How Saudi women engineers are transforming a male-dominated industrial environment
DUBAI: Despite recent progress, women remain in the minority in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.
Nonetheless, with an increasing number of Saudi women opting for careers in STEM and contributing to a more gender-balanced work environment, the Kingdom’s industrial sector is paving the way for inclusiveness.
Razan Alraddadi, development specialist at Amaala – one of the Vision 2030 megaprojects for the Kingdom planned on the Red Sea coast – and Ruaa Mahmoud, graduate consultant at WSP Middle East – a leading professional services consultancy – are part of ‘a new generation of flamboyant Saudis. a track for women in STEM.
âLike most engineering students, I was good at math and loved solving problems,â Alraddadi said in a recently recorded podcast titled âEngineering Models for a More Diverse Future,â hosted by WSP and Amaala.
âI was a creative kid growing up. I fixed everything that was broken in the house. My dad noticed this and said he thought I would make a good engineer and the first female engineer in our family.
The podcast aired to mark the International Day of Women in Engineering, which this year took place on June 23. The aim was to raise the profile of women in engineering professions and to draw attention to the career opportunities available to aspiring technologists.
Alraddadi recalled the first year of her scholarship at the University of Washington in 2014, where she found that women were significantly under-represented in engineering courses.
But after listening to a NASA electrical engineer share her experiences at a panel discussion led by the Society of Women Engineers, she was filled with inspiration.
âIt wasn’t until then that I saw another woman in engineering excelling. At that time, I had the confidence to continue my career in engineering, âsaid Alraddadi.
âSince that day, it has been an incredible experience to join Amaala as an engineer, and I am surrounded by an incredible team of engineers in a very inclusive environment and very good for women and engineering.â
For Mahmoud, the turning point came after seeing the 2006 American drama “The Astronaut Farmer,” in which a Texas ranger builds a rocket in his barn in order to launch into space.
The film sparked his interest in astrophysics and aeronautical engineering, and taught him that anything is possible with courage and determination, even when visiting space.
âAs a kid I felt like it was realistic and as I grew up I kept thinking I would get there,â she said.
“This is what actually encouraged me to choose electrical and computer engineering – anything that would have me working on spacecraft, autonomous systems or robotics that would aid astronauts or help me get to to the International Space Station and help that vision to go into space. “
Both women recall forming strong bonds and a shared sense of mission with the other women during their undergraduate engineering classes.
âYou kind of formed this team or this fraternity-like group where we thought, ‘OK, we can take over the world,’â said Mahmoud.
Although she doubted herself when she arrived at university, Alraddadi quickly found a support network that gave her the encouragement she needed throughout her studies. âThat’s when I knew engineering was such a great career and career path,â she said.
According to 2018 figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, only 28.8% of researchers worldwide are women.
Female enrollment in engineering, manufacturing and construction courses is only 8% globally, while it is even lower in natural sciences, mathematics and statistics – 5%. For information and communications technologies, the figure drops to a paltry 3%.
In the Middle East, women now make up almost half of the total STEM student body.
And although 38% of Saudi graduates in the field are women, only 17% of them work in STEM sectors.
Women like Mahmoud and Alraddadi challenge this trend. After studying abroad, they both chose to return to the Kingdom to launch their careers.
Alraddadi said: âI have chosen to return with my family to my home country, working on a very large project which will be potentially revolutionary in the history of Saudi Arabia. So definitely having these opportunities at home influenced my decision and made me so excited and proud to be back in Saudi Arabia. “
Offering graduate programs for both sexes, such as the one organized by WSP Middle East, is seen as an essential first step in attracting more female engineers to industry and female students in these fields.
But based on Mahmoud’s experience, gender stereotypes and cultural norms regarding the role of women in traditionally male-dominated vocations persist in the Middle East in general, and the Kingdom in particular.
âI have been told this many times, and I have had friends who have said it as well,â she said. âWe need to break down that barrier and just talk with our community, our people, our friends and our family about how normal it is for women in engineering to pursue such fields or have such jobs. “
For Alraddadi, who has worked with Amaala for nine months, engineering could become more attractive as a career path for women if their work, projects and life are properly highlighted.
âI also believe in graduate programs that will allow you to become an engineer after you graduate,â she said.
âIt would make you feel like engineering is a really good profession in a place that you could benefit from. “
Working in the industry has helped both women grow personally and professionally. Alraddadi said: âAs I continue to grow in my career, I will learn more and get more involved. It’s a learning process every day, and I feel like every day I’m discovering something new that I so want to learn.
Mahmoud believes that working in industry, instead of just studying engineering, has given her a much broader view of the possibilities available to her.
âWorking at WSP, I learned things that I wouldn’t have known otherwise, especially in construction, like electrical engineering,â she said. Overall, although women in STEM fields tend to have higher salaries than those in non-STEM fields, there is still a gender pay gap in STEM professions.
Women in these occupations also have higher attrition rates than their male counterparts and than women in other non-STEM occupations.
Even so, as noted by Shona Wood, representative of the Gender Balance Steering Committee and Head of Integrated Project Delivery and Architecture at WSP Middle East, the traditionally male-dominated industrial environment is under strain. a transformation as more and more women discover the benefits of a career. in engineering.
âHowever, we all have a role to play in fostering the development and career paths of future engineers,â she told podcast listeners.
“The key to this will be to ensure that all professionals in the industry – men and women alike – come together to empower our young women by being bold allies and ensuring their voices are heard as they navigate our way. a more diverse future. “