Transport for a Lifetime of career progression
Charul Gupta is the Senior Product Manager at Transport for London (TfL). She has won two awards, taught English and Maths to underprivileged children, built two robots, and is raising a family.
Charul has always been interested in engineering, despite it being a very male dominated industry. In fact, when studying, Charul was one of nine females in a class of 120 students. However, she didn’t notice gender differences, instead she saw a class of equals all working towards the same goals.
Electronic Specifier’s Sheryl Miles spoke to Charul about being a woman in the transport industry, having a lifelong curiosity in engineering, creating a woman in tech community, and taking time out to fulfil a bucket list.
I understand you are the Senior Product Manager at TfL. What does your role include?
Me and my team are responsible for delivering technology and data products for surface transport services, like buses, DLR, and trains to address the transport needs of London.
It is exciting because in a single day, I might be discussing [anything from] buses to Victoria coach station … to London Cable Car. It is very interesting, challenging, and rewarding.
What led you to work for TfL? And what is it like being a woman working there?
It is an amazing organisation to work for. The amount of support that you get is incredible and you are respected for your work. I was offered this very responsible role when I was pregnant. When I declared the pregnancy in my interview, I was pleased to hear that my pregnancy would not hinder my application. When I was back from maternity, I felt that I was not disadvantaged in any way.
Irrespective of whether you're a man or woman, there is an appreciation for a work life balance, which, if you have family or somebody dependent on you, makes things easier.
Most Londoners are fascinated by TfL, and I was always amazed with the efficiency and ease of public transport in London. TfL have been at the forefront of cutting-edge technology, and they are one of the global leaders in transport innovation. I think all these things really inspired me.
What was it about the industry that spurred your desire to start the women in tech community?
I want to start with some stats because the transport and logistics role is one of the most vital in the UK, with over one million employees. But in terms of gender split, only around 20% of the workforce is female. And if I'm talking about technology, then Tech Nation suggests only 19% of the tech workforce are women in the UK. It's a similar trend across the globe. So, we created this group because there is such a big gap.
The intention of this group was to encourage more women to join the technology workforce, and [to figure out] how we can support them on their path, and we've been quite successful.
How does the women in tech community work?
We meet once in three to four weeks, and we plan activities for the year.
These include panel discussions, workshops, events happening in parallel to similar activities in-house, or we partner with external charitable organisations. We also run a mentorship scheme to help women who want to learn and understand more about how they can break into tech.
What spurred your interest in engineering?
I was always fascinated by it. We have witnessed the world change in front of us. And it was understanding that ‘I want to be part of this change, and I want to learn about it’. That is what excited me.
At the age of 23 I made two robots because I started an electronic communication degree. And today I'm so passionate about my work. I love that I started as a software engineer developing products and now, I’ve moved to the other side, which is product management.
Being a woman in engineering, have you found there have been challenges or barriers to overcome?
It's about believing in yourself and following your path. It might not be easy every time. But if you have your passion, just keep going. One of the things I always say is ignore the noise and keep yourself motivated.
There were a lot of students in my engineering class, and out of those only nine were females. I'm talking about 10 years back. But [that] shouldn't matter because we are all students of the same thing. We are a class of equals.
‘Doubting oneself is one of the biggest barriers for women in tech and engineering’, why do you feel that is?
The transport and logistics, and technology industries are mostly male dominated. So, when you work in such an industry, there is a tendency to hold yourself back. In meetings, many don’t share their opinions, even when they might be the best in the room. That is why I say that confidence in oneself is one of the biggest barriers.
Stop doubting yourself, be bold and share your opinions because you might be one of the best [people there].
Also, women often question their own progression. If they are planning a family, for instance, they might question if they're able to do justice to the role. They also might not apply for a senior position because they feel, ‘will I be able to do this if I'm planning to start my family.’ This is a bigger and a much wider problem [than a single organisation]. And I think we need to overcome that. It's about breaking the internal barriers we have.
How important do you feel it is to teach the younger generations STEM?
I really feel it is very important, now more so than ever, to teach our younger generation STEM at the base-level. With all the innovation and the technological advances, we need to build our STEM capability further. We also need to be ready for the challenges these changes bring.
I have actually taught a small class myself. I set it up in my garage in India. I started with five students, [and] where it became very popular more and more kids joined. At the end of it, I could see their basic mathematics and communication skills getting better … and their confidence improved. I try to continue this whenever I go back.
You won the Amazon everywoman in Transport & Logistics Award. Has it helped your career path in any way?
I am humbled that I get to work at a place where I can make a difference. [The evening] was a celebration of all inspirational women in the transport and logistics industry. It was a very good experience.
In terms of it making an impact, it’s very recent, but there are many people who have said that they were inspired. So, I hope this [award] helps and encourages more women in a similar position to me.
I come from a small city in India. [The UK was] a work and culture change. But now, I have received awards. I'm sitting in front of you and interviewing. It feels unreal. But there might be somebody sitting in India or in the world, and they'll be like, ‘Oh, this is me, I can do it as well because somebody has done it’. And that's the part you relate to, on an emotional level as well.