ENGINEERING is still largely a man's world, with men outnumbering women by a considerable margin on university campuses and even more so in the industrial workplace.
This can be attributed to years of unfair sexist attitudes adopted by society, which dictated that men should be drawn towards science and technical subjects in school while women should stick to the arts and humanities.
As a result, when women choose to study engineering, they often end up being stigmatised in school and discriminated against at work. And vice versa.
Even today, despite women engineers having shown what they could bring to the table, many countries worldwide continue to see significantly low numbers of women engineering students and women engineers in a male-dominated industry.
Last year, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation report noted that in a number of African, Asian and Arab countries, more than three out of 10 engineers are now women. These countries include Vietnam (31 per cent), Algeria (32), Mozambique (34), Malaysia (39), Tunisia (41), Brunei (42) and Oman (53).
For Arab women, taking up engineering helped them to feel liberated and many Arab countries have made it a priority to develop a knowledge economy by promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects to its citizens.
The report, however, also suggested that these female students, upon graduation, may come up against barriers to finding gainful employment, which include not meeting market demand requirements, family bias against working in mixed-gender environments and a lack of female role models.
Sofiana Balkhis Talha is a female engineer who has "been there, done that".
She considered herself as privileged because her engineer father was more than happy to expose her to the nature of the work and what it entailed.
"Growing up in Alor Star, I was exposed to construction work from a very young age when I accompanied my father to the paddy fields where he was responsible for irrigation work," she said.
"Engineering then grew on me and when it came time for higher studies, there was no doubt what I wanted to pursue and my Dad, of course, was all for it."
When Sofiana Balkhis enrolled in the Diploma in Civil Engineering course at what was then Institut Teknologi MARA (now UiTM), she was the only girl in class.
Sofiana Balkhis felt that this was mainly due to the general perception that engineering was more suited for males, and she was fortunate enough to have been exposed and know that to be untrue.
Additionally, she had the all-important family support which those from non-engineering backgrounds would likely not have.
"Both in school and at the workplace, my male colleagues treated me like one of them," she said.
"At the end of the day, we would even hang out and socialise as a group.
"It's really how you carry and portray yourself; we are there to do a job, not to be divas. When we get the job done, we earn the respect we deserve."
Sofiana Balkhis said that as a civil engineer, she had supervised men and also worked on site through the night.
"Some women are passionate about what they do and will take on anything, while others still see themselves as being feminine and the need to behave accordingly. It's a personal choice," she said.
"Of course, when women become pregnant, then they have to be more careful especially on site.
"Some decide to go into the teaching line instead."
For a change of pace, Sofiana Balkhis spent two years mid-career lecturing at UiTM before returning to the profession as a consultant.
"In consultancy, there is no gender discrimination salary-wise as the tasks we get are based on capability and we are remunerated accordingly," she said.
Ng Jas Min in a process monitoring engineer with ExxonMobil Business Support Centre Malaysia while Nabilah Hamid (pictured on the cover) is a facilities engineer with ExxonMobil Exploration and Production Malaysia Inc.
Both of them believe that there is no job that is gender-specific.
Nabilah said that the tasks involved, from defining problem to analysing data to problem-solving and decision-making, can be accomplished by men as well as women.
Ng said that the only limits would be those that exist in the mind, which may involve personal interests.
"Other than that, I am used to having female colleagues and bosses in the company," she said.
Nabilah agreed that any disadvantage in the field "only exists when we limit ourselves".
Said Ng: "If you don't see being out in the sun or getting soaked in your coveralls as your enemy, then the plant is yours to explore.
“Sometimes we need to do equipment inspection and may have to climb towers or enter vessels.”
“Safety is a core value in our company, so regardless of whatever work activity we are doing, all safety procedures are adhered to ensure nobody gets hurt.”
Both Ng and Nabilah say they have not encountered discrimination at work as the company believed in providing equal opportunity and having a diverse workforce.
"Engineering is a continually developing field, so the learning never ends and there is almost no dead end in the profession with so many different roles one can take on," said Ng.
"Women can expect to thrive as engineers because of all the opportunities available, from technical to management," added Nabilah.
Associate Professor Dr Puteri Sri Melor Megat Yusoff, who heads the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS (UTP), said that the gender disparity in engineering has continued to lessen in recent years.
"If one excels over another, it is due more to personal dedication, commitment and drive, rather than gender," she said.
"Over the years, women engineers all around the world have proven that women can be successful in this profession.
"The only unique situation with women engineers is that they will have to take maternity leave from time to time."
Puteri Sri Melor, however, acknowledged that long-time stereotyping has caused women engineers to feel they are not valued as highly as their male counterparts and that they are not good enough for their respective positions, leading to self-doubt.
"We must break these stereotypes. We need to educate children that engineering is a great career for everyone, we need to get female students to have interest in mechanical engineering at the early stage, and girls have to be engaged in STEM subjects as early as possible," she said.
"The most important thing is the confidence, to focus on being an engineer rather than worrying about being a woman in a male-dominated environment.
"Motivation, passion and an opportunistic attitude will help women get ahead in their engineering careers."
Puteri Sri Melor said that promotion has always been a point of contention among women in the workplace, especially with regard to top managerial and leadership roles.
"There has always been a double standard in considering women for promotion, mainly due to the fact that women are more committed to family needs and their frequent application for maternity leave," she said.
Mohamad Nazmi Zaidi Moni, a mechanical engineering postgraduate student from UTP, said that female engineers being treated differently by their male counterparts may not necessarily be a bad thing.
"Female engineers may be paid less, but they would also not be required to undertake tasks that are physically demanding," he said.
"On the down side, female engineers may have more to prove before they get to reach their full potential."
Mohamad Nazmi added that female engineers have already shown what they can do in the profession, often outperforming the men, and this will lead to less discrimination against them.
"I do see more female role models emerging, although sexism may still exist in a discreet way," he said.
Pius Chuo, who is undertaking a double degree in Civil Engineering and Commerce at Monash University Melbourne, said there are women in his course although they are outnumbered.
"Over five years on campus, for my engineering units, I have had only one group project with a girl," he said, adding that he was only speaking from his own experience.
Chuo said he has never witnessed any obvious gender discrimination in his engineering classes and everyone was accorded equal treatment.
"Nevertheless, the perception that engineering is more for men still seems to persist, from the subtle though candid comments made by my peers," he said.
To Dr Dino Isa, Professor of Intelligent Systems at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, women have generally better communications skills and are less threatening.
He said: "These traits allow them to perform better than men when interfacing with their non-technical counterparts or superiors."
Said Mohamad Nazmi: "Ultimately, to those women engineers who become disillusioned or shortchanged, I have to blame their expectations as the main source of their misery.
"Some may prefer to work in the field but do not get the chance to, while for others it is the opposite.
"It is best for all engineers to have a clear understanding of their job scope and then adapt to the environment that they have chosen, to avoid future disappointment."
Dino also felt that women should not feel disadvantaged in engineering and end up with an inferiority complex.
"When you let old prejudices affect your performance, that would in turn only reinforce those prejudices which may then make it harder to overturn in the short term," he said.
"From my knowledge and experience, women engineers tend not to prefer jobs that are too technical so when they enter the workforce after graduation, they end up with jobs that are semi-technical like sales or marketing.
"Engineering involves skilled positions which someone can be trained to do.
"Passion, on the other hand, cannot be trained. It is the passion that drives people when times are hard, drives them to overcome obstacles and find satisfaction in what has been achieved.
"That is the life lesson that everyone should follow."
Promising and stable career
NAJIHA Nadzru, 33, is working for a multi-national construction firm in Malaysia.
“As far as I know, male engineers earn three to five per cent more than their female counterparts in a similar position.
“Where job expectations are concerned, superiors expect more accuracy and detailed work from women while from men, they wanted speed and rough estimation instead.
“In the construction industry, women are generally not encouraged to go on to the site and will face challenges if they insist on going.
“In the field, it is a fact that women usually have less physical power and the ability to endure harsh weather and working conditions.
“Where safety is concerned, the company usually does not order the correct type of female safety shoes and instead, for financial reasons or out of convenience, it will opt to buy male safety shoes which, to women engineers, are not only uncomfortable and one size too big but can even be hazardous.
“In the profession, besides the salary difference, promotion to the higher levels of management usually also favours males. To become a project manager or construction manager, it is still quite rare to see females being given such roles although this trend is changing.
“Among my former engineering coursemates, a handful have ended up either being housewives, schoolteachers or in a catering business.
“However, a high percentage of my female coursemates are in the profession so this is still a promising and stable career for women.”