Enroute to Empowerment

Dr. Noor Zainab Habib, Assistant Professor, Civil Engineering, Institute of Infrastructure and Environment School of Energy, Heriot-Watt University talks to Ananke about encouraging women participation in the field of transportation engineering.

Tell us about yourself from choosing this unique subject to the journey so far?

I was born in Pakistan and got my degree in civil engineering from N.E.D University of Engineering and Technology, (the southern city of) Karachi. After doing my Master’s and Ph.D. in transportation engineering, I began my career as a design engineer but soon realized that the field of academics was my real calling. Teaching is my passion. I love interacting and engaging with students, guiding them to choose their career path and nurturing their interest in research.

It is indeed quite a challenge to pursue a field dominated by men but faith and a persistent attitude have led me to have a successful career.

What are some of the most significant challenges that you faced and how did you counter them?

The most significant challenge was actually pursuing a career after getting married. Women in our society usually quit because they are unable to maintain a balance between family and professional life. Patience and perseverance are the two important things, which have helped me achieve my goals.

Do you think transportation agencies need more women engineers – why?

Yes, there is great potential for women especially in the field of intelligent transport system. Sectors including pavement design or highway materials are mostly dominated by men because of the harsh and demanding nature of work.; which triggers a gender stereotype that women might buckle under pressure.

In short, engineering is not something that should be analyzed on the basis of gender. It is more dependent on your knowledge and your capability of doing your job in a professional way.

How important is inclusion and diversity as far as growth of this sector in a sustainable way is concerned?

For the success and growth of any sector and especially engineering bringing in people with novel ideas and intellectual capabilities is more important than anything. I think for sustainable organization growth, a balance is very important and this can only work when people knows their role very well. The UAE has a vision of moving towards inclusion and non-discrimination policies and this should also be reflected in engineering organization.

Comment on women’s participation in this sector as far as the UAE is concerned?

In this specific area of engineering, you will find fewer women in the UAE as in many other countries in the world. The reason is because of social constraints and the field of transportation or pavement engineering itself being considered a male dominant one. But things are changing especially in the UAE that offers a very positive environment, encouraging women to penetrate any sector thereby empowering the female gender.

How can women be encouraged to play a bigger role in this sector, globally as well as in the UAE?

I truly believe women can play a bigger in this regard. It really is all about us women (in the field) helping and encouraging others not only to join in, but also mentor them to grow professionally. Another way is by holding talks, seminars at educational institutes, social media as well as getting support from government agencies.

What are some of the main factors that discourage women to participate in this sector and what can be done to counter them?

The idea that this is a male’s job and the other is the fear that they (women) cannot perform well. It is so important to create public awareness that enables society to accept women’s presence in the field of transportation engineering. Creating positions in the organization only for ladies will definitely help them to step into this world.

Do you think women designing transportation systems can alleviate real world problems, accidents etc.?

If we categorize the problems into road related transportation problems and transportation system related problems then the first one is related to an individual behavior or rather a collective behavior of the society. The second one is related to the operational skills, which cannot be characterized by the presence or absence of particular gender.

Tell us a little about your area of expertise and its scope in the UAE?

I am dealing with materials. It can be highway material or any waste/recycled material, which we can effectively convert into a useful environmental friendly green material. There is a lot of scope in the UAE as government agencies are working and encouraging research in the design of green cities as well as building materials with low carbon footprints.

Anything you wish to add.

I hope to see equal work opportunities being given to women in the industry and that talent is not judged on the basis of gender. Women should not undermine their skills, everything that is challenging will be difficult at the initial stage but with perseverance, professionalism and faith in oneself, it can be achieved!


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