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Prime Movers: Motherhood Runs Through GE’s History

You’ve probably heard of Marie Curie, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. These women’s professional accomplishments changed the world and inspired future generations of scientists. But they each had a second job that the history books often gloss over: motherhood. Put down a lab coat, pick up a diaper bag — this juggling act plays out each day at GE. And employees who aren’t parents have made their own contributions to the next generation by creating a working environment and products that help ease the burden for mothers around the world.

In honor of Mother’s Day, here’s a small sample of such stories, from the archives of GE Reports.

Like Mother, Like Son

Patricia Leary helped GE usher in the modern jet age with  her work on GE’s first supersonic jet engine. Her legacy continued when her son Mark joined GE in 1989. Images credit: GE Aviation. 

Patricia Leary accomplished a unique engineering double feat: She helped develop GE’s first supersonic jet engines and then raised another GE jet engine engineer to follow in her footsteps. When Leary joined GE Aviation in 1949 after getting her math degree at Emmanuel College, she was one of just 4,000 female engineers in the country. Her first job was in the calculating pool — before the calculators we take for granted today, teams of trained mathematicians crunched engine test data by hand. “I liked the idea that math was being used to produce something,” Leary said. She soon moved up to working on the J79, GE’s first supersonic jet engine, analyzing data and writing reports on the engine’s compressors. Though she left GE in 1955 when she and her husband Art (also a GE engineer) started having children, more than 1,000 of those J79 engines she helped develop are still flying. That would be legacy enough for any engineer, but add to it that Patricia’s youngest son Mark joined GE in 1989. Like his mom before him, part of his responsibilities include quality performance oversight for GE jet engines.

Metal Doctor

When Laura Dial had a baby a few years ago, she worked out a flexible arrangement that allowed her to keep doing what she loved — working as a metallurgist at GE Research — at 90% time. “This company has been so incredible to me as a new mom,” she said.

The days of women being expected to abandon their careers when they have children are largely behind us. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to balance the responsibilities of parenthood and professional work. More and more companies are taking steps to address this challenge. At GE, for example, metallurgist Laura Dial worked with her manager to arrange a flexible schedule. Dial joined GE in 2011 after earning her doctorate in materials science at Georgia Tech University. A few years ago, after having a baby, she shifted her job at GE Research to four days a week, at 90% time. “I can’t imagine the struggles of the folks before me who years ago basically got the ultimatum, ‘You either come back full time or you don’t come back,’” she said. “I’m still absolutely growing my career while still not working 100% time.” Dial had originally expected to take her PhD and become a professor until a federal grant to work on a potential new product excited her about the tangible applications of her expertise. That led her to GE, where she can perform research and development while being linked to needed products. “This company has been so incredible to me as a new mom by allowing me a flexible work arrangement.” 

Two-for-One

Talk about a power couple: Lynda Kaufman and Bobbi Eldrid keep projects running smoothly for GE Power and at their respective homes thanks to their long-standing job-sharing arrangement. Image credit: Bobbi Eldrid and Lynda Kaufman.

Lynda Kaufman and Bobbi Eldrid found a different way to strike a balance between job and home: the pair devised their own job-sharing plan. Two decades ago, they knew each other casually as engineers at GE Power in Schenectady, New York. When they were each pregnant with their first children around the same time, Eldrid said, they began asking, “‘How do you balance being a mom with having a challenging role and a fulfilling career path?’” Their solution was work-sharing. The duo first got insight on the arrangement from other work-share teams at GE, and then they got the OK to split a position overseeing the 7F gas turbine line. The workweek starts on Sunday, when they have a two-hour call to go over their projects. Upstate New York-based Eldrid then works Monday through Wednesday, followed by Kaufman working Wednesday through Friday. The overlap helps keep the transition seamless. In addition to overseeing responsibilities like the opening of Connecticut’s Towantic Energy Center, the pair have managed five job titles, four children and one long-distance move (Kaufman to South Carolina). The work-share arrangement was supposed to be re-evaluated by their supervisor after six months; more than two decades later, that review has never been necessary.

Reducing Risk

The GE Foundation backs a project called Safe Surgery 2020, which helps make sure medical facilities such as Dungla Hospital in Dungla, Ethiopia, have the tools they need to care for expectant mothers and other patients.  Image credit: Jhpiego/Karen Kamauski.

The effect GE has on women’s lives goes beyond providing a career and work-life balance. The GE Foundation is sponsoring an initiative to make pregnancy safer in the developing world. Most people in the West take for granted the wealth of medical expertise available when giving birth. Yet in developing countries, having a child is still remarkably risky. The GE Foundation backs a project called Safe Surgery 2020, a partnership of 17 organizations. Safe Surgery aims to provide clean and modern surgical environments for people facing all types of conditions. Given how common pregnancy problems are, expectant mothers are significant beneficiaries. One of the people helped by this initiative is Yeshialem Endalew. She was a 24-year-old teacher in the Ethiopian Highlands, some 60 miles from a hospital, when she went into labor. Through the program, her hospital was equipped to perform an emergency caesarian procedure during a birth that otherwise may have killed her. “There’s no person more important to a society than a mother,” said Timothy Evans, senior director of health, nutrition and population at the World Bank Group.  “We have no time to waste.” Safe Surgery operates in Ethiopia, Tanzania and southeast Asia.

Heart Healthy

GE Healthcare’s fetalHQ software is making it easier for doctors to spot congenital heart defects. Image credit: GE Healthcare.

As a company with a significant presence in medical technology and life sciences, GE Healthcare creates many products that improve the lives of mothers and their babies. Among the more difficult-to-spot problems with babies are congenital heart defects. GE Healthcare recently developed software called fetalHQ that runs on the Voluson ultrasound system used to image pregnant women. The software allows clinicians to simultaneously examine the size, shape and the contractility of the fetal heart in just three minutes. The idea behind fetalHQ came from maternal fetal medicine specialist Dr. Greggory DeVore, who modified existing methods of examining heart ventricles in older patients to apply to those in utero. Congenital heart defects affect one out of every 110 babies born around the world — with nine out every 10 occurring with mothers who had no risk known risk factors or anything concerning about their pregnancy.

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