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Many happy returns

YOUR CAREER - Women at work

Attracting more women into construction has long been a major challenge for the industry, but getting them to stay is quite another as David Taylor discovers.

At the launch of an initiative two months ago, trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt quoted recent research which shows that, at any one time, around 50,000 women science and technology graduates are not working - the majority because they are raising families.

The situation would not be so dire if these women went back to work after having their children.

But the reality is that only about 8,000 will return to a job that makes use of their education.

In an industry that is increasingly nervous at the prospect of a looming skills shortage, these figures are bad news. They add up to a lot of wasted knowledge and valuable expertise that the industry can ill afford to lose.

Janet Munt is a 32 year old chartered civil engineer who left her job with specialist consultancy STATS Group at the end of last year. She doubts she will ever work as an engineer again.

'Friends in other industries are able to take on interesting work as they have a job share partner. In the construction industry, the tiny number of female chartered engineers means that I can be almost certain of never finding a job share partner, ' she says.

A mother of two young children, she returned to STATS on a part-time basis, working two days a week on an administrative project. Although full of praise for her former employer, which went out of its way to accommodate her needs, she was excluded from technical project work as a part-timer.

Adrian Marsh, chairman of STATS Group, says his company was keen to keep her at work.

'Janet is an outstanding engineer and we were keen to retain her. We are trying to get an integrated management system going and she was central to this.

It's been a painful process for all of us, ' he says.

Her part-time job was fairly flexible and had the benefit, according to Marsh, of not having 'a client interface'. But it was not an engineering job and after meeting the cost of commuting and childcare, she was barely breaking even. Last year, she left STATS for good.

The Government's initiative, launched in January by Patricia Hewitt, is designed specifically to encourage female science and engineering graduates back to work after having children. Key elements of the campaign include the formation of a 'high level group' led by Baroness Greenfield to 'develop a targeted strategy to improve women's participation across the sciences' and £80,000 worth of funding to set up a mentoring scheme aimed at helping women engineers and scientists return to work after a career break.

The ICE, through its equal opportunities forum, ICEFLOE, is also working towards better opportunities for its women members. 'We are encouraging employers, through our website, Best Practice papers and other channels, to set up flexible working policies, ' says Michelle McDowell. She dismisses, for example, the notion that a parttimer cannot work on projects which have a client interface:

'There's a preconception among employers that you have to be available at all times, but fulltime people are not always available because they have other work to do'.

Sandi Rhys-Jones, former member of the Latham Equal Opportunities Working Group and founder of the Change the Face of Construction campaign, agrees: 'Male senior managers can disappear off to a two day conference without the sky falling in, but suggest that able, valuable and committed women could work three or four days a week and the cry goes up - 'supposing a client rings on her day off?'' And, although welcoming Hewitt's initiative, Rhys-Jones says the minister's announcement appeared to overlook one simple truth: 'If it wants to get women back to work, the first thing the Government should do is to give working women tax relief on childcare, ' she says.

Munt agrees. 'The Government does not regard childcare as a work related expense. That makes me furious, ' she says. 'If Baroness Greenfield doesn't look at the question of tax breaks for working women, she will have failed.'

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