Dr. Hanan Farhat of QEERI says female engineers can bring new perspectives and ways of thinking that benefit industries and economies – but they need the chance to prove it
Employers in the Middle East are not doing enough, or moving fast enough, to help female engineers achieve their goal of working in the field and being treated equally to their male counterparts, according to a Qatar Foundation-based researcher.
Dr. Hanan Farhat, Senior Research Director of the Corrosion Center at Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute – part of Qatar Foundation member Hamad Bin Khalifa University – is candid when it comes to the reasons that lie behind the lack of female representation in some engineering areas.
“Field-based engineering areas are mainly male-dominated because they require hands-on work and physical activity,” she says. “Mechanical engineering, for instance, requires working inside workshops with machines and doing tasks like welding, as opposed to areas such as chemical and environmental engineering which are office- or lab-based.
Despite the fact that women can perform well in field engineering, it has not been acceptable in many cultures for them to work in this area, and people also tend to overlook their skills
“Despite the fact that women can perform well in field engineering, it has not been acceptable in many cultures for them to work in this area, and people also tend to overlook their skills. They only see how rough the environment is, the way they are dressed in overalls and surrounded by men, and just assume that it is not a place for ladies. While there have been changes in this direction in some parts of the world, it is still not fast enough - especially in the Middle East – and obstacles are still in their way.
“That is why many employers only assign either administrative or design tasks to women, and exclude them from field-based task. It can go beyond that, to the point where women are undermined and excluded from any important decision-making process.”
This discrepancy between the opportunities open to male engineers and those available to their female counterparts is mirrored by the global gap between the number of female students graduating from engineering colleges, and those who subsequently pursue engineering as a career. According to Dr. Farhat, some companies will not accept any application for a field-based position.
Young female engineers have big dreams to be successful, change things, and leave an impact, but people have different expectations for them
“Young female engineers have big dreams to be successful, change things, and leave an impact, but people have different expectations for them,” she said. “It is sad to look at the number of people in this wasted workforce who cannot show their full potential.
“In engineering, there are things that you cannot learn by setting in an office. It is all about hands-on , practical experience. You need to be out there in the field; you need to be seeing, touching, and feeling things to be a successful engineer, and to be able to advance in your career and reach higher positions.
“It took a while for women to realize this fact, and I believe that many would prefer to work in the field of engineering if they are given the opportunity”.
Dr. Farhat also emphasized the role that universities play in supporting the next generation of female engineers saying: “It is extremely important for universities to prepare female engineering students to face the reality of the world they will move into upon their graduation.
Engineering is about critical thinking and problem solving. Women can definitely make a contribution and steer the discussion into a new direction that has not been considered before
“They need to understand that they have rights, that they should fight for them, it and that they should be able to represent themselves in the right way”.
The inclusion of women in certain engineering areas can introduce new perspectives and ways of thinking that benefit both industries and the economies, according to Dr. Farhat. “Men and women complement each other,” she said.
“As women, we tend to take care of details, look at things very closely, and check things several times over before we let them move ahead. Men on the other hand, usually look at the bigger picture; they want to get things done fast. This quality that women have is especially important in inspection engineering, where we can detect things that men may not notice.
“Engineering is about critical thinking and problem solving. Women can definitely make a contribution and steer the discussion into a new direction that has not been considered before.”
Speaking about the changes that should be made in the workplace to empower female engineers, Dr. Farhat said: “The key is acceptance: we need to accept that women are the equivalent of men when it comes to competency and talent, and provide them with encouragement and support.
“This extends to families as well as employers, in creating a setting that welcomes female engineers.”