Balancing act: ASCE women prove motherhood and career isn’t an either-or proposition

It’s a tight-knit group, this 3 a.m. texting club.

Ariel Christenson is a proud member.

These days – or more accurately, these nights – she finds herself awake in the hazy daze between midnight and dawn, feeding her infant son, J.J.

It’s peaceful; it’s wonderful. It can also be daunting when you do the math and realize your work day starts in just a few short hours.

That’s when the texting comes in. Ariel has several friends also nursing newborns and has met many more through an engineering working moms Facebook group. Her phone is filled with people who know all about the balancing act – motherhood and engineering.

collaborate“It’s been nice having other moms going back to work and talking to them, knowing there are other people out there going through what you’re going through,” said Christenson, structural engineer for Short Elliott Hendrickson in St. Paul, MN, past-president of the ASCE Minnesota Younger Member Group, and new mom.

“I’m not the only one up at 3 a.m. There are other moms out there responding to my texts at 3 a.m.”


That Christenson has found a community of like-minded engineers each passing through similar moments on their life timelines should not be surprising. It’s not as if the woman who balances a civil engineering career with motherhood is some rare find. Department of Labor statistics show that 70 percent of U.S. women with children under the age of 18 are participating in the labor force.

However, when ASCE News explored the ASCE Salary Survey data earlier this year, several women suggested motherhood as a potential reason women civil engineers start making less than their male counterparts, on average, about 10 years into their careers.

“I don’t think there is a woman who hasn’t considered it as a potential tradeoff,” said Rose McClure, P.E., S.E., M.ASCE, a structural engineer for Simpson Gumpertz & Heger in San Francisco. “So many women working as civil engineers are now in their 20s and 30s and struggling with that question: can I have this career that I’ve worked my whole life for and also have a family?”

Christenson and so many other women in ASCE have answered that question affirmatively. As Mother’s Day 2018 approaches, here are some of their stories:

Some days your office is the local Chuck E. Cheese

Valerie McCaw remembers it well. Middle of the work week. Middle of the work day. She was at Chuck E. Cheese.

“My son was 5 at the time,” said McCaw, then working as a manager for a new branch in a large CE consulting firm in Kansas City. “He had an ear infection, so he couldn’t go to daycare.”

No problem. After trips to the doctor and the pharmacy, her son was running around, having fun, eating pizza. She was set up in one of the booths, working, talking on the phone to her boss.

That’s when the animatronic house band started singing.

“My boss was like, ‘Where the heck are you?’” McCaw said.

CE roundtable 1Such is life as a single-parent civil engineer. It’s a funny memory now for McCaw, but it’s also one that demonstrated to her the value of working for a company that cares.

“My boss then, he used to be single parent himself, so he was really cool about it,” McCaw said. “The next time I saw him he gave me a bunch of Chuck E. Cheese tokens.”

Not every work situation was so accommodating. Earlier in her career, working at a different firm, McCaw was pregnant with her son. She was one of five women at the company who were expecting babies. Four of them quit.

“I was the only one who came back to work,” McCaw said. “This was 1991, and I applied to work from home the first three months, and they turned me down because, ‘You would set a precedent that we can’t do.’ And I told them, ‘A precedent has already been set! Everyone else quit!’”

McCaw’s son grew to be allergic to grass and trees, so you can imagine the number of doctor’s appointments.

“The hardest thing, being a single parent, is when you have a kid that’s sick,” McCaw said. “I’d have to make informal arrangements. Some people handled it fine. Some firms had no sick leave for when your kid was sick. So I didn’t have a vacation for three years because I used all my vacation for his illness.”

If it sounds like McCaw is bitter, she isn’t. She tells her stories with a sharp sense of humor; a civil engineer who knows how the system works, is grateful for her experiences, and now passes on her wisdom to other women engineers in the Kansas City area.

As the president of her own VSM Engineering firm – employing about 10 people – McCaw, P.E., D.WRE, ENV SP, M.ASCE, does her best to accommodate her employees’ work-life balance needs. She has two women – both moms – who work virtually for her.

“It’s fun to look at their timesheets,” McCaw laughs. “They work during all sorts of time slots, but they’re two of my best employees. Their work ethic is great. Their technical work is awesome.

“Everybody has to decide what your personal situation is when you have kids. I went back to work when my kid was eight weeks old, and he was in daycare the whole time. And he’s a great kid. He’s doing just fine. But some women want to stay home, and I respect that. You just have to decide what’s best for you.”

Of course, as time went on, every work decision McCaw made also involved her son.

“I remember, I talked to him, I said, ‘I’m thinking about starting my own firm,’” McCaw said. “‘Now, your school won’t change, your friends won’t change, but we may have to move.’

“And he said, ‘Mom, go for it!’ He’s just the coolest kid.”

Wow, how do you do it?

It’s a question that most often most probably is intended as a compliment.

Except it’s not. Not really.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone out to a construction site. Someone finds out I have kids, and then they’re like, ‘Wow, how do you be an engineer and have kids?’” said Stephanie Slocum, P.E., M.ASCE, an associate principal at Hope Furrer Associates in Pennsylvania. “I get that question all the time. It’s like I’m greeted as this alien creature.

“And I asked my husband, ‘How many times do you get that question?’ He said, ‘Never.’ The men don’t have that conversation.”

She EngineersSo just the mere existence of “civil engineering mom” as a category is proof that there remains a double standard of sorts. Civil engineering dad isn’t really as novel a concept. Often, it’s just assumed.

“There’s a gender role perception issue in this country,” Slocum said. “And I think it’s getting better, but it’s probably going to take another generation. I’m seeing with millennials who want to start a family, the guys want to share what they’re doing at home with their wives. They don’t expect that if they get a phone call and the child is sick that their wife is going to be the one who drops what she’s doing at work and goes to get the child. They don’t expect that their wife is going to drop out of the workforce and stay home with the kids.”

It’s a topic near and dear to Slocum’s heart. She and her husband, Jason – also a civil engineer – have three daughters. She’s poured all of her wisdom and lessons learned into a new book, She Engineers: Outsmart Bias, Unlock Your Potential, and Create the Engineering Career of Your Dreams.

So what about that question, the one she gets all the time – how does she pull off the work-life balance?

“The answer is I have a supportive workplace, and I have a really supportive husband,” Slocum said. “We set ourselves up to be able to do this. It’s not going to just happen if you don’t have the conversations.

“I encourage people to have these conversations really early in your marriage or your relationship – here are our goals and this is how we’re going to get there.”

Get your red pen ready; make a plan

Ariel Christenson – she of the 3 a.m. text community – had those conversations with her husband, Jack. Early and often.

The two went to high school together (though it was such a big school, they actually didn’t meet until after they graduated), and married in 2014. Together, they have forged a remarkable life plan befitting two engineers (Jack is a mechanical; Ariel a structural).

“We waited to start a family until we were well-established in our careers,” Ariel said. “Certainly, No. 1, I wasn’t ready to have a kid until recently. And we liked our life the way it was, pretty comfortable. But then we were like, ‘You know what, it’s time for the next stage in our life. We’re ready to have a family.’

“I think that’s just how I work,” she added, laughing. “I’m always looking for the next thing. I’ve always been really active in a lot of different things, so adding one more thing to my plate seemed sort of natural.”

Enter Jack Jr. – better known as J.J., born last November. Ariel stayed home with her son for the early part of the winter.

“It was amazing being home with my son, just seeing the changes that happened over the first 12 weeks,” Christenson said. “He’s already holding his head up, outgrowing all his newborn clothes, kind of babble-talking with me, and smiling a ton.”

Jack and Ariel Christenson have known each other for a very long time, but everything's new now with the addition of Jack Jr.
Two engineers and a baby: Jack, Ariel, and J.J. Christenson. PHOTO: Ariel Christenson

Stay-at-home mom was never in the cards for her, though.

“Coming back to work has been really nice. I feel like I have real purpose,” she said. “I go to work, I’m a contributing member of my household and to society, but I’m still able to come home and be the parent I need to be, too.”

Having a new baby in the house is obviously life-changing, but the couple’s work adjustments have been more subtle than drastic. Jack, for instance, now takes his late-afternoon conference call at home so he can spend more time with J.J.

Ariel, meanwhile, made sure she was with a company that valued work-life balance – at Short Elliott Hendrickson – before she had a baby. All part of the plan.

“Our managers are great about saying, ‘Hey, I have to go get the kids,’ or ‘I’m leaving for this – let’s catch up in the morning.’ It’s OK to let work take a side-burner to your family sometimes. They understand,” Christenson said. “That really let me know that I was going to come back to a job where they were happy to see me again, that I was going to pick up right where I left off.

“I came back and had a bunch of emails while I was gone from my supervisor encouraging me to sign up for all theses continuing education opportunities. Even though I was gone, I was still being copied on those emails. They still had me in mind.”

That’s not to say the first week wasn’t without its pitfalls.

“There was a point this week when I got back to my desk and I couldn’t think of the equation for the shear strength of concrete,” Christenson said, laughing. “I had to look it up to double-check. A few cobwebs in the attic upon the return to work.

“But there are certain things you don’t forget. I got a set of design plans, and I had my red pen out and went to town on it.”

Passing the torch

In many ways, Helen Mattei Claycomb, EI, A.M.ASCE, was your typical civil engineering student. Figuring life out, studying hard, trying to prepare for her career.

In other ways?

Well, it’s not everyone whose mother is the president of ASCE. Not to mention occasionally your college professor.

“It was pretty cool,” Helen said.

Helen’s mother, of course, is Norma Jean Mattei, Ph.D., P.E., F.SEI, F.ASCE, ASCE’s past-president and dean of the University of New Orleans College of Engineering.

“Growing up, I don’t think I fully saw my mom,” Helen said. “I just saw her as my mom until I had one of her classes. That’s when I really got to see, ‘Oh, my mom has a complete life besides just being my mother.’

“As I got older, seeing my mom as an instructor, seeing how she teaches, seeing how she interacts with everyone, it was pretty eye-opening to see her as a real person.”

For Norma Jean, that separation was by design. Even as her career flourished, she made sure to read at her daughters’ preschool, to chaperone their field trips, help with Girl Scouts, drive the neighborhood kids to early-morning swim practice.

“You have to navigate these waters as you go, take on things as they happen, as they change,” Norma Jean said. “It’s was very different being the mom of a second-grader than it was being the mom of an infant, and so on. It’s never static. You have to manage it and make sure you are parenting the way you want to parent.”

And sometimes, Mattei said, you don’t know the way you want to parent until you actually are a parent. Norma Jean and her husband, Richard, waited until their 30s to have children: two daughters, Helen and Genevieve. She always envisioned herself as a working mom, but it wasn’t easy.

Mattei Family WEB HORIZ
The Mattei family at Helen’s wedding earlier this year. PHOTO: Helen Mattei Claycomb

“I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t be the best mom if I stopped working,” Mattei said. “But you really don’t know anything until you hold that baby in your arms. Because when you hand that baby over to someone else to care for them, that’s when it’s real. If you make that decision, you’ll have to then share that close relationship with your caregiver.

“But I was pretty certain that I would make my kids, as they were growing up, and my husband crazy if I stayed home,” she laughed.

Mattei and her husband shared the parenting duties as best they could. They avoided jobs that required a lot of travel – at least when the kids were younger – and committed to keep their home in New Orleans close to extended family, no matter what career opportunities arose.

“When we were really young, she was doing research at UNO and teaching, but she was mainly focused on us,” Helen said.

“And then as we grew older and maybe didn’t need as much help anymore, she started focusing on what she wanted to do. It worked out perfectly. Now I’m out of college; my sister is almost done. So if mom has to jet around the world, no big deal. I guess it just takes balance. You can’t do everything. You have to find the right time and place.”

Helen is following in her mother’s civil engineering footsteps. Recently she works in the offshore oil and gas structural engineering group for EDG Inc. in New Orleans – with a pretty special perspective on this whole civil engineering motherhood balance.

“I think my mom is basically Super Mom, doing everything she does,” Helen said.

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  1. Thank you for sharing the stories of these inspirational women. I’m still a student, but also dream of becoming a mother one day. I get pretty anxious when I wonder about how friendly engineering companies would be towards mothers since I’ve only heard of horror stories. Being able to read something like this gives me so much hope for both my career and future family. Thank you.

  2. It makes me a little sad that we are still having to write articles like this.

    I’m eighteen years and four kids into my career and parenting. I’m the only women engineer in my region that has this many kids. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of flexibility in my job to be there for the kids as well as get work done. Some mornings, work starts on my laptop at home at 4am so I can go on a fieldtrip. Our industry doesn’t value that flexibility as much as we should.

    About a year ago, my husband started working from home full time while the kids are at school. It has been amazing how much the stress diminished with an adult at home.


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