What do women want? Space to not have to be superwoman

What needs to change to adapt engineering to suit women? Diversity alone is not enough, argues Catriona Schmolke. Change demands high-level support and mentoring by women for women

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This is one of my favourite quotes from the writer Maya Angelou. It has been my personal counsel for many years. It’s particularly important in engineering because our profession’s successful – and safe – operation depends entirely on well-run teams working together with mutual trust and respect.

Getting the balance right – how you do your work versus how others see you doing it – is a challenge for women in all workplaces, but particularly in engineering. Looking back from 36 years’ experience, did I have the right environment to support my own career?

In the main, I have been blessed with exciting projects, opportunities to innovate, the satisfaction of hiring great talent and watching them grow, becoming a serial mentor. Yes, at times the pressures got so much that I wondered what I was doing but who doesn’t, with everything we juggle; project deadlines and budgets, growing a family, all the other stresses life throws at you?

Where would I be without the stalwart colleagues who supported me through those times, good and not so? I recall the worry of impending maternity leave; would my job still be there? And on return from maternity leave; would I be demoted or passed over for promotion? I went through those particular worries three times.

But we do worry. And women worry – possibly more than men – about how to perform with all those additional responsibilities, keeping one eye on the school run. If an ailing parent or child needs undivided attention, where do you find extra energy?

This is when the working environment and leadership attitudes comes into their own: when you need flexibility, not to excuse the situation but to enable you to find your own path through it.

Safer spaces
Thirty years ago, I was the first woman engineer in the company. I was flabbergasted when I asked about flexibility for childcare and commuting to be told: “Just do whatever works for you Catriona.”

My wonderful boss realised that to keep me he needed to ensure that the company adapted – he also showed me how great leaders behave. The right environment isn’t just about flexibility and home working, it’s about creating a safe space for you to perform in your professional capacity while managing your finite energy reserves and giving yourself permission not to be superwoman all the time.

Women face a multitude of stresses that, traditionally, have fallen in our laps. Thank goodness we live in a society that has evolved to share those responsibilities more evenly, though not quite to the extent that the in-built guilt doesn’t rear its head.

Just when I thought my children didn’t need me as much and I worried less about travelling internationally and taking time to enjoy those wonderful trips the dreaded menopause struck.

Mother Nature decided to inflict extra health concerns on me. It is not to be taken lightly. An alarming number of women leave the workplace during menopause as the symptoms become too difficult to manage.

Office for National Statistics data shows that UK women are far more likely than men, at all older ages up to state pension age, to be economically inactive. At 50, 17.9 per cent of women are economically inactive compared with 9.6 per cent of men. By 64, that rises to 58.6 per cent of women against 44.9 per cent of men.

When I confided about minor symptoms to colleagues, they were happy to throw the windows open for me when I experienced hot flushes.

More seriously, I once had such an unexpectedly heavy bleed in the elevator at work that a colleague had to help me home. That required a biopsy and serious medical intervention. Nothing about menopause is trivial. Today, progressive organisations publish menopause policies and provide much more support than in the past.

Benefits of diversity
There is overwhelming evidence to show the business benefits of diverse teams and inclusive leadership, from creativity and innovation to promoting health and safety.

Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 per cent more likely to have higher financial returns than their industry median. Those in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have higher financial returns than the industry median, according to a 2015 report from McKinsey. 

The Royal Academy of Engineering is working with the profession to address all aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This requires bold steps to ensure that women and people of diverse identities are well represented.

But diversity on its own is not enough. Companies and organisations must create a culture in which all employees feel comfortable being themselves and contributing their ideas, perspectives and experiences. People respected and valued for themselves are more likely to be happy in their jobs and to feel fully part of their teams.

We know that the UK has a real shortage of engineers. There is a pressing need to diversify our engineering workforce. EngineeringUK reports that just 16.5 per cent of professional engineers are women, compared with 48 per cent across all occupations. Just 10 per cent are from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, against 13 per cent across all occupations. 

One major barrier to attract more young people into the profession is the deeply rooted cultural perception that engineering is narrow, mechanical, too technical, and dull. That perception is being reinforced online and will take time to change.     

The Academy’s This is Engineering campaign aims to inspire more young people from all backgrounds to become engineers. The films have been viewed more than 58 million times by a gender-balanced audience. Of students who viewed it, 73 per cent said they would consider engineering – a significant increase on 39 per cent of those surveyed before it launched it in 2018.   

Mid-career support
During my career in consultancy, including many years at Jacobs, and serving on the boards of Scottish Water and the National Physical Laboratory, I have benefited from some outstanding mentors – mostly men. I now believe that we need more mentoring by women for women to support senior women in their careers.

That is now my business. I dedicate much of my time to one-to-one mentoring, helping to expedite women into executive-level positions, showing them that they can achieve more than they think. I mentor men too, of course. But in the not-for-profit sector I support several organisations that use mentoring to support women in their careers.

One, WINGSforGrowth, is a US-based not-for-profit that offers mid-career women a structured ten-month mentoring programme. Another, Women Returners, is an annual programme to help women back into work after a period of absence, pairing them up with a mentor who supports them on the journey back into the workplace.

We used this very successfully in my team for a women engineer who had taken 12 years out to look after her family and couldn't figure how to re-enter the workforce.

The engineering profession supports some highly successful returner-support schemes that enable highly skilled women to pick up their careers again and quickly start to contribute to industry and research.

The Daphne Jackson Trust is the UK’s leading organisation working to realise the potential of returners to research careers following a career break of two years or more for family, caring or health reasons.

Flexible fellowships provide funding and training to enable talented women and men to return to their research careers in science, engineering and technology, typically for two years on a part-time basis, at a UK university.

One of the Academy’s current Daphne Jackson Trust fellows, Dr Christina Biggs of Swansea University, returned to research after a 20-year break to care for her family. Now she is investigating how to use mud and clay as a membrane for electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen from seawater. If successful, her technology could play an important part in net-zero energy storage.

Engineers play a hugely important role in shaping the world we live in. Our profession has a critical part to play in developing sustainable solutions so that we reach net-zero emissions by 2050. After more than 35 years in environmental engineering, working with teams of every type and size, I am even more convinced that the engineering profession must reflect the society it seeks to serve.

We must take every opportunity to foster women to advance their careers in engineering. I believe strongly that it takes effective support networks and mentoring to provide that support.

Catriona Schmolke FREng is vice president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and visiting professor of sustainability, risk and resilience at Newcastle University

This story was first published in The Environment magazine in March 2023

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