those lessons and struggles have led me to develop the strength for the opportunities I have created today, and the opportunities I want for others in the future.

Diversity is a fact.

It represents the numbers. And it is one element. Inclusion is the equitable action we take to embrace and build our diversity. If we succeed, then we create a sense of belonging for every member of the organisation and that organisation thrives.

Diversity and inclusion should never be about “ticking the box”. There are no “set and forget” strategies here. It demands consistent focus, ongoing active conversation, and constructive action. The positive is that diversity is easily measured. We either have it in our workplaces, our teams, our industry, or we don’t. If we already have it, taking actions to create a more inclusive culture can help us keep it. If we want to improve diversity in our industry, we need to set it up for success by taking action to identify, listen, understand and remove the barriers standing it its way.

At SRA, I am proud of our facts.

First Nations people represent 33 per cent of our executive leadership team and 11 per cent of our workforce. Females represent 33 per cent of our executive leadership team, 25 per cent of our senior leadership team and 14 per cent of our workforce (up from 5 per cent in December 2022). The SRA team comprises of five different nationalities, represent 10 different cultural backgrounds and our age distribution is evenly spread across the workforce.

But these are only the facts.

Inclusion is where the action happens.

It’s the action we take to break down barriers to diversity and create a workplace where every individual feels included in work life. Barriers can be real or perceived. Some that you consider to be obvious now, may not have been so obvious at the time.

Sharing some of my lived examples, I have been to remote worksites where there are no female toilet facilities. I have been the project manager for a construction contract that used “he/his” pronouns for my role in the written agreement. When I was pregnant, I could not source suitably fitting PPE. When I wasn’t pregnant there were times when female PPE was not even available in workplace catalogues.

In my experience, the most powerful tools to remove barriers and create inclusivity are language, education, flexibility, vulnerability, respect and kindness. The language we use has a commanding influence on our workplace culture. They say that people don’t necessarily remember the words spoken, but they remember the way it made them feel. This is so true for me, although occasionally the words do stick with me for some time.

Our written language can have the same impact. The simplest language action to create inclusive workplaces is to remove gender badging. Referring to team members as “admin girls” is a classic example here. In some workplaces it may be acceptable and in others it may not.

But if we don’t ask the question, and if impacted people don’t feel comfortable raising the issue, then someone lives in ignorant bliss, others continuously suffer, and no one makes constructive change. Have you ever looked around the meeting table and expected the female present to take notes, regardless of her role? Or to get the coffee order? Have you ever been that female? I have. Empathy doesn’t always come naturally. For most of us, it’s not easy to see the world through the lens of others. Realising that you need to, is a great first step.

Strategies that work for me include forcing myself to stop and think, training my brain to consider alternative views and perspectives before acting. Another is simply talking to people, asking questions and listening hard to help educate my thinking and then making informed decisions. At the end of the day, we are all different. That is what makes us unique. When we harness and embrace that difference, we are able to tap into true diversity of thought, which has been proven to benefit the bottom line.

Genuine inclusive workplaces will provide flexibility.

At SRA, we have created a flexibility framework that removes barriers associated with geographical location, family commitments (parental, carer etc), volunteering, time needed to recharge the batteries and more. I am exceptionally passionate about flexibility in the workplace at all levels, and I am proud to lead by example. Our head office in Maitland is three hours’ drive from my family home. When I joined SRA, so many industry colleagues from Newcastle all asked me, “So you’re moving back here now?”. No. Work is a thing you do, not a place you go.

I am passionate about visible leadership, and I do travel often, but we love where we live, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. Family first. Always.

This works in different ways for different roles within our business. We have other staff that reside up to four hours away. Team members have access to flexible hours to prioritise their family first. This can include modified shift times to cover for school pick up/drop off, flexibility to attend school assemblies, caring for an elderly relative, medical appointments, and many more variations.

Workplace flexibility policy options are useless if the team aren’t aware of them. They need to be communicated regularly and employees educated on what options are available to them. If someone has a flexible work arrangement in place, we should be encouraging them to live it and do so openly. Not a secretive individual arrangement behind closed doors and not shared or offered to others, and not one that creates the feeling of guilt to the recipient.

Education is an effective inclusive tool to break down perceived barriers.

Education to enable work cultures to embrace and understand the differences people can bring. It can also empower the next generation with information about career options. For example, we now know that the best time to educate young females about STEM careers and their possibilities are Years 6, 7, and 8, before they start to choose their first high school electives. You can’t be what you can’t see. The sooner they see it, the sooner they can contemplate being it.

Vulnerability is an absolute superpower when it comes to inclusion in the workplace. My experience within the rail industry has shown me that vulnerability has historically been viewed as a weakness, not a strength. But the tide is turning. No one person has all the answers. Vulnerability is about being conscious of this and having the confidence and safe surroundings to wear it on your sleeve. It is about being comfortable to ask questions when you don’t know something, put your hand up for help when you need it, being willing to hear feedback, to listen even when the truth hurts, take ownership and make positive change. It is being comfortable to rethink these perspectives when new information becomes available. It is totally okay to change your mind after considering new information.

Underpinning everything is respect and kindness.

To act respectfully towards others and with genuine kindness when you do. Throughout my career I have often been the sole female in the room at many levels. Specifically, I remember being the sole female project manager in a room for a two-day course run by an external facilitator.

Throughout the first day, the facilitator continually referred to the project managers as “gentlemen”. Now, if this happens today, I have the courage to speak up respectfully in the moment to inform the facilitator that there are female project managers present. But back then, I was a young project manager new to the industry and didn’t have the courage to speak up at the time.

At the end of the first day, one of my male mentors who was present, spoke up for me, talking privately with the facilitator before the next morning. When the facilitator realised how their choice of language was impacting me, they were open to the feedback, apologetic and took accountability for their mistake. They owned their own bias openly in front of the room at the start of day two. The facilitator showed vulnerability in their acknowledgement and made ongoing positive change to their language for future events. I had the courage to thank them at the end of day two to show my appreciation and we discussed past experiences and commitment to change. And as you read this you are probably assuming the facilitator was male, however she was also female.

Belonging is the outcome - it is the end game.

The outcome of a genuinely inclusive culture is a sense of belonging within team members. They experience a high level of psychological safety, are comfortable to speak up to raise issues and ask questions, and their contributions are heard and valued. If I had this sense of belonging in my earlier example, I would have felt supported and comfortable to raise the issue myself.

The most effective strategy for me to push through challenges I have faced throughout my career is to surround myself with a network of incredible mentors (male and female) and professional connections. Ones that share the similar values but with different thoughts, perspectives, and ideas. I experience a sense of belonging within these networks in the same way we can achieve belonging in our workplaces.

My experience as a leader within the Australian rail industry has shown me that we are working together to remove both perceived and real barriers to our success in this space, and we are seeing improvement. In particular, the positive growth of female participation in our industry now at 24 per cent, up from 17 per cent in 2016. We must keep going.

A thought to wrap up…

I am certain that if 15 years ago, it was suggested we should start paying both mums and dads between 12 to 26 weeks paid parental leave regardless of primary and secondary carer duties, it would have been considered crazy talk. Yet here we are today and the best organisations in our industry are implementing policies enabling exactly that, smashing this barrier to pieces.

Take your mind to 15 years from now: what barriers to diversity do we currently have that we will look back on and say that they should have been obvious to us today? I know that when my Pop told me of the comraderie in rail, he did so from his perspective.

My ideal version of our industry’s future is one where everyone in it feels that same sense of acceptance and belonging, no matter the minority or majority they represent. When we no longer need the label of “first” to describe role appointments. When we listen and celebrate what is both common and different, we become wiser and more inclusive, and every part of what we do as an industry and within our business is better.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2023 edition of Rail Express