By Megan Berger
Katie Symons is a mother of three and a structural engineer at Batchelar McDougall Consulting (BMC) in Christchurch. She’s also clear proof that a flexible work environment can have a huge impact on employees, and more importantly, on their family and home life.
Working at BMC for just over a year, Katie is currently involved in a number of projects focused on the seismic assessments of buildings in the Christchurch area. Her work involves collaborating with building owners and insurers to determine the extent of earthquake damage and designing the appropriate remedial strategies, working with clients including Addington Raceway, Vero NZ ltd and more.
Originally from the UK, Katie’s found the adjustment to New Zealand to be refreshing. “I’ve definitely seen a contrast here in people’s attitudes towards working part time with a young family,” said Katie. “When I came back from my first maternity leave my employer said, ‘Well, if you’re doing part time work, there’s no way we can have you managing projects, that just won’t work.’ I found that quite frustrating and short-sighted. My employer here in New Zealand has been a lot more flexible in basically saying, ‘well, whatever works best for you we’re going to try and make it work.’ It turns out that what works best for me is four days of work and I’m really pleased with that balance, it’s been working well.”
While a flexible work environment is key to helping mothers feel supported, Katie believes that it’s not just about achieving flexible schedules for women, but for men as well. “Sometimes, whether you’re able to go out and work depends on your partner’s schedule. If your partner is on a regimented contract and can’t afford to be late or leave early, that affects the other partner’s availability to go to their workplace,” said Katie.
In addition to designing scheduling that can accommodate the needs of all parents and caregivers, Katie believes that another crucial way to end the gender imbalance in engineering is through setting a good example for others to emulate. “Employers who allow their employees to have flexible working should shout about it more and show that they’re getting just as much out of their employees by allowing them to have a flexible schedule as they are when they give them a regimented system that can’t be changed.”
Despite acknowledging that diversity in engineering is incredibly unbalanced, Katie says that she still feels that she “belongs” in her industry and her workplace as a woman, and is proud to say that she’s an engineer. Part of this is due to BMC’s focus on encouraging co-workers to interact more during and after work hours. Whether it’s through a set morning or afternoon tea time to catch up, organising a fundraiser together or taking on mountain bike races, employees are engaged and involved in the workplace, which undoubtedly influences the environment.
Katie’s flexible, accommodating work environment is certainly not commonplace for all female engineers – yet. But by sharing these success stories and giving other companies solid, impactful benchmarks to aim for, we can get closer to closing to making engineering a more inclusive, supportive profession. “There’s room for us women to flourish both working as an engineer and meeting the demands of raising a family with some small flexibilities and alterations at work,” said Katie. “It is possible, and it works to everyone’s advantage to have more female engineers.”