Engineering a good work life balance

Pamela Wilson loves her job. It is the combination of that love and the flexible working offered by her employer BAE Systems that has cemented her commitment in a traditionally male-dominated sector.

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Pamela is a Systems and Software Manager at BAE Systems. She started working for the company in 1988, but had a period when she worked as a consultant in Italy for six and a half years after BAE merged with GEC.

While in Italy, Pamela became pregnant with her son and took five months’ maternity leave before returning to work full time. When her son was two the family decided to move back to the UK and Pamela went straight back to a full-time job in BAE Systems.

She then became pregnant again. She had planned to take a year off for maternity leave, but she was in the middle of launching a new project.

This kicked off during her maternity leave and she used all her KIT days to stay in touch and support the project. She ended up coming back a couple of months earlier than planned since she was a key player in the project, which involved fitting a trials helmet display system into a helicopter, and wanted to be there for the crucial early stages.

However, she returned on three days a week. Her baby was not sleeping well and she was an older mother – she’s now 47 – so she found it harder to cope with a full-time job.

That was in 2011. However, around four months later she found three days was not enough for her to be able to do the kind of challenging role she wanted to so she increased to four days. “I wanted to give the job more and I could see the business needed more engineering support.

I would have happily stayed full time, but I couldn’t do it. The compromise was four days,” she says. “It gives me time to recharge my batteries.

I think if I worked full time I would be ill more and more exhausted so I wouldn’t do such a good job. I’d spend the weekends being exhausted. It’s about getting a work life balance, but if I could have gone back full time I would have. I love my job.”

She says working part time has not hindered her career progression: “I was able to move into my current role as a Systems and Software Manager last July, the only change being to move my day off to Thursday from Wednesday to ensure I could support the weekly team meetings.”

Pamela’s current role means she is responsible for developing the skills of the systems and software engineers who work on Helmet Mounted and Head Up Displays (mostly for use in aircraft environments). Her job involves ensuring that the projects have systems and software engineers they need to design, build and test their product.

The job also includes developing the engineers in her team, ensuring improvements are continuously made, controlling costs, facilitating innovation, and holding performance and development reviews with each engineer several times throughout the year.

To support knowledge sharing and process improvements for the engineers she is currently developing an internal website that enables the engineers to have all the information that they need at the click of a button.

Flexible working improves loyalty

To get the work life balance she needs Pamela tends to do one or two very long days and is able to work from home some of the time too.

She is the main earner in her family. Her husband is self employed and is very flexible. He can pick up the children and take them to work with him if necessary.

For instance, her three year old is in nursery for half days four days a week and then her husband has him.

Pamela says she has been approached to work for other companies, but her response is: “Can you offer me something that will make me happier than what I am doing at the moment working part time.”

She says: “It would have to be a huge package. In that sense the flexibility that BAE Systems offers has made me more committed.”

She adds that of the six female engineers she trained with, she has kept in touch with five. One is self employed and runs her own business from home.

The other four gave up work when they had children.  She also knows another female engineer who is trying to get back in, but is finding it hard to find a flexible job. Pamela says the difference for her is the work life balance she has and the fact that she so loves her job, but doesn’t have to sacrifice being a mum.

BAE Systems is trying to boost the number of women it recruits through case studies of women like Pamela. Jo Scullion, Recruitment Project Manager, says the organisation is aiming to to attract women at both ends of the spectrum with the early careers team targeting universities and ambassadors who visit schools to talk about engineering.

“There’s a huge amount of outreach,” she says, “particularly to increase the number of women and ethnic minority applications we receive.

Jo in the experienced hires recruitment team and is a member of the BAE Systems UK Diversity & Inclusion Working Group. She says the organisation is trying very hard to increase its employer branding by partnering with organisations like the Women’s Engineering Society and and promoting positive role models.

It also wants to emphasise its flexible working policies and how they also help to support dads being more involved in childcare issues.

One of its businesses, Naval Ships, has a smart working programme which recognises that employees have different requirements and therefore values output and productivity over expectations that everyone works the same way. The programme offers support for managers to discuss what smart working is with their teams.

It also has smart working champions around the business as well as case studies on the intranet, including the Managing Director talking about how he “works smart”, illustrating senior leadership endorsement of the approach.

The intention is to spread this programme to other parts of the business, where this is feasible. “As far as possible we are trying to change mindsets and ensure that there is always a yes for smart working if there is a valid business reason rather than a no unless an employee can convince their manager otherwise,” says Jo.

Training Managers to think about Flexible Working

Her team has also put Diversity & Inclusion messages into its training package, Passport to Recruit. One of the key messages is about thinking flexibly.

“That means managers should think whether someone they hire has to sit in the same office in the same geographical area as them and work standard hours.

They should think how flexible they can be and how being flexible can help widen the talent pool they draw from,” says Jo. The training package is available through the intranet and is actively promoted to the businesses.

While every company in BAE Systems operates slightly differently, many in the UK have set up women’s networks and the organisation plans to link them all up as part of its Diversity & Inclusion agenda.

Across the whole of BAE Systems there is a women’s global virtual forum which holds quarterly presentations via Webex. These are put on the intranet so anyone in the business can access them. Jo says they allow women to share experiences on career progression and best practice in diversity and inclusion.

Pamela takes part in the forum and says it provides positive role models to other women and discusses the issues facing women in developing careers in the engineering sector and what holds them back.

She also supports Early Careers activities for the company by giving talks in schools and supporting workshops, some of which specifically target girls interested in going into engineering. And she networks, including through Women in Engineering training events which she says gives her a broader view of the issues facing women.

She says: “I get so much enjoyment from my work. I feel I am a better person for having that time at work.”

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