Dr. Hanan Farhat, Senior Research Director of Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute’s Corrosion Center, speaks about how she has faced open discrimination on her way to becoming an engineering pioneer.
One of the main reasons I became an engineer was to challenge the stereotypes ascribed to females working in the profession. I made the decision to pursue a career in engineering while I was still a teenager in high school. When I told my father, he responded: “Female engineering is a joke. Women can’t do engineering. It is a man’s job.”
My father’s words confirmed that engineering was indeed the right choice for me. His opposition motivated me to prove him wrong and, in the end, engineering proved to be perfectly suited to my strengths and interests. In 1995, I graduated with an undergraduate degree in material and metallurgical engineering from Tripoli University in Libya, and living there shaped my career trajectory. From my first job in a project engineering department to my current leadership position at the First National Corrosion Center in Qatar, I have always been firmly rooted in the oil and gas sector.
With over 25 years of experience, I have personally experienced how difficult it can be for female engineers. A friend recently sent me the music video for Oil Man by the Chad Cooke Band. The video reinforces that oil and gas is a man’s domain. It includes only one woman – and that is for a total of two seconds. Every other person in the video is male.
Just this week, a colleague asked me about my professional journey. Without hesitation, I answered that my career path has been tough, but fulfilling. I have sometimes considered leaving engineering, but there is always something that pulls me back. I simply love what I do. I thrive on overcoming challenges and solving problems. I speak the language of root causes.
I have sometimes considered leaving engineering, but there is always something that pulls me back. I simply love what I do
A desire to better understand metal corrosion motivated me to enrol in a PhD program at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, even though I was working full-time and raising young children. I am also passionate about fighting discrimination in the workplace and I am driven to prove that I am the same as my male colleagues. Currently, I serve as the chairperson of Qatar’s Forum for Corrosion and Materials Engineering, an industry working group with more than 55 members, the majority of whom are male.
Achieving a management position in the male-dominated profession of engineering was a significant personal achievement. Doing this in the Middle East – where, in some countries, women are unfortunately still viewed as being unsuitable for such roles – is even more rewarding. When an interview committee selected me for a Technical Service Manager position, my boss expressed concerns about my ability to manage a team of nearly 50 people. He asked me numerous times if I could handle the work.
I have learned to remain calm when men refuse to work with me because I am female. Resilience and understanding are invaluable in the fight against discrimination
Even after rigorous screening, some of the male engineers on my team did not respect me. I remember one engineer storming into my office to tell me that he would never take orders from a woman. The fact that I was a woman was more important than my skills, my professional experiences, and my credentials. I have learned to remain calm when men refuse to work with me because I am female. Resilience and understanding are invaluable in the fight against discrimination.
Throughout my career, there have always been male engineers who supported me in achieving professional and academic success. There is one notable exception, however. When I worked at a plant in the Middle East, I had an unsupportive supervisor. By that time, I had completed my Master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, along with additional certifications, and I had extensive work experience. However, I did not fit the stereotype of an Arabic female engineer. I did not always say “yes” to the boss, I was not afraid of society’s perception of me working with men, I did not refuse to wear coveralls, and I most certainly did not fear climbing ladders.
For several months, however, my Western boss assigned me only office work. When I asked if I could conduct engineering inspection duties, he firmly resisted and tried his best to stop me. He used every means available – company policy, safety restrictions, potential for distracting males. Every rationale was used to prevent me from carrying out tasks that should have been in my daily job portfolio. With every new excuse, I was that much more determined to demonstrate my capabilities.
I learned two main things from this experience. The first is to choose your boss before choosing your workplace. The second is to listen to your inner voice
Unfortunately, he retaliated with psychological manipulation. He did his best to undermine me and he even used my new-born child to his advantage. Department meetings were conveniently scheduled to overlap with my designated hour off work for breastfeeding. This meant that I was unable to attend critical meetings. Moreover, he intentionally hindered my progress, which made it more difficult to get work done.
My career satisfaction plummeted, and I was stressed due to the overall work environment. I began to reflect on the ever-increasing negativity I faced each day. Then something happened that changed my life in immeasurable ways – I lost a child unexpectedly. This completely shocked me, but it also woke me up. I started to see things differently. Nothing in the world was more important than my family. I had always known that my poisonous work environment impacted me, but I finally realized that it also affected my family. My workplace was toxic, and it would never improve in any meaningful way.
I learned two main things from this experience. The first is to choose your boss before choosing your workplace. The second is to listen to your inner voice. If you wake up each morning dreading your working day ahead, it is time to find something new.
After leaving that negative work environment, I transitioned to industry-based research, development, and innovation. Fortunately, I am now in a position where I am able to work on the biggest corrosion and materials challenges in the oil and gas sector.
Today, I am a pioneer in the field of engineering, and I am a champion for all female engineers. I feel their struggles, and I know their sacrifices. With proper support and tools, they will not just survive in the male-dominated profession of engineering – they will surpass even their own expectations.
Dr. Hanan Farhat, 48, is a Canadian/Libyan materials and corrosion engineer who, during her career, has worked in Libya, Italy, Canada, and Qatar. She joined Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute – part of Qatar Foundation member Hamad Bin Khalifa University – in September 2019.