Business Technology

The young female achiever changing the face of transport and engineering

9 min read

24 June 2015

Former deputy editor

Amanda White is the head of rail at Transport for Greater Manchester and despite working in a male-dominated sector, the former engineering trainee has become a leader in her field and would have other women aspire to do the same.

White secured the title of Young Achiever at the First Women Awards 2015, which took place at the London Marriott Hotel on 11 June.

The particular title was a hotly contested one because it comprised businesswomen from numerous industries all vying for the same prize. While White represented engineering, she also had competition from female leaders in the sharing economy, finance and technology.

As such, White admitted during an interview with Real Business that she was especially shocked to have won because she was going up against such a variety.

She studied Mechanical Engineering at university and was led along that particular path because of a love for two particular subjects.

“It started with enjoying maths and physics. I didn’t know I always wanted to be an engineer, but I enjoyed the logic and challenges involved, so I looked for a degree that had that kind of content. It was really by chance,” she revealed.

The course opened up a wide range of disciplines White could have pursued, from motoring to aviation with the likes of Bentley and British Airways.

However, having started her career with Network Rail during a summer placement as part of a university programme, her path had taken shape. Interestingly, the firm was chosen on the basis that it was near to White’s home – demonstrable use of logic indeed.

University set the scene for what White’s career would be like, with women accounting for just ten per cent of the students on the Mechanical Engineering course, which had 60 men.

She admits that working for a local authority organisation like Transport for Greater Manchester means women make up around 20 per cent of the staff. Highlighting the difference between her current employer and previous ones, she said: “When you’re in a pure railway organisation, it’s you and the PA. It depends on the context of where you are in the organisation.”

Read more on the First Women Awards:

White admitted that working in a male-dominated sector like engineering can “absolutely at times” be a challenge. “I think you get as many supportive people as you do challenging people. The good guys recognised other guys find it difficult to work with women and give you more help,” she said.

“There’s no doubt that when I went to work alongside hands-on electrical engineers or design officers they weren’t sure how to talk to me. They’re uncomfortable as they assume they need to change behaviours. It just takes a little time for them to warm.

“I was just consistent in myself and behaviour, and in days people relax. I think it starts with a misconception that because you’re a woman, you expect them to adapt their language. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy.”

White was a key component in the development of High Speed 2 (HS2) as a senior route engineer between 2010 and 2014, and revealed that this time there were actually more women than men on the board. It was a result of the project being in the early stages and operating as a government advisory organisation.

“We needed a strategic case for High Speed Rail and that needed a CEO and typical organisation functional directors – not an army of engineers. In terms of a new organisation, engineering is a relatively small part of it,” she revealed. 

“You find that the economic and environment teams are much more evenly balanced at the early stage so you didn’t have a big pull on engineering, whereas with Network Rail a good portion are engineers – and male. As that side grew, the diversity mix changed. There are now over 700 people in the organisation but they did a really good job of maintaining diversity. It was young and dynamic.”

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While at HS2, Alison Munro, formerly the CEO of the organisation and now MD and executive board member, was someone that White looked up to.

“I can highlight at every stepping stone in my career people that have seen qualities in me, encouraged and given opportunities that have led to new roles,” White explained.

“Alison Munro was a big inspiration – a strong and genuine leader that created an open, honest collaborative environment. Coming from a heavy engineering background at Network Rail with 35,000 people, that was breath of fresh air.”

Discussing her current role as the head of rail with Transport for Greater Manchester, which she’s held since December 2014, White said she gets the most enjoyment from creating something new and implementing future strategies.

She said: “I enjoy translating ways that make differences to passengers. Making it easier for passengers to travel, not changing the train or station, but offering a service that gets them from home to work on time. If I can make a difference that’s great. As the government gives more responsibility to Greater Manchester, we’ve got more people to consider.”

White is currently in charge of eight people and looks to more than double that with nine new team members before the year is out, which is down to the government changing remits and offering more influence in Greater Manchester.

Roles include working with operators to explore performance improvement, reporting real-time information to passengers, and specifying new rail service improvements in the North West and developing strategies for larger investments such as Transport for North.

With just six months under her belt at Transport for Greater Manchester, there’s a lot White hopes to establish and she’s still ambitious. “Really I want to keep learning and I want to make a difference to what I do, I’ll do that and from there who knows. I could move to an operator or even back to HS2.

“Operators run on a franchise model as a seven year contract. Bids are coming in now and we’ll be working with an operator from December. There’s a lot work on the proposal, including more funding to devolve. We’d like to become operator of all 97 stations in Greater Manchester, which hasn’t been done before. It’s a new initiative we’re trying to explore with the next round of investment.”

Closing on words of wisdom for other women who may not have considered an industry like engineering, White offered: “I would say that engineering is stereotyped in the same way people look at a girl and expect them to be a hairdresser. But the skills learned in engineering require using logic, structured approaches, facts, details and numbers, and translating that into solutions.

“The thought process can be applied to any profession and a good portion of people go into projects, finance and investment banking. I would say don’t judge on what you think it will be, try it and see where the skills can take you.”