With a looming skills shortage in the STEM industries, the race is on for young Emirati females to study science, maths, engineering and technology at the educational institutions now open to women.
Those already making strides in their careers are role models to the young girls coming up behind them. We delve into the educations and careers of star players from the fields of oil, aviation, space travel, nuclear and environmental engineering to understand the challenges and opportunities for women in the United Arab Emirates.
THE PROJECT MANAGER WITH ‘OUT OF THIS WORLD’ ASPIRATIONS
The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre is proof that things are changing for Emirati women. Almost 50% of its employees are female and more and more young women are stepping into leadership positions. Like Sarah Amiri, a 29-year-old computer science graduate and head of the Mars Mission Science Team, who has been tasked with building a spacecraft to land on the Red Planet in 2019…
Sarah on changing the landscape in the UAE: “From what I can see, women here are empowered and have opportunities. They’ve gone beyond the point of demanding their rights and equal opportunity and they’re at a point now where they’re excelling and competing with other individuals on merit; they’re not given positions because they’re women, but because they’re capable of fulfilling the role.”
On the importance of her work: “Getting to Mars is a big challenge which requires a lot of good planning and calculative risks. But being part of that scientific community that starts posing those mission questions is a great place to be, because you’re exposed to a lot of people that are pioneers in that area. The mission will help us model Earth’s atmosphere and how it will evolve with time over millions of years, and to analyse newly discovered planets to be able to determine if there is life on them.”
THE OIL ENGINEER CHANGING THE SOCIAL CULTURE FOR RURAL GIRLS
From a small, conservative Emirati village to the middle of the South China Sea, Salma Al Hajeri is leading a team of engineers assessing the commercial potential of Mubadala Petroleum’s gas find. She is located on an oil rig hundreds of miles off the coast of Malaysia – a demanding role she set her sights on long before becoming one of the first women through the doors of Abu Dhabi’s Petroleum Institute. They first began accepting women in the 2006/7 academic year.
Salma on going for it: “Being a young and ambitious engineer, I was nominated several times for an overseas assignment, but my name was always excluded for different reasons. An overseas project was my long-waited dream. [So] in my first days with Mubadala, I demanded [this] assignment.”
On staying strong: “I used to attend operation meetings with 30-40 males who wouldn’t listen or give me the chance to speak. In addition, I wasn’t allowed to work on the field site, or witness the operations. I had to be strong and decisive to survive in this male-dominated environment. The social culture didn’t appreciate the mixing between the sexes. I was always asked by others: ‘How do you accept working with men and attending meetings with them?’”
On being a role model: “I was raised in a small isolated town by parents who didn’t go to school. Our neighbours and relatives who strongly opposed the idea of going to university started to encourage their daughters – sometimes force them — to follow my path. Being part of changing the social culture in this conservative, isolated town is my biggest achievement. Despite all negative voices in society, I was determined to break the norms and shape my own future.”
THE CLIMATE CHANGE GURU TAKING A DIFFERENT PATH
Following a masters degrees in engineering systems and management at the United Arab Emirates University, Meshayel Al Ali was a research assistant, publishing widely on subjects like oil recovery, environmental awareness, streetlight technologies and carbon regulation in the steel industry. In 2013, she was appointed Head of Climate Change at Dubai’s Ministry of Energy, where she is responsible for all matters related to greenhouse gases.
Meshayel on daring to be different: “The area of energy and sustainability is very trendy nowadays and there are more choices for us. People like to be different to others, and taking on these challenging topics is better than focusing on things like business, which everyone else is doing.”
THE AIRCRAFT ENGINEER WITH AN ‘IMPOSSIBLE’ DREAM
As one of just five aircraft engineers at Etihad Airways, the UAE’s national airline, Muna Hadharem is a role model to the 28 females enrolled on a graduate programme to follow in her footsteps. Hadharem attributes her success in the field to a conversation she had with her father on a starry night, a long time ago...
Muna on defying the odds: “When my teacher asked me in school about what I wanted to do when I grew up, I said my dream was to be an astronaut. The teacher said this is impossible. I was told to change my dream and that I was not a normal person. The children laughed at me. That evening my father found me in the garden looking at the night sky. He asked me why I wasn’t sleeping. I told him what had happened and he said to me ‘Why can’t you be an astronaut? You have to work towards your dream and support it with all your strength’.”
On winning an award: “I first attended the Abu Dhabi Industry Awards Ceremony in 2009 and I decided back then that one day I was going to win one of these awards, and [I did]! I have worked extremely hard to reach this point thanks in large part to the support of my family, teachers, and mentors.
THE PIONEERING NUCLEAR SCIENTIST
As a child, 27-year-old Amani Al Hosani begged her science masters to teach them about atoms and chain reactions, but they told her it wasn’t “on the curriculum”. She followed her path nevertheless, and, upon graduating with a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from Khalifa University –following an initial rejection by the programme - in August 2012, she entered the history books as the UAE’s first female nuclear scientist. The mother of three is now head of simulators at the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation.
Amani on juggling career and motherhood: "You do not have to be a superwoman to be a mother and nuclear scientist. It is a job and all you need is to love science and be passionate about it. My family understand that my job is really demanding and they support every step I take [and my employers] understand the important role of the woman as a mother so they are very flexible.”
On the importance of good communication: “There are many safety scenarios that we prepare for. We have to train the operators very well, as it’s important for them to know all of the more than 75 complex systems we have in the nuclear power plant. It’s essential to teach the operators to be able to communicate properly, and also to enhance their leadership skills in the simulator room. It’s a huge responsibility. But I am up to it.”
On being approached by young girls on social media: “They share their concerns with me and I tell them that it’s not as difficult as they imagine. I encourage them to come on board with us.”