"Promotion is the number one priority to move the dial on diversity…the rail industry must be recognised as environmentally sustainable, innovators in digital, diverse, and modern."
Caroline Wilkie commenced as the Chief Executive Officer of the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) in February 2020, after serving as the CEO of the Australian Airports Association (AAA) for over nine years. She brings extensive policy and advocacy experience to the ARA, with a track record of working with Government and industry to deliver nation-building infrastructure investment and critical transport networks connecting urban and regional communities.
With a Master of Public Affairs from the University of Sydney and a background in Communications and Public Relations, Caroline was appointed National Manager of the Tourism and Transport Forum (TTF) in 2003.
She believes the rail industry touches the lives of so many people in both Australia and New Zealand, whether they are catching passenger trains, trams or light rail in our cities or work for a business that relies upon the rail freight network. Rail is essential to drive economies, increase productivity and shape the development of industries across both Australia and New Zealand.
Caroline is continuing to develop the ARA’s strong focus on safety, regulation, skills development, and the implementation of new technologies within the rail industry as well as defining a new future agenda on behalf of ARA members and the rail industry.
One of my first roles was working in corporate affairs for Impulse Airline and I discovered I loved aviation. That is what initially attracted me to the role in the TTF. But then I came to also understand the exciting breadth of the work we were doing across road, light, and heavy rail; it was diverse, extremely interesting, quite exciting and a very issues-rich environment at the time in terms of policy.
A TTF member encouraged me to go for the CEO role at AAA given my experience and it was fantastic timing just after the 2010 election. The association I was inheriting had been a one-man operation with a part time assistant, based in Melbourne. AAA wanted to have a presence in Canberra, and I established and grew this.
There was an immediate array of issues to focus on including regional aviation, national security, Productivity Commission enquiries into airport regulations, and master planning issues and when I started it was a team of myself and one other. It was only in the later years of my tenure we were able to focus on diversity and brought in a female mentoring program in 2017, established the Women in Aviation Conference in 2019, and grew women’s representation on the AAA Board. When I started there were no women on the AAA Board; now I am thrilled to say the first female chair has just been elected, along with a women deputy chair.
Aviation is very similar to rail and ports in that men have been in the industry for 20, 30, 40 years and all know each other and worked with each other in different roles. While everyone is extremely open to women joining the industry, whether you are a man or woman, if you don’t have a network, it can be intimidating for either gender to break into. That’s the challenge. Once we hit the first hurdle of getting more female representation in the transport industry, the next issue is how do women connect within their networks and feel supported and meet those people they need to meet.
At the ARA we provide our Women in Rail mentoring program, and our Women in Rail Strategy and we are supporting the National Women in Transport initiative with a Women in Transport dinner and other events as we move ahead.
We are not just looking at the networking side, but how you promote diversity within the rail industry. The feedback we have received is that there are a lot of smaller businesses in the rail sector who don’t have human resources staff and if they do, the teams are often small and don’t have the capacity to look deeply at the issue of diversity. This year we partnered with the Diversity Council of Australia to run a number of courses, so far involving 60 participants.
The Women in Rail Survey, which we do every two years based on the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) data, this year showed a slight uptick in female representation and gives us areas to target our work.
I am keen to do a survey like the Women in Aviation is currently conducting with Monash which asks women in the industry what barriers they are facing and to run the study across rail and road.
I would like to hear from women directly to make sure what we are doing is actually moving the dial. I would like to determine if we were to be best practice, what do we want to aspire to offer our workforce? What do we want to work towards, what do we want our industry to be seen as, and how do we get there? We must be competitive. We just can’t keep paying high salaries; there needs to be something more on offer than that. I am excited about what we can do.
We are also about to kick off a new website called Work in Rail and part of this initiative addresses the perception of the sector. Do people understand the breath of the rail industry, how sustainable we are, the digital opportunities, the different roles, the graduate opportunities? The answer is no.
Work in Rail will provide all this information in one place, in a dynamic, exciting way.
We are doing well in the rail industry, but we need to do better because we are starting from a lower base in terms of diversity.
Promotion is the number one priority to move the dial on diversity. Currently rail is perceived as old fashioned. But the rail industry must be recognised as environmentally sustainable, innovators in digital, diverse, and modern.
For young people considering a role in rail, the world is their oyster. There is so much opportunity for growth and development and it’s a national job so if you want to move interstate and work on different, exciting projects you can!
Creating development and career pathways is critical. This year we are running our first graduate program with Engineers Australia and are looking to start a Western Australian Rails Skills Academy, working with industry and TAFE. It would be a first in Australia and if successful, it is a model we could roll out along the east coast.
Another project we are looking at developing is an undergraduate rail engineering course. The reality is that there is at least 20 years of extremely big projects coming our way including inland rail, metros and faster rail. There is a lot to look forward to.
…we have a far more diverse workforce, and a program of pathways for careers so it easy for people to join the workforce and thrive.