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Women making strides in energy sector

35% of students at Masdar Institute are female, but challenges remain

Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: Emirati women have been taking bold steps into professional disciplines. While many opted for careers in business and related fields, some have also been venturing into the energy sector, pushing aside cultural or social barriers that would prevent them from taking on leadership roles.

At Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (Mist), mentors and students are delivering support and working together to ensure women have a role to play.

Dr Lamya Fawwaz, Executive Director of Public Affairs at Mist, said that one of the barriers that “we see, at least at Masdar Institute, is the social and family pressure of the inclusion of women in Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields,” adding that priority for women has also been given by the government.

“Many of the girls are similar in a way as far as the support they receive from the government and their families in that they are able to do whatever they want,” she said. “In some cases we do mentor, for example, many of the families of female students on how important it is for them to be part of the renewable energy sector and this is an important sector for the UAE.”

Today, almost 35 per cent of students at Mist are women. Reem Abdul Rahman Abdul Rahim Ketait said that exploring the energy and engineering field, which required a lot of family support, has really come down to her passion.

“We seem to forget that women are very passionate and driven and will always find a way to get whatever they want done and accomplished,” she said. “We have to also make sure we find the right opportunities that will allow the whole world to see that we can actually contribute, not just having that privilege of a certain gender that you have to have a female on a board, but you have to have a female that has the experience that speaks for itself and that has gone out of her way seeking a path to see that you’ve honoured the responsibility given to you.”

Dr Fawwaz said that one of the challenges that face women graduates is venturing into their field once they are out of school.

“We have a lot of graduates in engineering and science but as we try to integrate them into the workforce we lose many of them; that’s partially because of a certain belief that family is more important or that... ‘I’m going to get married, stay home and take care of my children,’... so the UAE introduced policies that support them with working hours designated for women, which gives them long maternity leaves. Informing the students and raising awareness about this would help break barriers,” she said.

“Having role models and seeing women in high positions in sectors within Stem, renewable energy, sustainability fields, makes the younger girls see that they can do this and that they can become accomplished and can benefit.”

Anousheh Ansari, an engineer and an Iranian-American co-founder of Prodea Systems, told Gulf News that women in Western societies also have barriers of a different nature. “The number of women going into engineering fields and science and technology is actually decreasing in western societies,” she said. “It tells me that during the early years the girls are somehow growing thinking they’re not good enough or that they are growing up thinking ‘I don’t have to work hard,’ or ‘If I go to this field I will lose all my social life,’ so women are putting these barriers and it’s a much harder stigma to break.”

Ansari, who made headlines in 2006 for becoming the first Iranian in space and the first self-funded woman to fly to the International Space Station, said that it’s hard to be satisfied with what she has achieved but feels there’s so much more that she can do. “I may be sitting at a cafe halfway across the world, but I can’t help but think of the girls in India who want to do something but don’t have the opportunity or in Africa or in other parts of the world,” she said.