Passing the maternity test

Viewpoint

Dawn Bonfield of the Women’s Engineering Society explains why it’s so important for companies not to let the skills of their female employees go to waste

This edition of Women in Engineering, and its focus on what companies can do to keep hold of their women engineers and ensure that they enjoy the same opportunities for career development as their male counterparts is very timely, and we have some clear recommendations to deliver for companies as a result of a survey which looked at retention after maternity breaks.

Between May and September 2014 the Women’s Engineering Society, along with partners TRS, Prospect Union and Women in Manufacturing, ran a survey called Women in STEM: Are you IN or OUT? which looked specifically at the area of retention and the effect of a maternity break on women’s careers. The survey was completed by over 5000 women with a STEM qualification, and it revealed that 60% of women found barriers to returning to work after a maternity break. Of this group 67% of those that are not currently in a STEM career would like to return to one. When questioned more closely about how they could be encouraged back into the sector after a break, 48% identified training as being one of the things that could help them return. A number of different training needs were identified including soft skills such as personal development, interview technique and confidence building, with sector specific retraining – possibly through distance learning modules also being strongly supported. Training for company managers on how to support women in the workplace during and after a maternity break was crucially also identified as an important need. Mentoring, both during (through a buddy system for example), and after the break is another area identified as being conducive to returning.

Lack of family friendly working hours was another predictable barrier to returning to work, with 10% citing flexitime as an enabler in returning to work. In practical terms, however, much more can be done by employers to overcome this barrier, with flexible working, condensed hours, compressed hours, job sharing and part-time working all offering business enhancing solutions.  Relatively few (27%) of our respondents benefitted from these more family-friendly options, but these benefits would suit men as well as women, so this is a key area for improvement. (And a surprisingly low 28% of respondents had taken maternity breaks, indicating the extent to which the engineering sector is family unfriendly.)

Another identified barrier was the inability of women with families to move to find employment (16%), but from an employer’s perspective this can be seen as an opportunity rather than a disadvantage, as it implies that the experience you might be looking for is on your doorstep. Much better local engagement, therefore, may pay dividends in getting experienced hires rather than a national recruitment campaign. This lack of freedom to travel also equates to loyalty to an employer, so it makes sense to keep the employment options open for an extended period of time – even on an informal basis – for those 33% of women who choose not to return after the statutory period of 12 months maternity leave. Companies willing to do this will reap the benefits in terms of regaining the experience of the employee, gaining the additional skills that they have acquired, and through increased commitment and loyalty.

One of the workplace cultural attitudes that we need to work hard at changing is the view that maternity leave is a cost to the business with no benefit, but with some effort and through case studies we can try to change this perception and work to try to see employees returning from a career break as an opportunity rather than a threat. A period of maternity cover can give the employer an opportunity to increase the skills and experience of another employee, and when the original employee returns there is an opportunity to move the returner into a new and more responsible role. What’s more, a maternity break should not be viewed as an inconvenience – as it often is – but as an important life experience that can give employees valuable new perspectives and approaches to problem solving that could of value to a business. This is a major cultural and attitudinal shift and one which will take some time and effort, but the benefits are there and should be exploited.

As with all of these barriers that women face in returning to employment, the solutions are achievable if the will is there, and the resulting benefits are considerable in bringing some much sought-after diversity to senior levels within the company. If you would like to receive a more detailed summary of the results and recommendations of this survey, then please get in touch.

Dawn Bonfield is a materials engineer and President Elect of the Women’s Engineering Society www.wes.org.uk