Fighting Prejudice with Feminine Know-How in a Male-Dominated Industry


Fighting Prejudice with Feminine Know-How in a Male-Dominated Industry

Ann Tomlinson – Director/Founder Alium Works
Rail & Construction Training, Safety and Project Management Consultant


How does a woman end up in the rail and construction safety business?

I started Alium Works because I wanted to create a level playing field and more job opportunities for job seekers, career changers and returning parents. Reflecting on my career of 18 years in the industry, I realised that little had changed during that time.

When I started working in the rail industry in the UK, I was thrown in the deep end. The opportunity came with many challenges.  

Firstly, the rail industry is very incestuous. You are either born into it, marry into it, sleep your way into it, or you know someone who can get you into it. I didn’t fit into any of these categories, but because I was a 24-year-old female, I was branded with the ‘sleeping my way to the top’ label. Despite the inaccuracy of the label, I also went through discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying and gender bias continuously for nearly six years.

At a meeting with the Operations Manager, when I was under the age of 25 and still limited in my experience in the industry, he told me, ‘If you want to play in a man’s world expect to be treated the same as the guys’. My response was, ‘Does that mean I will get paid the same as them?’ His answer was ‘no’, but that conversation was the starting block of how I expected to be treated fairly and with equal opportunity.

Despite working my way through the ranks and proving my worth, the reality was that I was still an outsider. A woman with a voice and strong will is dangerous and is treated as a troublemaker. Systems were not designed to set newcomers up for success. Companies just didn’t have the framework to create a supportive work environment where new people felt safe, could ask questions or connect with mentors. It was a sink or swim situation. 

Fast forward to more recent years, I realised that little has changed. When I oversaw multi-million-dollar projects here in Australia, I made sure my team members were treated fairly and with respect and that everyone was on an equal pay scale, but I knew more had to be done in this space. I wanted to make an impact on a much larger scale and oddly enough there was this huge void in the market completely untapped. And that’s why I established Alium Works in 2018.

Sure, there were tasks that men were better at than me, and it meant I had to work a little harder, but it never stopped me from achieving anything I set my heart on. You can let setbacks and stupid comments define you or you can use them to your advantage. I also believe gender bias is a by-product of personal insecurity, so if someone is projecting that towards me or if they hide behind bureaucratic systems, I see it as an opportunity to surge forward. I think once you understand this, life can change for you.

My defining moment was when I decided to expand my business model to become a Registered Training Organisation in 2020. For years I listened to industry experts (all males) who said I wasn’t ready, it’s too much compliance, it’s too much this and too much that and I couldn’t achieve it in the timeframes I suggested. Some even said that I was too inexperienced and too young, even though I have worked in compliance roles for over 18 years and I turned 40 last year.

I listened to this for nearly two years until an unrelated opportunity presented itself last year and I decided to listen to my intuition, silence the self-doubt and stop believing the so-called experts. Once I made the decision to become an RTO and move forward, everyone jumped on the bandwagon and helped me make it happen. We prepared an application in less than three months and waited another three months for the outcome. I am pleased to say we became a Registered Training Organisation on 5 January 2021!

Taking a few steps back, the defining point was when I made the call to my business coach and told her what I wanted to do and how I proposed to do it. Her response was brief and to the point. She said, ‘What took you so long?’ 

What was perplexing and confronting about this was that I allowed industry experts to influence my decision-making process. I always thought I was in control and that I wasn’t influenced by a male-dominated industry. But the opposite was true. It wasn’t until a complete outsider to the industry pointed out a few home truths that the penny dropped for me. I believe that up until that moment I was institutionalised. 

When making business decisions, I now consult with female leaders outside of our industry. They bring fresh perspective and, as a result, new business growth.

I believe there is no point trying to fight the system. I am not suggesting you don’t use your voice. I am saying use it strategically. There is nothing more powerful than proof. Instead of trying to convince people, I decided I would show them what change looks like and the benefits it brings to the industry. 

My advice to women is to be aware of analysis paralysis. We over analyse details to the point where we hand over the keys to imposter syndrome. If something aligns with you, or your values and your lifestyle, then go for it.

Over the last 18 months, our team has grown from two to 11. We were a finalist in seven award categories and won several, including The AusMumpreneur Awards – Woman Can Change the World and for Digital Innovation. We were also a finalist in the Australian Business Awards. 

But despite our recent success, we will never forget our humble beginnings, which is why we’ve aligned our business to support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Every time someone engages with us, whether for a free masterclass or an accredited course, we make a donation to one of the causes. Paying it forward is what I personally stand for. Since my awakening, I have learned to trust my gut and my own capability. I didn’t just wake up one day being fabulous. I worked my ass off and I made sacrifices to get to where I am now. 

I now consult with other female business owners as a sounding board, but my decisions are made based on intuition, and action is taken based on a spoon full of courage, a splash of wit and a hell of a lot of determination.

Having found my inner voice, I have also found the courage to step into the light. I have a powerful story, and I now believe that my story can help other women recognise their own personal growth. When I have mentoring sessions with our members, I talk to them about it, and explain how this can impact their personal brand, how it can impact future generations and how it can affect how their colleagues and peers perceive them. 

I also think there’s enough room in the world to embrace masculinity and femininity. You don’t have to be both if you don’t want to be. 

There are now more females in high profile leadership roles in the rail and construction business. They are exceptionally good at what they do, but what sets them apart is their ability to influence and I believe that comes from showing femininity. You don’t have to rule with an iron fist to get things done. You attract more butterflies by planting more flowers, not by casting a net!

Women are exceptional at creating more opportunities for other women. So, my advice would be to ignore the stereotypical banter that you have to behave in a certain way. 

People want to meet the real you, so be authentic and be true to your own personal brand.’

‘I also never really bought into labels. I just got on with things.’ – AT

feminine-know-how rail-and-construction-safety

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