As the world marks International Women in Engineering Day, four senior research directors at Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI), part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University, share their insights, inspirations, challenges and advice for young engineers.
Each of them agree that, despite not always being easy, their journey so far has been fulfilling.
Dr Huda al-Sulaiti, Senior Research Director, Natural and Environmental Hazards Observatory, QEERI, completed her PhD while also fulfilling her role as a full time mother to five children: “Nothing ever comes easy, and there will always be struggles as we move on in this life and we are certainly not alone in the challenges we face. Success and life achievements are directly proportionate to the amount of effort we applied and time we spent on facing our challenges. Juggling the various roles has taught me to fully utilize my time, skills and abilities.”
According to Dr Veronica Bermudez, who was astonished to see a ‘Physics for Women’ university degree in 1996, the real challenge has been to remain true to herself and her goals. She says: “The biggest challenge was understanding that my fight is not about being a woman in a man’s world, but about being myself, keeping my specialty, knowing and propagating that diversity is key for success.”
Reflecting on a time when she was the only woman engineer among many male field operators working on a scheduled shutdown at an oil and gas company in Qatar a few years ago, Dr Hanan Farhat, Senior Research Director, Corrosion Center, added: “As a female engineer, I have faced many obstacles. The biggest challenge for me was making my male peers accept that we are equal and that we all deserve respect and the same opportunities.”
However, for Dr Jenny Lawler, Senior Research Director, Water Center, QEERI, who graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering in 2004, things were quite different. There were over 30 % women in her course in Ireland, indicating how things may have improved even in a decade. “I am an optimist, and while there have definitely been challenges in my career so far, life gets better every year. I have always enjoyed working hard, aiming high, and taking great joy in every little win.”
The challenges faced by women are indeed unique according to these four pioneers. For example: often, maternity leave is a period of time that is not taken into account in terms of comparing career stages
Dr al-Sulaiti, who has also combated breast cancer successfully, says that one of the key challenges facing women is the work-life balance. “A glass ceiling still exists for women in STEM fields but, fortunately, it is slowly diminishing. Women are held back because of the misconception that they have to devote more of their time towards childcare and household chores. Sometimes, there are also judgements that they are not as competent and are emotionally driven.”
Dr Farhat explains further: “In this part of the world, women in engineering are often expected to do more to prove themselves. In many places, there is the stigma that women cannot partake in hands-on work, and are not good at problem-solving, as a result, they are given non-challenging tasks that are routine and repetitive.”
However, with a slightly different perspective, Dr Lawler mentions that she did not ever feel subject to the same stigma or treatment while working as an engineer in the pharmaceutical industry in Ireland. “I have been lucky to have always felt empowered to succeed, surrounded by positive people and mentors, both in industry and in academia. By working hard and showing that I’ve had what it takes to succeed, I’ve always quickly gained acceptance and moved quickly into leadership positions”.
Change is indeed coming, says Dr Bermudez. “I think it’s just a matter of time. Even when I look at the options that were available to my own mother, and now to myself – there is a vast difference. Women are gaining more rights and leadership positions now more than ever before.”
All four women leaders reiterate the importance of having support – from family, from colleagues and from society. Each emphasised the importance of parents who empowered them to pursue their goals, of spouses who took on equal parenting and household chores, of bosses and colleagues who trusted them to achieve their targets.
Being in Qatar, and part of Qatar Foundation, which has strong women leaders and true patrons of STEM, such as Her Highness Shaikha Moza bint Nasser, Chairperson of Qatar Foundation, and Shaikha Hind bint Hamad al-Thani has inspired the quartet to keep pursuing their goals and ambitions. It is also worth noting that women hold more than 50% of the senior scientific management positions at QEERI.
Their advice to the younger generation is to stay focused and to work hard, and all four leaders live by the same mantra – believe in yourself and in your capabilities. Encouraging women to pursue their dreams, Dr Huda al-Sulaiti says: “Take up a new challenge each day; learn something new, push the boundary a little bit at every step. Focus on your strengths and not the negativity that may try to pull you down.”
Dr Lawler adds: “Be confident. Be a role model for young people. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something, and be ready to find out.”
Dr Bermudez reiterated this. “Just be yourself. Follow your feelings and your beliefs. Know that you have it in you to break the glass ceiling, and to succeed. Even when it looks difficult, trust your instinct, hold your head high and keep marching forward.”
And Dr Farhat urges perseverance. “Keep on trying, and believe in yourself. It will not be easy, but you will be able to get there. Change is not going to happen in one day. It will happen gradually, but if you do not try, you will never get there.”
International Women in Engineering Day raises the profile of women in engineering and focuses attention on the amazing career opportunities available to girls in this exciting industry. It celebrates the outstanding achievements of women engineers throughout the world.
About Hamad Bin Khalifa University Innovating Today, Shaping Tomorrow
Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), a member of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development (QF), was founded in 2010 as a research-intensive university that acts as a catalyst for transformative change in Qatar and the region while having global impact. Located in Education City, HBKU is committed to building and cultivating human capacity through an enriching academic experience, innovative ecosystem, and unique partnerships. HBKU delivers multidisciplinary undergraduate and graduate programmes through its colleges, and provides opportunities for research and scholarship through its institutes and centers. For more information about HBKU, visit www.hbku.edu.qa.
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