x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

If you think engineering is a man's job ? think again

A major forum of over 200 delegates in the capital aims to break stereotypes, while the country is on course to have 40 per cent of jobs in the field taken by women.

ABU DHABI // A major conference opening today in the capital shows women are starting to make a big impact in the traditionally male domains of science and engineering. More than 200 industry delegates, including academics and professionals from around the world, many of them from the Mena region, will attend the conference on Women in Science and Engineering.

The UAE is on course to have 40 per cent of its science and engineering jobs filled by women, a bigger proportion than the US, according to the Petroleum Institute's (PI) provost, Dr Michael Ohadi. Dr Ohadi, who was educated in the US, said the UAE's figure stands at about 25 per, compared to between 15 and 20 per cent in the US. By 2015, he hopes to see the total reach 40 per cent as institute expands its student body to 1,600. It already scouts for talented female pupils in high schools.

"Females are faring better than boys in papers and exams. They are more engaged with the course while the boys are more interested in the extra curricular activities such as sports." He said science and engineering were coming much closer together. "Engineering is now more about planning and diagnosis instead of standing with a wrench in your hand," said Dr Ohadi. The two-day conference at the Yas Island Rotana - organised in collaboration with Masdar, the US State Department and the University of Michigan-Dearborn's College of Engineering and Computer Science - will feature some of the UAE's female pioneers in the field.

Dr Amal al Ghaferi, from the Masdar Institute, is one of those pioneers and the institute's first female Emirati faculty member. An expert in nanotechnology, she said the conference would help break down stereotypes about UAE women. "People will come here and change their perspectives," she said. "Maybe the stereotypes about Muslim women in the Western world is that we just sit at home and don't do anything independently. I want to show people I'm not wearing my scarf for nothing. I have my own mind and ideas."

She said the conference was about the contribution women can make to engineering. Women are most commonly found in the chemical engineering, electrical engineering and geosciences fields, and interest is growing in mechanical engineering, according to the provost. Oil and gas is the "bread and butter of the UAE", said Dr Nadia al Hasani, head of the women's campus at the PI. The first group of 106 Emirati students, known as "the pioneers", joined the campus in 2006. They will graduate next spring.

"We are trying to suggest to these girls that oil and gas is a national resource and, as such, it should be in their hands. They are the leaders of tomorrow so they must be trained for positions to be able to lead the industry," said Dr al Hasani. Research is now a much higher priority for the students and their bachelor's degree is only a "means to an end, rather than an end in itself", Dr al Hasani added.

Dr Ohadi suggested that women will thrive in the emerging field of polymer engineering, which mainly uses lighter materials such as plastics to produce clothing, aircraft and cars. "Ladies seem to find this more interesting and they don't need to be right out in the field. You can be giving diagnoses in an office, looking at the properties or treatment of the polymers," he said. Nano and micro technology will also be dominated by women in the oil industry in the coming years, added Dr Ohadi.

Adnoc, the institute's partner, where students all work for one year after graduation, is in the process of making the working environment more female friendly, he said. "Family life and having children in the UAE is still expected. Women feel OK working for the first three or four years but after, they may need a job requiring less travel, being closer to the family and so on. However, if the female wants to work in the field, there is nothing prohibiting that."

At the Higher Colleges of Technology, female enrolment for engineering programmes went up by 124 per cent between 2006 and 2010. The Associate Dean of Engineering at Abu Dhabi Men's College, Shakib Farhat, said: "There is also a growing awareness towards engineering ... and the courses are becoming much more appealing to women, such as electronics, biomedical engineering." @Email:mswan@thenational.ae