I am often asked what it is like to work as a female engineer in the Gulf. From my experience, which includes being chair of the CIBSE UAE region, I can say that a lot is being done to address the gender gap, and make the engineering industry a career option for women in the region.
Within six months of moving to Dubai, I realised the view I had of the region was mostly from the media and far from the reality I faced at work and on the construction sites.
Men here are extremely respectful of women, both in design team meetings as well as on-site. Dubai is a city of 13.3 million people from more than 200 nationalities, and this creates a culture of innovation, inclusion and co-creation.
Closing the gender gap
However, the UAE still has some way to go to achieving gender parity. It is ranked 137th out of 153 countries in the Global Gender Gap index for Economic Participation and Opportunity, and while women do fair better in the index for educational attainment, at 89th out of 153 countries it’s firmly in the bottom half of the global league table.1
In the past decade, there has been a massive push towards education in the region, particularly for women. The female literacy rate is now 95.8% and 70% of Stem-industry graduates are woman.
Within the UAE government, two-thirds of the workforce are female, with 30% in leadership roles and 15% in technical and academic roles.
If you come up with a good idea with the potential to make a positive impact, gender doesn’t really play a role in whether or not it will be accepted
This is the result of a series of public and private sector initiatives that are enabling women to gain increasingly stronger roles in business, military and government.
There have been other schemes, too. In 2015, the UAE set up the Gender Balance Council to strengthen the role of Emirati women locally and internationally. To date, 23,000 such businesswomen run projects worth more than AED 50 bn (£10.5 bn) and occupy 15% of the positions in the boards of chambers of commerce and industry nationwide.
Recent regulation from the UAE’s Securities and Commodities Authority requires a minimum 20% of the board of any listed company to be female –the first such requirement in the region.
There are some amazing woman engineers in the region working on some groundbreaking projects and challenging the gender bias.
I saw the professional opportunities for women in Dubai when I was working on the $136m (£104m) Museum of the Future as the sustainability lead for Buro Happold in the Middle East.
My role was to understand the vision of the Prime Minister of Dubai’s office and transform this into actionable benchmarks for engineering and sustainability.
I proposed making the museum energy self-sufficient, and showcasing sustainability to inspire young people into learning more about climate change and taking Stem subjects. (The Museum of the Future is embracing the UAE’s Key Development Areas, one of which is Knowledge and Education).
We discussed the option of having an urban solar farm, and a local stable was identified as a potential area to install solar PV panels. After a glare analysis and urban heat island study, we identified that this intervention will be detrimental to the wildlife and animals in the stable, because of glare and reflection. I suggested that we could retrofit existing building rooftops to create space for solar PV.
This idea was accepted, and now, after three years of analysis and installation work, the Museum of the Future is ready to be connected to an offsite solar PV. Its specification will form part of the education and awareness program in the museum.
It shows that if you come up with a good idea with the potential to make a positive impact, gender doesn’t really play a role in whether or not it will be accepted.
In June 2020, my company celebrated the female engineers involved in the Museum of the Future project. Their work includes the design of the critical mechanical, electrical and public health systems, the structural diagrids, the site-wide energy and renewable strategy, the complex dynamic energy modelling, the LEED compliance for Platinum certification and the specialist lighting and façade design.
Women engineers in the Middle East
- In Kuwait, 49% of engineering graduates are women
- In Oman, 46% enrolling in engineering are women
- In Bahrain, women make up 44% of those in engineering subjects
- 32% of engineering students in Bahrain are women
- In the UAE, enrolment in engineering subjects increased from 2.9% in 2012 to 24.9% in 2015
- In Saudi Arabia, graduation rates for women in engineering rose from 1% in 2000 to 10% in 2011
- In Jordan, women make up 40% of engineering classes
- Algeria’s engineering classes are 36% female
- Women in Gaza study computer science and engineering at the same or higher rates than men.
Good engineering here is recognised and listened to, irrespective of gender. I have been working on gender diversity in UK for many years and after coming to the Middle East, I found that people were new to the term and what it actually means.
However, Dubai is such a dynamic place with people living here from many countries, meaning cultural inclusion is the norm. People are very diverse but inclusive in their thinking and mindset, especially in the built environment sector.
Working for a company that shares humanistic values is important and connecting those values with our career conversation and succession planning is vital, not only for the organisation but also for our own progression.
Since I have moved to the region, I have been fortunate to be involved in some of the most interesting projects here, including the Sustainability Pavilion for Expo 2020 designed by Grimshaw Architects, Bee’ah Headquarters in Sharjah designed by Zaha Hadid, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel.
It’s a not a place for the faint-hearted – the speed of progress and development across the region is phenomenal – but I would encourage anyone to taste the intensity and be part of the transformative engineering journey that the region will experience in the next decade.
I look forward to seeing more female engineers making their mark in the region and becoming part of the zero carbon roadmap for the Arab nations.
- Global Gender Gap Report 2020, World Economic Forum.
- Farah Naz is chair of the CIBSE UAE region and head of innovation Middle East at Buro Happold