Working mothers need flexibility to progress their careers

The industry can be more flexible in its working practices to accommodate the needs of working mothers, writes Roseanna Bloxham.

As a woman engineer, now at the stage where I’m managing large multidisciplinary geotechnical-led projects, I’ve never experienced any gender-related work issues. However, I know this is not the case for my female colleagues who have had children.

Our geosciences team is still unusual because it’s over a third female, and our geosciences director is a woman. RSK offers flexible and part time working to both men and women, which helps women engineers drive their careers forward once they have children.

But there’s only so much a company can do to support women when the nature of site work is still not conducive to working motherhood. The received wisdom is that site investigation work is by its nature inflexible; you have to load up the van the night before, you have to be on site by 8am to give instructions to the operatives working the machinery and carry out health and safety checks, you have to monitor the day’s work to ensure it’s conducted to the proper standard and you have to clear up the site and makes sure it’s properly locked up after the contractors have left.

It’s really difficult for working mothers to be on site by 8am, because most childcare facilities are not open at 6am, when they would need to drop off their children. Therefore after having children female engineers are still tending to go back into desk roles. Our company addresses this problem in various ways, one of which is to use graduates to support senior women engineers. The graduate can be there early to set up and late to lock up, while the senior consultant can devote her expertise to the technicalities of, for example, soil sampling.

However, we could go further in challenging the industry’s ingrained beliefs about site work. People say there’s no flexibility in relation to an early start, because a team of people is there waiting. But why does work have to start at 8am? This is not a necessity but a working practice enshrined in the industry since the time when it was exclusively male.

Construction workers don’t like to sit in traffic because they need to transport heavy machinery, which makes their vehicles hard to handle. They therefore travel before the morning rush hour and before the evening rush hour. There’s strong industry ethos that a proper day’s work (which I’ve even heard described as “a man’s day’s work”) means starting early, while knocking off early is culturally acceptable. In many jobs that we do in London, people arrive at 6.30am and go home at 2.30pm.

It would just as feasible to start work at 10am, after the morning rush hour, and to go home late. This would suit working mothers much better, as evening childcare is much easier to arrange than early morning childcare. Of course heat is an issue in summer, but in the UK summer is only a short part of the working year.

We find that it’s often a case of simply suggesting to clients that they work to a different timescale. Clients are usually happy to accommodate the needs of a valued female engineer if brought to their attention. And construction clients are often receptive if we say (outside the summer months) “for this particular project, the working hours will be 10-6”.

Roseanna Bloxham is a senior geo-environmental engineer at environmental consultancy RSK. Last month she won Best Woman Consultant at the 2017 European Women in Construction and Engineering Awards.