You are currently reading Issue 167: Women in Transport and Automotive, September 2023

Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

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“Is it me, or is it the system?” Helping women achieve radical career transformation in transport

Shireen Ali-Khan, Engagement Specialist and Co-Facilitator for Women in Transport’s Lead Programme

woman doing online training

Shireen Ali-Khan is a senior leader who has worked on various programmes and projects, ranging from STEM, CSR [corporate social responsibility], communications and engagement, impact, process improvement and mental health and wellbeing. She has worked on many of the UK’s largest infrastructure programmes, with charities, in educational settings and with both small teams and large. Shireen is intersectionality lead for the not-for-profit membership organisation, Women in Transport.

Shireen Ali-Khan

“I see self-doubting quite often but we’re really pushing away from that so you don’t have to doubt yourself. You are here for a reason. You’ve got your job for a reason. Own that. Be comfortable with that.”

The consistent lure of the ever-changing transport industry

I studied international politics and media at university with great aspirations to be a war correspondent, but instead, I ended up as vice president of my students’ union and then I made it into transport, working in engineering after university.

I then got a job at the London Engineering Project, which is a project run by the Royal Academy of Engineering as one of the first STEM outreach programmes that really collaborated with industry, higher education and schools. I didn’t know anything about engineering at the time but I thought: “I can do events, but what’s this engineering malarkey?”. And then some 20 years later, I’m still in engineering.

Outside transport, I’ve worked in education, with universities, charities and in the mental health space, but every time I’ve left transport, I’ve always come back to something transport and engineering related.

My past career history has seen me leading the Inspire Engineering Programme for TfL [Transport for London], which included managing their ambassador network, I have worked with the IET leading on cyber security engagement, Crossrail leading their education programme and CSR route-wide, ensuring meaningful community investment.

I then went on to HS2 where I led BIM [building information modelling] engagement with the supply chain and here is where I began to really fall in love with the technical side of things and how we capitalise on that information.

My career history has given me insight, not only into engineering but also into people. If you look after the people, the work will be achieved. This people-first approach has taken me into communications and wellbeing and is where I started working more closely with Women in Transport.

Sonya Byers
Sonya Byers

I have been a member of Women in Transport since 2017 and was inspired by the way the membership engages, as well as the passion of the volunteers and Sonya Byers, our CEO.

It is this inspiration that has led to the intersectionality programme, where we are telling the stories of the women in the sector through storytelling, industry engagement and policy influence and now onto being co-facilitator of the Lead Development Programme.

About Women in Transport

Women in Transport is a not-for-profit membership organisation, founded in 1995 so it will soon celebrate 20 years of supporting the development of women in the transport sector. Anyone can join, however you identify. It’s an open and safe space.

We have hubs across the country that support members locally and have 1,500 members with a community of over 20,000 followers across our social networks.

Is it me, or is it the system?

The Lead Development Programme is designed for mid to senior-level women in the transport sector who may have been looking around but have been unable to find the right programme for them.

They know they are destined for something better, but they’re not quite sure what that might look like. Oh, and they really love the transport and infrastructure sectors, as infrastructure shares a lot of the same challenges that we do in transport, so it’s also aimed at that sector too.

Women-in-Transport-Lead-ProgrammeIt’s an eight-month modular programme and it’s 100% virtual. This matters as travel can often be a barrier to attending programmes. We enable our participants to gain consistency in their own career development.

One of my bugbears is this idea that we always have to be motivated, which, when we really think about motivation, depends on how you feel in on any given day. It can’t be taught, but you can give people the tools and the platform to be consistent. The consistency we’re enabling is about your development, your life, and your purpose, through weekly engagement.

The types of women we’ve had on the programme are from heads of department to directors at all different kinds of organisations, from consultancy to the public sector and the private sector. Often, what they have in common is the thought: “Is it me, or is it the system?” And what we say is: “No, it’s the system that’s failing women.”

It’s about giving women the tools to get into those senior positions and not about women finding their voice. I think women already have their voice, but just being able to use that voice comfortably, authentically, and understanding that their voice really matters.

I see self-doubting quite often but we’re really pushing that away so you don’t have to doubt yourself. You are here for a reason. You’ve got your job for a reason. Own that. Be comfortable with that.

Radical, transformative change

Lead is an eight-month modular programme split into eight modules. It’s four hours a week, which is a real commitment. My co-facilitator, Iain Smith, describes this programme as the greatest hits of leadership and development. And he is right!

We have a guest speaker attending each of the workshops. It’s a safe space. It’s always a senior woman from industry who tells her story — what she’s been through, the challenges, but really importantly, what she did to break out of those challenges. What are the tangible takeaways?

She’s not just telling you: “This is what I’ve done,” but rather the steps she took to get there. Everyone takes away something different from them. We discuss the speaker afterwards. When you see the outputs, they’re just amazing.

Empowered learning

All of those things will cause an incremental shift in a person, but what we also noticed about the programme is that you don’t have to wait until the end of it to apply the learning, which is what happens with some other programmes, where you might have to wait until you’ve got your certificate to be able to say: “I can do XXXXXXXX.” People are using their learning in real-time. They’ve got the morning with us, and then in the afternoon, they’re going to go back to work and putting it into action.

One of the most fascinating things we learn is how our hormones influence us at certain stages of the month. Actually, having that information then empowers us to make decisions about how we show up. This is information that I have not seen covered elsewhere. After delivering this piece to a recent cohort, one of our learners then proceeded to have a conversation with a colleague about their experiences. Real conversations with real people.

Programme results

95% of people have completed the programme. 46% of people have been promoted since joining the programme, of which the large majority say that Lead played a part in enabling that promotion. 90% of people have been retained by the organisation.

Women-in-Transport-Lead-ProgrammeIt’s fascinating because you can see people in real-time, either being promoted or going for things.

Each participant is allocated a coach, and the impacts can be totally life-changing. There can be a huge amount of emotion that comes with it. It’s just breathtaking. I was a participant on Lead a few years ago and now here I am as a co-facilitator. I’ve experienced that learning. Going from where I was at the time to how much more comfortable, I am with my own voice and in airing my opinion now has totally changed my life. I’m not second-guessing myself as much as I was a few years ago either and that was directly a result of Lead.

To be here now as co-facilitator is always a privilege because I know the learning that the women are going through. I also know those light bulb moments that happen and I know exactly what their next steps will be.

Getting involved

Participants of the programme are signed up to membership of Women in Transport, and I always advise our learners to really make the most of that membership. We have a plethora of activity that they can get involved with.

Coming up next

Coming up for me, professionally, I have loads of engagements coming up and events in the sector, so I’m really looking forward to going out and meeting people face-to-face and re-engaging, which I haven’t done for a while due to COVID and other reasons. From the Lead perspective, we have cohort 7 starting, and so I’m really looking forward to welcoming those new participants and helping them on their journey.

Wider Women in Transport activity-wise, we’ve got podcasts, book clubs, round tables and white papers. There are loads of exciting things all telling the story of the actual lived experience and stories of women in transport, the idea being that no two women are the same. So, when we talk about ‘supporting women’, what does that actually really mean? We all have different challenges and different life experiences. Some people are more privileged than others in different ways, so how do you actually support people?


If you’d be interested in learning more about Lead, you can contact Shireen at, mentioning Womanthology in your message to receive a special rate.


Header image credits: on Freepik / prostooleha on Freepik

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