children and engineering

Do Children and Engineering Mix?

by Cindy Cavenagh

‘I had done something engineers aren’t supposed to do. I had got pregnant. I was in the wrong and therefore had to change my life-style to suit.’ This was a problem Elizabeth Taylor faced when she became pregnant with her first child eleven years ago. She is one of the many women who have had to change their career path or see it stagnate in a part-time position when they had to combine an engineering career with motherhood.

The number of female engineering graduates has increased over the past few years. Currently 13.3% of student members of the Institution of Engineers Australia are female but only 8% of graduate members are female. Overall women represent only 4.8% of total membership.

There is concern that even though more women are training as engineers many of them find it hard to pursue their careers once they have children.

The problem of combining an engineering career with motherhood has been put forward as one reason for women leaving the profession. When Taylor became pregnant she was working on site in contracts administration and project management.

‘When I got pregnant it was expected that I would go back into design. But I didn’t like design, I liked being on site. There was no move to think of ways the situation could be handled. There was no possibility that the structures themselves could change,’ she said.

Taylor stayed on in the organisation in a part-time position for three years after her daughter was born but her boss had to get approval every six weeks to keep her on. The work she was given during this time was also not out on site where she wanted to be.

She left that position and joined the University of Technology, Sydney as women in engineering coordinator, another part-time position. Four years later she became a lecturer in electrical engineering. She is now a senior lecturer and will be president of the Sydney Division of the IEAust next year. This career change came about because she had children.

Her current position is full-time.’ It is difficult to have part-time work valued in the same way as full-time work,’ she said. ‘There is no acceptable way to have a career path working part-time. My perception is if you have any career aspirations you have to be in full-time work.’

Helen Pearson chose to leave the workforce to look after her four children full-time. She studied civil engineering at the University of New South Wales graduating in 1974. After working for three and a half years in a design office she said: ‘I really hit the glass ceiling with a bang. I got to the stage where I should have been promoted and I wasn’t. Then I got transferred into a position which I considered to be a real demotion.’

She left that company and did a master of engineering during which she had two children. She graduated three weeks before her third child was born. Pearson said it was pretty horrendous studying with two small children. ‘I didn’t have child care. I used to cart them along to the lab and sit them in a corner,’ she said.

Pearson’s husband is a mechanical engineer. She said: ‘When I see what he gets out of his job I think I get far more out of what I’m doing than I’d ever get out of engineering.’ He also travels a lot. She said it is very hard to support two engineering careers and children although ‘with the right support from a partner engineering for a woman with children would be far more feasible.’

Pearson does not regret having studied engineering. She said: ‘Engineering is a really good training for life and the lateral thinking you get from it is brilliant. I have found that I have used my engineering a heck of a lot with the kids and with school groups.’

The difficulty of obtaining part-time engineering work is also a factor leading to many women leaving the engineering profession when they have children. Wendy Chapman started a small technical publishing business with her husband after her second child was born allowing her to set her own hours.

Chapman studied chemical engineering at the University of Sydney graduating in 1979. She worked for BHP for two years then went to CSR Sugar for seven years. During this time she had her first child. ‘I had gone back to full-time work after my first child was born and that worked well. But when I had a second child I felt I couldn’t give them the attention I wanted to when there was four and a half years between them,’ she said.

Chapman recommends an engineering career for women. But ‘you need to know more about it than I did before you start.

‘The degree gave me general technical background information but it’s very hard to point to any particular course I did during the degree that has been of any use in my current career. Things such as people skills, time management and project management which I learnt out in the workforce are more useful.’

Source : www.wisenet-australia.org.au     This article is reprinted, with permission, from Civil Engineering Australia.

Supplemental Reading

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267693882_Counting_the_losses_The_Careers_Review_of_Engineering_Women_an_investigation_of_women%27s_retention_in_the_Australian_engineering_workforce