Jason Saundalkar speaks to four women about their experiences of starting families in the AEC industry and the role their firms and their maternity policies played
Last year, when Middle East Consultant kicked off its focus on the lack of gender diversity in the construction industry, the global and regional figures made for grim reading. A year on, the figures haven’t changed significantly; however, several regional players have stepped up their efforts to achieve gender parity through new initiatives and policies.
While the move towards gender balance and attracting fresh skills to the industry continues in earnest, industry players must also keep one eye fixed on the professionals who are already a part of their organisations. Retaining professionals is equally as important as recruiting the architects and engineers of tomorrow – and a big part of the former is establishing a family-friendly environment that caters to professionals who are starting families, as well as those that already have young children.
Under the family-friendly umbrella, industry players will have to look at elements such as maternity and paternity policies, paid and unpaid leave, flexible/remote working, influencing the supply chain and much more. At the moment, although there are no verified figures to highlight this, most AEC firms rely on local laws to create their own policies.
The UAE Labour Law currently has no provisions for paternity leave in the private sector, while maternity leave is outlined as follows, according to www.government.ae:
A working woman is entitled to a maternity leave of 45 days, including the time before and after delivery. If the woman has completed one year of continuous employment for the same employer, she is entitled to full pay during maternity leave; otherwise, she is entitled to half pay. In addition, after delivery, the woman is entitled to two additional breaks each day, with each break not exceeding half an hour, for nursing her child. The woman is entitled to such breaks for 18 months following the date of delivery and is entitled to full pay.
Discussing her firm’s maternity policy, Christine Espinosa-Erlanda, architect at Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ), says, “My company follows the UAE law with regard to maternity benefits and policies, but employees are permitted to take extended unpaid leave at the discretion of the company and approved by the partners. My last maternity leave was 45 calendar days of paid leave, but I opted to extend this for a further five months to look after my daughter.”
Anna Hickman, senior associate Urban Designer at AECOM adds, “AECOM provides the statutory 45 days’ paid maternity leave and two half-hour slots per day for nursing until the child turns 18 months. In reality, most mums take much longer maternity leave; line managers are very accommodating of this. I had originally planned to take six months’ leave after the birth of my first child, but extended it to 12. I had post-natal depression and didn’t feel ready to return to work after just six months. With my second child, I extended my leave from six to nine months.”
In contrast to the norm, Clare Evans, project manager and Business Change leader at SNC-Lavalin, points out that her firm has several maternity initiatives in place. “At SNC-Lavalin, having policies that support women’s empowerment at the workplace is key to leveraging our diversity and inclusion business goals. We increased our maternity leave policy in mid-2016 and I had my first baby in February 2017, so it was great timing for me. We now offer 14 weeks’ paid leave with an additional optional six months’ unpaid leave.”
She adds, “During the unpaid leave we can use KiT days (Keeping in Touch days) to come into the office for a day a month and get paid for this, to attend team meetings and keep up to date with what is happening in the organisation. I made use of the full unpaid leave and the KiT days. On my return to work I was also entitled to feeding breaks until my baby was 18 months old. I am now pregnant with my second baby, and plan to take the full entitlement again.”
While SNC-Lavalin’s policies and initiatives are the exception rather than the norm, other firms have expressed a readiness to adopt more supportive maternity policies. Fiona Liddell, assistant quality manager at SSH, comments, “Having recently joined SSH, its policies are aligned with in-country legislation, which is not a bad thing and is certainly not isolated. However, SSH’s leadership is open to reviewing its current policies, which is what I liked about the company and is what I have a passion for supporting.”
She elaborates, “I would love to use this opportunity to help put the most appropriate policies in place for the organisation to support women in the workplace. There is already a big focus on recruiting and retaining the best talent across the organisation, and anything we can do to support working parents in general will aid these endeavours. At the time of giving birth to my daughter Erin, my maternity leave with my previous employer was 45 days. However, I took around five months in total, which was a mixture of annual leave and unpaid leave added to the maternity leave of 45 days.”
The Right Amount of Support?
Asked about her thoughts on her firm’s maternity policies in relation to her and her children’s needs, GAJ’s Espinosa-Erlanda notes, “I am grateful for the maternity leave, but I feel that 45 days is too short. The first three months after giving birth is a crucial bonding time, but also the baby needs to feed every two to three hours, and so going back to work with very little sleep is detrimental to a new mother’s health. This is one of the reasons I opted to take extended leave. The maternity policy also includes nursing breaks until the child is 18 months old, which means I get an hour nursing break each working day. However, quite often the demands of my work means that I don’t always get to take this hour.”
SSH’s Liddell adds, “My daughter Erin was born in 2015. At the time, with my previous employer, the policy was in line with labour law (the minimum number of paid days off), but didn’t give me any kind of flexibility that I needed to look after my newborn child. It was a real worry, and I had to make a strategic plan for how we as a family were going to manage my unpaid leave, or whether we could afford for me to have any unpaid leave at all. It was very hard for us as a young family, as we had moved to Dubai for an opportunity I was given. As the breadwinner, this was incredibly difficult for us, knowing that it would make a huge dent in our monthly income while taking account of the new outgoings that come with a new-born baby.
“I chose to carry on working right up to my due date. Thankfully the hospital was close to the office, which was very convenient. Working closely with my line manager on my maternity plan along the way, I ensured we were aligned all the time. This gave me a huge level of comfort, allowing me to focus on my work.”
AECOM’s Hickman says the support of her line manager and her company’s flexibility gave her the confidence to have another child. “Being able to return to work between having children meant that I didn’t lose touch with the industry. I’m now pregnant with my third child and am planning to take a similar amount of leave before returning to the workplace.”
SNC-Lavalin’s Evans adds, “Our policies gave me the flexibility to have as much time off as I needed, and since my return to work I have also taken advantage of our flexible working policy, which works well as I have an internal, non client-facing role. I work full-time hours but can work from home when needed and can leave early and spend some time with my daughter, and then log back in and continue working when she is asleep.”
The Challenges of the AEC Industry
Carrying a child to term is difficult at the best of times, and it’s fair to say the challenges increase by an order of magnitude when working in the AEC industry, taking into account long working hours, working on-site, site visits and demanding clients.
Highlighting the issues she faced in carrying her child to term, SSH’s Liddell explains, “Parking on-site is never easy. My previous office had a ‘Pregnant Mum’ space, which helped – this is a nice offering to consider on project sites. Sitting at my desk on my normal office chair became quite challenging and uncomfortable. Luckily, a friend recommended a gym ball to me – a welcome little tip!”
AECOM’s Hickman states, “The biggest issues I’ve faced while pregnant are client-related. During my second pregnancy, I was the project manager on a challenging project where the client would contact me at all hours of the day. While my colleagues were very understanding of my pregnancy (and the need to rest), the client certainly wasn’t!”
GAJ’s Espinosa-Erlanda recalls, “The first trimester of my pregnancy was a difficult time for me and I was in and out of the hospital a few times, so I had to take sick leave, which meant that I used up all my leave before my due date. During the second term of pregnancy, I was leading projects but had to take a step back and focus on my pregnancy. I did worry initially that I would not be able to meet the deadlines; however, I am fortunate that I have an incredibly supportive team and we managed to finish the presentations on time.
“It was also difficult to be so far removed from what was going on in the office for an extended period, as I was still receiving calls and queries regularly, so I needed to be on top of progress and deadlines. All through what was a difficult pregnancy, I had the full support of my line manager and the partners, even to the point of relocating me to a desk nearer the door so I didn’t have to walk so far to the exit or to get a drink.”
SNC-Lavalin’s Evans lists other issues: “Tiredness, worrying about my role on my return to work, and the attitude of others in the office who may unconsciously stop involving you in things as you are not going to be around.” She cautions, “Raising awareness is equally important to address perception challenges. Unconscious bias training is important for both men and women to understand where their own biases are, and how they can become more aware of them. We are rolling out this training for all SNC-Lavalin’s staff across the region, starting with management and hiring managers, to try and make a real difference.”
While this is a limited sample size of interviewees, what’s encouraging to see here is that firms do make allowances, and in some cases are already changing to better support professionals that are starting families or already have young children. As more women enter the AEC industry, however, concrete policies and initiatives will have to be put in place to ensure that professionals can have families while continuing to deliver the cities, structures and infrastructure of tomorrow.