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If one fact becomes clear through our conversations with a dozen women engineering professionals, it’s this: Perhaps the hardest part of being in the boys’ club is balancing their work lives with their roles as wives, companions, mothers and daughters.
Advancement in an engineering career frequently demands long hours and lots of travel—tough for a man; harder for a woman. And it’s not necessarily the fault of particular company cultures or active discrimination: It’s a “systemic pressure that even the most enlightened company can’t do anything about,” says Alicia Bauer, director of global marketing, control systems and products for ABB.
Women may have come a long way culturally, but most men—and women—still assume that the bulk of the burden for housekeeping, childcare, keeping school and doctor appointments, caring for aging parents and generally doing all the things that make a family go will fall on the woman in a relationship. That’s a difficult balance to keep when your job may require you to go to the plant at 2 a.m. for an emergency or spend a month overseas on a job.
It takes the biggest toll on women engineers when it comes to moving up the corporate ladder. In fact, this systemic pressure, far more than any overt discrimination, may add layers to that glass ceiling.
“That [maintaining a work/life balance] was one of the most difficult things,” says Sandra Vann, technology specialist at Dow Chemical. I think it slowed my career at times because I couldn’t work the hours and didn’t want to travel. For a couple of years, I only worked part time when my son was small. Kindergarten and elementary school were tough. For a while I worked 30, then 35 hours a week.”
Janice Abel, director of marketing at Invensys Foxboro, says that seniority helped make the dilemma not so bad for her. “I had been here 10 years when my daughter was born, so I had a lot of flexibility.” But she admits to having to make some hard choices. “I have turned down jobs that required a lot of travel, but then so has my husband.”
Kim Miller Dunn of Emerson Process Systems adds, “Where the glass ceiling comes into play is in meeting the needs women have. In general, they don’t want to travel or move as much. And there’s the spouse issue. What about his job? These things affect the discrepancy in pay and advancement. I took a step back [so I didn’t have to move]. It set me back about five years.”
Unspoken assumptions about what choices a woman may make may have as much affect on what opportunities she is offered as the reality of her personal situation, says Bauer. “Personal status affects how people think of me in terms of opportunities. I’m not married and have no children, but I have a partner. My whole take on work/life balance is different than people who are married and have kids. But that whole attitude that women have a different take on the question plays a role. There’s the question, ‘Will she be able to take the job overseas?’ If I were a guy, they would never think that I wouldn’t move if I had the offer.”
And some women will move. Vann tells of a colleague who is moving her family, including two teens, to The Netherlands, where she will take charge of an entire plant.
Time is probably on the side of women in the struggle to achieve work/life balance. For one, the issue is not just “a woman thing” anymore. For another, the predicted scarcity in engineering skills will give all engineers, including women, a bit more leverage in terms of what they can demand in this area.
“Men in general—the younger generation especially—are saying ‘This is important to me.’ It’s becoming as important to men as women,” says Dunn. “It will probably never be 50-50, but I’m seeing guys stepping back and saying, ‘Sorry, I can’t be at the meeting. I want to be at my son’s T-ball game.’”
Angela Summers, president at SIS-Tech, concurs. “Guys want this too. It’s a phenomenon across all businesses. I see lawyers not willing to sacrifice that much to become partners. If employers want to meet workforce needs, there has to be a re-evaluation of the demands. At some point, you get diminishing returns.”
She also speculates that the demographic wave sucking skilled engineers out of the work force will work to women’s advantage. “Having more women in engineering will change the way engineering works,” she says. “If they want more women in the workforce, it will have to change. There will need to be more flexible hours. Of course, there’s the American ethos of hard work, but women tend to focus more on relationships and having balance in their lives. They have more perspective on what’s important.”