Women engineers break stereotypes

May 31, 2018
Layan Damanhouri

Saudi Gazette

JEDDAH – A team of Saudi female engineering students broke stereotypes abroad and at home when they won first place at a global competition by Procter & Gamble, proving their competence in a field that is considered male-dominant.

The students who are graduating this summer are among a batch of 40 students in the Industrial Engineering undergraduate program at King Abdulaziz University, the first university in the Kingdom to offer the degree to women.

The team of three students reached the final round of the P&G’s Global CEO Challenge after winning against some 3,500 students across Africa and Asia and will present their business solutions for a real-life case study to the CEO David Taylor in July. The competition put contestants in the shoes of executive leaders to deal with a case involving the Head & Shoulders shampoo brand.

In addition to gaining business skills, it was an opportunity to work in an international environment and put Saudi Arabia on the map, says team member Malak Mously.

“It was a learning experience where we represented Saudi Arabia and showed the world there are women engineers in the Kingdom just like in other countries. It was an indirect way to break any kind of stereotype about the Kingdom,” she said.

Malak, who chose to study engineering out of passion, has high dreams of starting her own business according to the market needs of the future.

“Since I was young, I was dreaming of becoming an engineer,” she said. “I liked the innovation and creativity it involves. Also, I felt the combination of business and engineering in this specialty fits my personality.”

Rawan Baik, who is the first engineer in her family, looks forward to starting her career by gaining as much experience as she can in a multinational company. The government’s steps in encouraging more women in the Saudi workforce holds a promising future, she believes.

Back home, cultural perceptions are also lingering. “There are some stereotypes within our own culture that a woman can’t handle the tough job of an engineer or that she’s too fragile, because it’s not an easy environment where the average working hours are 9 to 10 hours a day,” says Linah Hussain, who was passionate about breaking things apart and putting them together when she was little, driving her to pursue engineering in her university.

However, internships and trainings have helped change the minds of some executive leaders.

“Some companies where we interned were at first skeptic about our abilities but then we proved we could deliver,” she further said. “The feedback they gave us was that we did the work more thoroughly than they expected and delivered well. I’m happy we left a good mark that would encourage them to hire women in their organizations.”

She added, “At the end of the day, an engineer should be recognized for the quality of work he or she does regardless of gender.”

As they graduate from university this year, they are optimistic about finding good job opportunities despite rising unemployment rates in the Kingdom. Last year’s batch of female graduates in industrial engineering have been able to land jobs.

Among Saudi engineering graduates, some 1,540 are unemployed according to the most recent statistics reported by a local daily. The General Organization for Social Insurance reported Saudis made up around 8 percent of 2.8 million engineering professionals during the first half of 2017. In recent months, the Ministry of Labor restricted the incoming numbers of expat engineers. More than 81,300 expat engineers left the country, paving the way for 1,037 Saudi engineers to fill in jobs.

The majority of job opportunities for engineers are in the private sector, particularly in multinational companies.

Several organizations have also started offering opportunities to attract female engineers as part of their feminization and Saudization programs.

Around 6,000 Saudi engineering students graduate each year from local universities and abroad.

“Female graduates have been able to find jobs quicker than men,” says Rawan. “There are several reasons for unemployed engineers. Some are either incompetent or have high expectations of the type of job they’re looking for. Women are found to be more eager to learn. They’re ready to take up opportunities and build their way up by gaining as much learning experience. It is a male-dominant industry after all, so women will want to work extra hard and prove themselves.”

Some companies ask female applicants about marital status in the job interview, according to some human resources professionals. This does not occur in all organizations, particularly multinational companies that abide by international standards.

In the past couple of years, other universities have also started to open their doors to young women looking to study engineering.

Asked about their ambitions to becoming CEOs in the future, Malak said it’s not impossible. “Gaining experience and skills is important in the beginning of a career. There’s a long way ahead of us and we’re up for the challenge.”

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