I’ve been wondering what the profession’s doing to tap into a resource that I think is getting lost – engineers returning to the profession after an absence due to life circumstances.

The most common group would be women who’ve put their focus into raising families. There are other groups (eg people who did the big OE, or those who make several career changes before they settle into engineering) but I want to focus on the mothers here.

Even with all the progress that’s been made in balancing gender equity, it’s still usually women whose careers are interrupted. This is not a discussion of the rights or wrongs of this, but an observation that sets the scene for the real discussion.

It's a disgrace, in my opinion, that women still form only about 20 percent of engineering graduates. This means there are potentially another 30 percent of graduates who would contribute significant ideas and potentially different ways of viewing problems. As an example, has it occurred to you that the current hole the building regulators are driving the industry into might be significantly affected if we bring the fresh view that women might have into the decision-making process?

Let’s focus on the group of women who find themselves with children at school, with a little more time on their hands. They’ve worked hard to get through university and get established in their careers in a typically male dominated environment. As a result, they generally have a great work ethic and very high ethical values – they just often have to be better than their male counterparts to make the same progress. Just as they are about to take the next step to seek Chartered status an internal war begins, and many find themselves wanting children. This is equally true for men. However, for women it has the potential to be a career-altering decision.

Choosing to have children, can cut right across career advancement and promotion opportunities. Even with the current parental leave provisions, someone has to find the time to be the primary caregiver. The simple practicalities of life mean that generally it is the women who commit the next 10 years of their lives to creating a family and running around after the kids. That commitment can mean abandoning their career for a while. However, why disadvantage these women when they want to restart their careers?

Some employers still think having someone working part time, who might have to attend to the needs of the family at short notice, somehow makes their engineering contribution less. Surely we should look at the work achieved versus the hours paid for. If there’s one thing Covid-19 has taught us it’s that workers who are able to control their own workstreams, balanced with the rest of their lives, are more productive.

Parents develop a lot of additional skills, and these can benefit the engineering profession. This is just one of the advantages mothers looking to rejoin the engineering workforce can bring. Sometimes it seems they have to fight the same fight all over again to gain meaningful recognition. They will not have forgotten the principles they learnt as young engineers. It wouldn’t take long to update them on current practice, which can be done through courses and reading.

Sometimes women wanting to return to the profession are reluctant to expose themselves to rejection. They worry they have lost touch, can only offer part-time hours, and worry about balancing work and home life. If these engineers don’t re-join the profession, we all lose an incalculably valuable resource.

It’s up to all of us to help change this, and to do so will benefit all of us. As engineering team leaders, let’s open our minds and hearts to the possible. Let’s embrace and encourage the diversity that will help lift our profession into the middle of the 21st Century and beyond.

Peter graduated in 1972 and has had a career in engineering, building and teaching. He is a director of PvG Design Ltd, a small structural consulting firm based in North Auckland. He is also the founding chair of the EGP SIG and a CPEng lead assessor.