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Balancing a Career and Family Life as a Female Engineer

by Barbara Lange

Originally, I had absolutely no affinity for the natural sciences or engineering." Ines Claudia Bender discovered her passion for the engineering subjects only later, during her degree. She has never regretted her decision to study mechanical engineering: for almost 30 years now, she has worked with enthusiasm in industry as an engineer. On the fascination and recipe for success to having both a fulfilling career and a family.

Balancing a career and family life as a female engineer© privateA demanding and secure job were the reasons for Claudia Bender to choose a position as an engineer
Curiosity and a desire for challenges influenced Bender's decision for the profession, for neither her parents nor her immediate environment had a technical orientation. "I was not born into the engineering profession!" Indeed, Ines Claudia Bender dropped all technical and mathematical subjects in sixth form and instead chose to focus on languages and social sciences.

The now 51-year-old analysed her future career prospects carefully before deciding what to study. The humanities subjects ultimately failed on all fronts. "Only engineering remained. For I wanted to have a challenging, crisis-proof job later on that would also feed a family." The subject that she believed offered the best conditions for this ultimately remained: mechanical engineering.

"In the first two semesters, the professors undoubtedly had bets on how long I would survive. But in the end, I graduated with a very respectable final mark," she says and emphasises: "I have not regretted this decision a single day in my 30-year career."

Communicating internationally as an engineer

After starting in production planning and quality control, Ines Claudia Bender today manages the customer service department for a business segment at a large international automotive supplier. "Our clients are automotive manufacturers, who send us parts end customers have filed complaints about. We analyse these parts, introduce improvement processes as required, communicate the field performance of our products within the company, and conduct technical and monetary discussions with the client." Her department has a total of ten in-house employees and several more at the company's locations worldwide.

One of her major focuses lies on communication - with both the automotive manufacturers and her colleagues and management executives across all continents. This does not really correspond with the typical perception of an engineering job. "Most people imagine an engineer to be someone rather introverted who sits in a quiet little room and invents something amazing. But the reality in the industry is that more than 80 per cent of engineers perform entirely different tasks to that of the ingenious inventor," Bender emphasises. In sales, for example, in production with the associated fields of work preparation and logistics, or - similar to Bender - in customer service. The engineering profession is highly diversified. "A great many opportunities exist for a wide variety of people with very different talents," she emphasises.

Time for women to believe in themselves

This also applies for women, for the engineering profession remains a male-dominated domain at all career levels. To communicate these advantages, Bender got involved in the VDI's MINTalente project as a role model and in BayernMentoring/WoMenTec at Bavarian universities as a mentor.

In both projects, female students are able to find out about the different fields of work as well as the day-to-day professional and family lives of female engineers during events, personal development seminars and a personal exchange between mentor and mentee.

This being said, it is currently easier to find mentors than it is mentees. For, in Bender's experience, female students barely seem to have any time to spare in their carefully planned and timed everyday lives to take advantage of these offers.

Employer trust is decisive to balancing family and a career

The question of how a career and family life can be balanced is decisive for many. Things worked out well for Bender. Her position provided the financial freedom to organise her family life with the help of a full-time housekeeper, who also looked after her children. "It is far easier to balance family life and a career with the necessary money," the mother of two believes.

After the birth of her first child, she worked just 19 hours a week as part of the company's parental leave arrangements. "This led to a marked regression in the level of my work." Her duties were far less challenging than during her full-time position.

When she became pregnant for a second time, she sought firm commitment from her superior that she could return to an unchanged management position, regardless of how much parental leave she decided to take and the working time model she ultimately opted for. "They also honoured this commitment. This pledge was very important to me and immensely reassuring during my pregnancy, hence I now adopt a similar approach with my female employees," emphasises Bender. Today she works full-time again, but also has a workstation at home and organises her family life with her 11 and 18-year-old children with the support of a part-time housekeeper.

Set priorities

Several key qualities proved their worth: a healthy dose of pragmatism, an ability to set priorities, organisational skills and a clear, structured mindset. The selection of subjects already proved these qualities that Bender was able to develop further during her engineering degree. "I believe that as a manager, I am very clear and decisive. But it is also very important to me how the people around me are doing. A sure sense of priorities is important in this and, most important of all: I trust in my employees. Independent employees whose expertise is supported are able to work autonomously so that the department also continues to function when I am not in the office."

She has abandoned the demand of herself and others for perfection. Overall, she believes she fills very few stereotypes: Bender evades the role models that require the few women in engineering professions to achieve more than their male peers. "I did not fall into the trap of having to push myself to the very limit or to pander to pleasantries, but have instead learned to say 'No'." However, she lacked the female role models for orientation. She is now attempting to remedy this for the next generation of female engineers as a mentor.

On her management level, she has many male colleagues with whom she gets on with very well for the most part. Men occupy all management positions above her. One possible reason for this is that you have to accept compromises and make sacrifices to attain the according management levels. "Men are more willing to compromise, as they are able to derive more personal satisfaction from an increase in power. Among the majority of women, I do not see this connection as such. In my eyes, this is one of the reasons that many women abstain from going to such great lengths for their career and management positions. The price is simply too high for them." And: "For me, it was always important to have both a fulfilling job and a family with children."

Doctorate is not essential in industry

Bender made a conscious decision not to complete a doctorate. "For an engineer in academia or research, a doctorate is by all means necessary. But those wishing to work in industry, primarily for medium-sized companies, would do well to weigh up the pros and cons."

The presence of more women in engineering professions would undoubtedly alleviate the situation. A female quota is currently on the agenda for political discussion. Bender is in favour of a female quota: "Yes, I am in favour of a female quota, though I would like one for the company management levels all the way up to the executive board. Women in supervisory boards are not visible enough in everyday working life to be able to serve as role models. Moreover, yes, I would not have a problem with being seen as the token woman. I would, of course, accept the job without batting an eyelid." Engineer Bender would still have to perform though, and to prove her worth with every new task despite the quota.

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academics :: January 2014