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Women and careers

Debate

Women face some tough choices when they start a family and many find themselves slipping off the career ladder as the demands of family life put them under pressure to place their working lives on hold.

This week we ask: Should women expect to be able to juggle a successful career in civil engineering with bringing up a family?

Yes

Sue Kershaw, assistant director London Projects, Strategic Rail Authority and mother of Tom (3) and Alex May (8 months).

Civil engineering needs to become a more interesting, vibrant, modern profession, and having women in senior positions is one way of helping to achieve this. Employers and colleagues must also accept that women (and men) at whatever level will need to take time off to have children and care for them.

Civil engineering faces a continuing skills shortage and so must look at ways of harnessing the talents of highly qualified women. If they leave the industry when they have fully developed their skills and do not return, we have lost a real asset.

The best candidates need to be recruited and retained within the profession whether they have children or not.

Current statistics on female childlessness indicate that female professionals are actively choosing between their careers and having children, while men are not. This speaks volumes about real equality of opportunity and the future.

With the best will in the world, juggling work with looking after children to the same high standards is not easy, especially in the UK where little help is provided in the form of childcare or tax breaks. A committed partner, compassionate employer, good friends, a supportive family and a desire to succeed are a prerequisite, just as they are for those with ageing parents or family members with disabilities.

Balancing work with bringing up a family needs careful planning and precision timing, but having a career and a family can be complementary and great fun. It can allow women and their partners the chance to have a more rounded and fulfilling life.

We should all act together to make working practices more fitting for our time. I am extremely fortunate to work for the Strategic Rail Authority which recognises this.

It costs £250,000 to train a graduate engineer and it seems ridiculous to throw this away by forcing well qualified, talented women out of civil engineering by persisting with an inflexible long hours culture which excludes those with families.

No

Betty Stewart, mother and wife of civil engineer Many girls these days are eager to make a successful career and work hard to qualify in their chosen professions. Sooner or later they get married and in due course they decide they would like children. No need to worry say the 'women's libbers', because you can have it all. It is quite easy these days to have a successful career and be a successful mother. You simply get a nanny to look after the babies when you are working.

But the idea of handing over your babies to a total stranger - or even a relative - to bring up five days a week should be abhorrent unless a career is more important than your child.

A growing volume of research shows that children need continual contact with a loving mother to develop their full potential. They need their mothers in times of sickness and in times of stress; to see them off to school and to welcome them home; to give them proper standards; to listen to their worries and solve their problems. It is not and cannot be a part time job.

Unfortunately civil engineering is not a particularly good choice of career if you have a child. It needs great concentration to avoid errors and this would be difficult if you were worried about your child, especially a sick child. It often involves overseas travel or long spells away from home and - if my husband is typical - it can involve very long hours.

All I am saying is that if you have children, it is your duty to leave work to look after them during their formative years. You can always go back to work later.

If you find this unacceptable, then you should not have children and I feel sorry for what you will be missing.

Life is hard. You cannot have it all!

The facts lNew legislation entitles parents to a total of three months' unpaid leave during the first five years of a child's life to care for a child.

The Equal Opportunities Commission says that women who become pregnant sometimes find their employers' attitude towards them changes. Employers have been known to delay promotions, refuse to adapt their jobs to reduce health and safety risks and even dismiss women for reasons connected with their pregnancy. For more details go to www. eoc. org. uk lThe Institution of Civil Engineers has an equal opportunities forum called ICEFLOE, set up in 1999. More details are available on the ICE website www. ice. org. uk lThe Department of Trade & Industry's Maternity Rights: a guide for employers and employees details employers' legal obligations to mothers and expectant mothers at work.

It is available at www. dti. gov. uk

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