Engineering is a competitive and challenging profession. Deciding whether to go for a specific promotion, leave a job to start your own business, or go back to school can be difficult, with potentially career-altering, even life-altering, consequences. The personal dynamics behind such career decisions are sometimes overlooked, but it’s essential to recognize them and the accompanying stressors they may present.
Well-meaning family and friends can often be the source of external pressures to settle down or be risk-averse in one’s career strategy. Such pressures can lead to feelings of guilt when it comes to fully pursuing one’s ambitions. Guilt caused by feeling as though one is neglecting other opportunities — those conventionally and traditionally expected to be of higher value to women — can have a negative influence on one’s mental health. Furthering a seemingly vicious cycle, the stress from these situations can only compound our difficulties in aiming to flourish in the workplace. These common experiences, shared by many women, were expressed most prominently by Anne-Marie Slaughter, D.Phil., J.D., in her often-cited piece in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
The classic example of this is the decision women face with regard to having children. Feeling pressure to have children can cloud our ability to make risky career moves. If one does decide to have children, there is guilt associated with working long hours, not spending enough time at home, and neglecting their family. In the case of a partner or co-parent, it is key to ask whether family responsibilities are being shared equally. Further, are there mechanisms in your workplace to adopt a more flexible schedule that allows you to work at home? These are all factors that can be taken into account when processing complex feelings in an attempt to turn them into constructive solutions.
Well-meaning family and friends can often be the source of external pressures to settle down or be risk-averse in one’s career strategy. Such pressures can lead to feelings of guilt when it comes to fully pursuing one’s ambitions.
Personal and Social Solutions
These attitudes pressuring women to remain risk averse in their careers have resulted in a lack of female entrepreneurs, executives, and academics in engineering, an outcome that has taken generations to change. A component of that change is understanding how individuals around us, including but extending outward from our chosen life partners to our mentors, business partners, or anyone with whom we have a relationship, can and do affect our careers.
Through analyzing these relationships, we can start to become more aware of how they affect our decisions, and then empower ourselves to make well-founded, guilt-free career moves. As the concept of the workplace grows ever-more fluid with the constantly connected world we live in, it is becoming increasingly more important to build strong, supportive, and positive relationships.
When it comes to personal relationships, family and friends specifically, if you’re feeling crunched for time or a pressure to work less, it’s helpful to look at all the factors. First, having open and honest channels of communication can bring a wealth of cooperation and balance into a household. If all parties feel free to express their opinions and construct a solution as a team, then occasional career stresses can often be weathered successfully. Communication is key.
While communication is one of the most important factors to build and maintain positive personal relationships during particularly demanding times at work, jealousy is another factor to look out for in your personal relationships. Rather than cutting seemingly jealous people out of your life, it will benefit your own growth to consider the scenario from their perspective. What professional characteristics does the other person have that can potentially complement yours? Think of an opportunity to work on a mutually beneficial project.
A sense of equality and agency is key to positive, supportive relationships. In our most personal and intimate relationships, these qualities are the underpinning of an improved sense of teamwork and a mutually beneficial home life — one that can accommodate and support open communication, career adjustments, conflicts, and decisions.
Alexandra Tavasoli is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of materials science and engineering at the University of Toronto and a member of the SWE Magazine editorial board.