On-Ramping and Off-Ramping

Women engineers who start families face a number of challenges in integrating their personal and professional lives. Company representatives at the WE14 career fair discussed some of these issues and offered candid answers about how their organizations are addressing work/life issues and employee retention.

By Catherine Rocky, SWE February 10, 2016

Work/life integration is an ongoing topic within the Society of Women Engineers and often discussed in sessions at local, regional, and Society-level SWE meetings. Specifically, women who desire to work for several years and then start families face challenges and decisions when planning and managing both aspects of their lives.

An article from The Washington Post appeared in my local newspaper a couple of weeks before WE14. Titled “Programs to help women relaunch careers plummeted during recession,” the piece explored the challenges of a woman who 17 years earlier was a “highly trained and well-respected” engineer for General Electric, with more than 10 years of experience. She had the same income as her husband, who also worked for GE, until they started a family and began moving every few years for his career. Several factors, including the lack of flexible work schedules, family or community support, and a dearth of quality child care, resulted in her decision to opt out of the work force.

With a gap in the resume, skills that needed updating, and not keeping up a professional network, the woman — like many others who lost their jobs during the financial crisis — found it difficult to return to professional engineering. Upon starting a job search, she contacted recruiters and enrolled in an online master’s program in engineering. After eight months she found a job, glad to have something — but at one-fourth her husband’s income.

Several outstanding presentations at WE14 addressed workplace policies for faculty and useful practices for working engineer moms. However, the career fair offered the opportunity to hear firsthand how organizations have addressed work/ life integration and employee retention. I walked around the exhibitors hall at WE14 and asked two questions:

  • What kinds of experiences have women had starting families while employed at their companies
  • What programs did they have in place to address the needs of employees with children

I talked with representatives from a dozen organizations, with candid answers typically from a senior human resources representative and often from women engineers who knew a co-worker or had personally experienced raising a family while professionally employed. In all, the answers were quite favorable, with evidence of more acceptance of the options available to both working moms and dads.

Policies and practices: retaining the talent

Everyone I spoke with said they understood the challenges of work/life integration and did not want to lose talented women engineers. The culture is changing both in the United States and internationally, especially because of the high rate that women engineers leave or, worse, never enter the profession after graduation. They commented that these days, most women stay after the birth of a child, although there may be a combination of factors that have contributed to this change.

While some organizations have established work/life programs, others are just starting down that path or are more fully implementing efforts regarding what is available. Although they may have had policies and programs in place for several years, the focus is now on educating managers on the types of programs their companies support, evaluating the flexibility of their mindsets, and empowering them to use the programs. While managers and staff are aware of these policies, they may be hesitant to ask whether “it’s OK” to address the needs of employees.

Several companies mentioned they had the means to accommodate employees with flexible hours or parttime work, especially after the birth of a child. Although one employer said few work from home and telecommute, options depend on the part of the world in which the job is located, the area of the business, and the structure of the department and teams.

One company commented they don’t address work/life balance, but instead focus on “work/life effectiveness.” Because balance may be tilted and not address what is mutually effective for both the employee and employer, they try to find ways to work it out. The efforts to attract, develop, and retain those who opt out involve the same efforts to integrate new graduates. They look to SWE to find new grads as well as those returning to the work force. Their best practices offer flexibility to women and men and are the right thing to do. As they said, “A rising tide helps all boats.”

Keep current and plan ahead

If an employee needs to opt out for a time, a few key issues need to be addressed before coming back. The time needed to off-ramp can be a factor. Some companies allow an employee to leave for a specific period and return with full seniority and benefits. Companies stressed the importance of finding ways to stay current. First and foremost are technical skills, taking advantage of opportunities to take classes, volunteer at a nonprofit, assist with a school program, parent/teacher association, etc. Equally important was to keep up your professional network through associations and ties with former co-workers. Those wanting to on-ramp should leverage the experiences they had, have a diverse skill set, look for opportunities, and be eager to come back. Companies want to work with their professional engineering staff who wish to raise families. A number of employers stated that it was far better for women, and men, to discuss their needs prior to the pressures that come after a first child is born. All the companies emphasized the need for employees to be empowered to ask for what they want and communicate those needs.

Return-to-work programs

The Washington Post article that caught my attention also discussed how college programs intended to help people return to work were also derailed by the recession, but may be back soon as a result of changes in the workplace. Upon further research, I learned the programs mentioned were not targeted specifically to engineers, but instead were typically business school programs geared toward those who already have an MBA or MBA-equivalent experience and have high-achieving and highpotential careers. Whether or not you have an MBA, you can take advantage of short-term university programs such as Harvard Business School’s A New Path, a one-week program designed for professional women focusing on strategies and skills to reenter the workplace. Women who opt out for a while may want to consider pursuing an advanced degree in engineering or business through the many online or evening/weekend programs, often with in-state tuition. Many universities offer professional education classes that can include short study programs, career reengineering, or advanced study such as MIT Professional Education. Government programs such as the National Science Foundation ADVANCE program address the needs of women faculty and were discussed at a session at WE14. Companies have also launched programs to provide women engineers, scientists, and technicians the tools they need to get back to their careers.

If you are considering leaving work or coming back after a time out to address family or other needs, check with your employer, alma mater, and colleges in your state and area about how they can assist in finding a solution that works for you. Participating in a personal development program may give you the tools to rediscover the passion you had for engineering, restart your career, find professional and personal fulfillment, and make a difference.  

-Catherine Rocky is a national account manager with Terracon Consultants Inc. She holds a B.S. in geological engineering from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Rocky is past president of the Wichita Council of Engineering Societies. She is a member of the SWE Wichita Section and the SWE Magazine editorial board. This article originally appeared on SWE. SWE is a CFE Media content partner.

Edited by Ksenia Avrakhova, production coordinator, CFE Media, ksia94@gmail.com.