Flexible Schedules, Telecommuting, Mentoring and Leadership Initiatives Help Attract and Retain Talented Women
By Lori Johnston
Jenny Jenkins, P.E. entered the engineering fi eld about 20 years ago and didn’t even think about asking her employer what would happen when she started to have children. Unlike females interviewing for internships and jobs today, she didn’t inquire about part-time schedules, maternity leave and flexibility to juggle both a job and family commitments.
But Jenkins remembers when a business decision was made with that in mind. Her employer was buying new computers, and her boss suggested that she get a laptop. She wasn’t pregnant at that time, but planned to start a family in a couple of years. “I did hope that I would still be able to continue to have not just a job, but a career, moving to part-time,” says Jenkins, Senior Transportation Engineer at VHB, a civil engineering firm.
When she had her first child in 2007, she scaled back to 30 hours a week. As for that laptop — it provided connectivity and access for her to work from home, when necessary. Her longtime boss, Tommy Crochet, often says he depended on her so much — and recognized the cost of training new employees — that he would rather have her for 30 hours a week than zero hours. “When you have someone who is self-motivated, clearly committed to the company and doing their work, it’s important that you provide that availability,” says Crochet, a Principal and Transportation Design Lead — Southeast Region at VHB.
Meanwhile, Jenkins, now a mom of two, says many of her former female classmates at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) either became stay-at-home moms or changed careers because their employers were unwilling to offer reduced hours or telecommuting.
“They didn’t have the opportunity to work part-time while their children were little,” says Jenkins, who graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 1999. “If a mom decides to take a little bit of time off, even if just time off for maternity leave, and come back part-time, it alleviates the fear of, ‘How am I going to keep my career if I leave the industry for a few years?’”
More than 20 percent of engineering school graduates are women, but only 11 percent of practicing engineers are female, “despite decades of academic, federal and employer interventions to address this gender gap,” according to “Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering,” a 2011 study by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researchers. One in four females leave to spend time with family. A key reason why those who did not pursue work in the field after graduation is because of “their perceptions of engineering as being inflexible or the engineering workplace culture as being non-supportive of women,” according to the study.
Companies that provide schedule flexibility, telecommuting and other perks, such as childcare assistance, create a way for women to stay in or return to engineering, especially after having a child. Offering incentives makes good business sense, say employers, because they can help bridge the workforce gap, as well as find and retain talent.