Earlier this year, on his last stop at Chattanooga’s DeButts Yard, Dave Dixon handed off the keys to his company vehicle to the man replacing him as terminal superintendent. As he and his family pulled out of the parking lot, ready to begin the drive to Norfolk and his new job in Norfolk Southern’s Human Resources Department, Dixon’s 12-year-old daughter, Caroline, had something on her mind.
“Daddy,” he recalled her asking, “are women allowed to work on the railway?”
Initially surprised that she would ask such a thing, Dixon realized later that his daughter’s question was perfectly logical. On visits to DeButts and Sevier yards over the past five years, his daughter saw men cutting off railcars at the hump yard and men maintaining track facilities – but no females.
In his new role as NS director planning and staffing, Dixon is aiming to bring more women into the picture. He is helping to lead a recruiting initiative that he hopes, over time, will leave no doubt in a little girl’s mind that women are an essential part of Norfolk Southern’s rail operations.
“In order for Norfolk Southern to continue to be a leader in the industry, we have to hire and retain the best talent – and the fact is, the best talent is male and female,” said Dixon, who began his nearly 19-year career at NS in human resources before moving into operations, where he spent the past seven years. “There’s not a single position in this company that is gender specific or that has gender-specific requirements. It’s as simple as that.”
A competitiveness issue
While women make up about 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce, females comprise about 7 percent of Norfolk Southern’s overall workforce – around 2,100 employees out of about 30,000. That includes NS’ nonagreement workforce, where about 19 percent of employees are female, and craft positions, where about 5 percent of employees are female.
The gender scale currently is tipped toward men across NS’ organization. The operations departments are heavily male, especially in craft positions. Females make up less than 1 percent of employees in engineering, about 2.5 percent of employees in mechanical, and about 4 percent of employees in transportation.
Dixon views recruitment of women as a corporate sustainability issue. If NS fails to draw more females into the workforce and expand employee diversity, the company will lose competitiveness, he said. One key reason why, he explained, is that women are surpassing men in attaining education degrees at every level, from associate’s to doctoral degrees.
“From a sustainability standpoint, we have to position Norfolk Southern to grab the best talent going forward,” he said. “We cannot get behind in that. So one thing we need to do is bring women into positions we know are positions for development into management. It starts with our craft and management trainee positions.”
Employees can help
Dixon said his daughter’s question about women working at the railroad drove home the challenge of breaking down social perceptions that railroad work is for men only. Those perceptions, he said, are based on the industry’s historic hiring trends and on railroad jobs traditionally held by men, such as locomotive machinists and pipefitters, track laborers, and locomotive engineers.
“My daughter’s question was an innocent one based on her observations, but it just hit me that there is a perception out there that we need to break down,” Dixon said. “I saw that I had failed with my own daughter because I had never even thought to discuss the railroad as a place where she might work.”
Reaching out to females has long been a part of Norfolk Southern’s recruiting strategy. HR has enhanced this effort by enlisting female operations employees to attend company recruiting and hiring sessions to talk with potential female job candidates about why they should consider making a career at Norfolk Southern.
This summer, HR plans to invite employees to participate by referring women they know for jobs at NS. That includes encouraging male employees to talk with their daughters, nieces, and family friends about the range of jobs available at NS.
“The people who can help us the most are employees in our own workforce,” Dixon said. “They are the ones who can help change the mindset and dispel the myths.”