Women wary of career breaks

Women are still wary of negative consequences associated with taking a break from their careers to have children, raise a family or help take care of their elderly parents.

I'm reminded of this attitude with the release yesterday of a new survey at the Society of Women Engineers conference in Baltimore.


The survey, commissioned by manufacturer Honeywell International Inc. in partnership with the industry group, polled 512 female engineers with up to 20 years' experience in the workplace. The study has a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.

Of the 400 women who haven't taken a career break yet, 45 percent said they expect to take one in the next 10 years.


Raising children and maternity leave were the top two reasons for taking a hiatus among the 112 women who have taken a leave. Of those women, 78 percent returned to work either full or part time as engineers.

But a large number of women engineers - nearly 80 percent - say there is a stigma attached to taking time off. And 82 percent believe that their careers are harmed by taking a job break.

Almost four out of 10 female engineers believe the profession is doing a "very bad job" of encouraging women to return to work, while 22 percent said the same for their employer.

Yet 89 percent of women said they would more likely re-enter the work force if their employer offered assistance or benefits to ease the transition, the survey found.

But 46 percent of women who returned to work said they received no assistance to help with their transition.

Among the options that would support their returns, the women pointed to flexible work arrangements, mentors and networking with other colleagues coming back to work.

Karen Horting, deputy executive director for the Society of Women Engineers, says the profession needs programs to address the needs of women re-entering the work force. While women make up 20 percent of students graduating with engineering degrees, they make up only 11 percent of the work force, she says.

"We're fighting to get young women in this pipeline," Horting says. "We're ignoring the fact that it's quite leaky, especially at the point where they're having families or getting involved in elder care."


In recent years, some large employers have taken steps to make it easier for women who take time off to return to the work force, known as "on-ramping."

They're offering networking events, mentorships, training programs and freelance work to keep ex-employees tied to their firms.

One example is Sara Lee Corp., which announced last month that it developed a program that provides "returnships" for men and women who want to come back to the work force after an extended leave. Sara Lee is led by Chief Executive Officer Brenda C. Barnes, who made news in 1997 when she stepped down from her job as president and chief executive of PepsiCo's North American operations to spend more time with her family.

Honeywell also recently launched a program for female engineers looking to return to the work force. The program offers assistance, such as mentoring and leadership development training.

"We noticed in the field, working with the Society of Women Engineers, that they don't necessarily have a vehicle to get back into engineering," says Lynn Castrataro, Honeywell's director of global diversity. "We recognize that women are leaving, and we really value women and diversity because we're a technology company."

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