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Why career breaks shouldn’t mean career ends – Dawn Bonfield, President of the Women’s Engineering Society

Women engineers

Dawn Bonfield is the President of the Women’s Engineering Society. Dawn has previously worked for the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, British Aerospace and PSA Peugeot Citroën. In 2015 the Society celebrates its 96th anniversary and marked the occasion on 23rd June with National Women in Engineering Day.

Dawn Bonfield
Dawn Bonfield

“…we have heard anecdotally that it costs a company as much as £200,000 to have to retrain an experienced engineer.., so we know that companies have a business reason for not letting these experienced women go…”

National Women in Engineering Day comes around again on 23 June 2015, for the second year. In 2014 the Women’s Engineering Society established this awareness day as a way of celebrating our 95th anniversary. In 1919 at the end of the First World War the Women’s Engineering Society became the home for women who had worked in the technical and engineering professions during the war, who had then seen their livelihood taken away from them by the Restoration of Pre War Practices Act which sent them back to the home.

Organised networks crucial in strengthening the collective voice of women in engineering

At that time of the suffrage movement these organised networks were crucial in strengthening the collective voice of these women, and still today we are so acutely aware of the need for women’s network groups to support under-represented women’s and other minority groups in engineering and allied applied science professions.

The idea behind setting up a dedicated day to support women in engineering came when I noticed that a prominent engineering organisation that attracts many women – Engineering Without Borders – was using International Women’s Day to celebrate their women engineers. This made me think, well why not have a separate day just for this purpose? So this is exactly what we did last year, and the result was phenomenal.

Celebrating the achievements of women in engineering and trending above #Wimbledon and #WorldCup

The purpose of the day is to celebrate the achievements of women in engineering and draw attention to the great careers that are available for girls. This broad aim means that the day is accessible to a whole range of participants, and we found last year that hundreds of organisations celebrated the day in ways that were appropriate to their needs, their resources and their enthusiasm, and we had a wide and diverse range of imaginative events taking place.

We were completely blown away by the size and scale of support for this first day, and this was evidenced by the way the hashtag #nwed trended on twitter above #Wimbledon (on its first day) and even above the #WorldCup. We reached a readership of over 10 million people through articles in National newspapers alone, and the reach on social media was incredible.

Three times as many resource packs sent out this year

This year, therefore, there was no choice about whether we would repeat the day given its overwhelming success last year, and that’s exactly what we have done. We employed an amazing graduate intern, Amina Khalid, to overhaul our website and start early with the marketing, and as a result of this the number of resource packs we have sent out in the post rose from 250 last year to 750 this year. We already know of over 100 events taking place and we hope to reach a bigger number of people again on social media and through the printed press.

All of this highlights the progress we have made in getting diversity in engineering more of a mainstream issue, and indicates the appetite that companies have to attract and support more women engineers.

Women Returners – career breaks should mean career ends

Mother and sonThe focus of the Women’s Engineering Society day this year is Women Returners. This is an issue dear to my own heart as I didn’t return to a successful career in engineering after having my third child. Part-time working for me meant a loss of responsibility, a feeling of reduced worth, and then when the financial cost of childcare for three children outweighed the benefit of the salary it became time for me to give up. But we have heard anecdotally that it costs a company as much as £200,000 to have to retrain an experienced engineer at that stage of their career, so we know that companies have a business reason for not letting these experienced women go, and we are working hard to find ways of ensuring that career breaks don’t mean career ends.

Returnships – the answer..?

One of the ways we have identified to do this is through the Returnship Programme, which is an idea that has come from the States which is similar to Internships, where the women return to a formal fixed term programme that enables them to regain their confidence, their knowledge, and their business ‘feet’ before being expected to perform at their pre-break level. It is a kind of stepping stone back in to the workplace that can allow them the opportunity to re-integrate whilst at the same time managing the practicalities around childcare.

Potential to the industry of women on career breaks

But women on career breaks have so much more potential to the industry, and so far this has been untapped. These women provide a crucial link to schools and to the community, and we have never utilised this link. We know, for example, that girls are often put off engineering by their mothers who often just don’t understand what it involves as a career.

Influencing other mothers at the school gate and as a resource to promote careers in the classroom

Imagine if we could use our skilled career break women to influence these other mothers at the school gate, or as a resource for teachers in the classroom in promoting careers? In fact, that’s exactly what happened on a number of occasions on National Women in Engineering Day last year. We noticed individual women being inspired to take the initiative and just go into their local schools to speak to the pupils about their careers. Imagine if we could harness this enthusiasm more widely and actually support this activity with dedicated resources?

Valuable female resource that is already in such short supply

The WES conference this year is all about Women Returners and what best practice exists out there to support this important group of engineers. I hope that we will have a successful conference, and beyond that be in a position to promote this best practice more widely to other organisations so that we don’t lose this valuable female resource that is already in such short supply.

Happy National Women in Engineering Day! #nwed





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