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Women in Engineering: Breaking the Gender Barrier

Updated: Apr 17, 2019

Always aim high, work hard and care deeply about what you believe in. And, when you stumble, keep faith. And, when you're knocked down, get right back up and never listen to anyone who says you can't or shouldn't go on.

Hillary Clinton, Presumptive Democratic Presidential Nominee

Since the feminist movement of the 1960s, women began to enter the workforce in great numbers. Five decades in, whilst other industries see healthy growth in women participation, too few women are pursuing a career in engineering and sciences. Perhaps it has to do with the society today and its surprisingly primitive way of boxing women in nurturing-roles and "feminine jobs". It is time to change that perception and lift women up as equals in the male dominated industries. 

The staggering figures

Long regarded as a man's forte, engineering continues to elude the fairer sex. In Europe alone, women constitute only 20% of the engineering workforce with the least women participation from Switzerland and the United Kingdom[1]. Skills Development Scotland (SDS) released statistics for second quarter of the year which shows that out of 1,108 Modern Apprentices for engineering and energy related industries, only 64 (or 6%) were female[2]. In a 2012 United States report, only 14% of engineers are women[3]. At home, the Board of Engineers Malaysia found that while there are 26% female graduate engineers in Malaysia, only 6% progressed to be professional engineers[4]. Such poor participation of women in engineering signals an urgent need to narrow the gender gap.

A one-sided game

Nurul Shahizatul, a project engineer who has once posted offshore during her stint with KSM Group, sums it up perfectly. "Working in a male dominated industry is not a problem for  a woman, but changing their (men's) perception towards women is something difficult to do."

The unspoken negative stigma that women are less competent than men in engineering is an intense discrimination against them. Despite graduating from University Technology Petronas in Petroleum Engineering, Nurul experienced the gender bias first-hand when, as a rookie, she was perceived to be 'under-qualified for the job'. She had to work hard to prove her worth. This echoes the findings that 61% of women engineers feel they have to prove themselves repeatedly to get the same level of respect and recognition as their male counterparts.[5]


Then there is the stereotyping that engineering requires a lot of hands-on work on machinery, is too technical for women and requires working in a less women-friendly environment such as, offshore oil platforms. When first posted to offshore duties, Nurul remembered being asked if she can do the work "in this kind of environment." Thankfully, she knew better than to listen to nay-sayers and persisted to complete her offshore duration successfully. There is also the fact that female engineers earn 10% less than male engineers[6]. Economic growth amazingly has very little effect on the pay gap. All these make engineering less appealing to women as a career choice and presumably, more suited for men.

Here's another factor - knowledge. Engineering requires a deep understanding and a power grasp of mathermatics and science - subjects that are conventionally excelled by men. Women, on the other hand, were believed to possess inferior aptitude in maths and science, hence, perceived as not good engineers. Liana, KSM's QC/QA engineer, confessed that in her early days as an engineer, she had to continuously step up her game to erase any doubt about her knowledge and capabilities. 

The team dynamics too, has a role in widening the gender gap by shaping the expectation of women in engineering. For example, in a team of engineers, men are traditionally looked upon as more capable than women and are expected to handle major challenging projects, while women are usually relegated to deal with menial routine tasks in engineering[7]. The slighting believe was that women need frequent assistance, guidancce and hence incapable of being independent in their work. The lack of acknowledgement to women engineer's capabilities dampers their career and cause many to leave their engineering careers.

Perhaps the widening gap has to do too, with the work culture. To a woman, it is difficult to break into a group of men who engages in frequent "men-talk" and polarized jokes. Women find themselves misplaced and unwelcomed. Nurul admitted that some men were too shy, kept to themselves and will not talk to her unless she made the first move. To mingle better with her male colleagues, Liana remembered forcing herself to speak up and adapting herself to be like "one of the boys". This work culture is precisely why some women find it hard to execute instructions, learn and progress as an engineer.

Leveling the playing field

Evidently, more must be done to get women and young girls involve in engineering. To a world deeply mired in global issues of food scarcity, water cleanliness, energy and environmental issues, a woman's diversified opinion in engineering, could be the key to finding the right solutions. 

For one, Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiatives are making great strides globally to close the gap of girls in STEM studies and careers. In North and South America, efforts to broaden the scope of STEM educational opportunities include 1000 Girls-1000 Futures, The Scientists Foundation and Million Women Mentors. Elsewhere, programs are implemented to encourage young girls to develop spatial skills; laying the foundation of scientific exploration as they mature. In Malaysia, empowering women to pursue engineering gets a boost from universities and relevant bodies through organised talks by professionals, training for research and academic staff and positive media coverage to create an awareness that engineering is a great study and career option to women.

Next, an inclusive network of women engineers, such as Society of Women Engineers, IEEE Women in Engineering among others, will encourage them to stay focused on their careers. An iron-sharpens-iron community that will help women feel less alone and be more efficient at what they do. It gives opportunity to more experienced women engineers to mentor and inspire young girls pursuing engineering studies. A lot can be done through such as empowering group including hosting talks in workplaces, campuses, and expanding the view on what engineering is truly all about.

A revolutionary thought in encouraging more women engineers is to see them as creative thinkers. No longer regarded as "just engineers"who solve problems through plain maths and science formulas, women engineers are esteemed as creative thinkers who collaborate with others to design solutions with nuances of art, that will make the world a better place to live in. 

Both Nurul and Liana agree that the next important thing a woman engineer needs to make it in a male-dominated industry is the moral support from family members. To have people believe in their competencies and skills, gives them confidence to overcome any challenges at work. Similarly, parents who nurture their young children without gender bias, such as letting girls play with robots, Lego blocks instead of just dolls, will set their children off to a great start in inculcating interest in STEM. 

Finally, it is a person's attitude that will determine their altitude. For Nurul, she stayed positive and strive to learn more to get ahead in her career."Keep focused on your job, and always stay positive", as she remembers overcoming her shyness and learning new aspects of her job. Liana's advice to  young women pursuing their studies and career in engineering is, "to never give up and to pursue your goal relentlessly". She encourages women engineers to edify their skill sets by picking up other pertinent skills such as communication, leadership and emotional intelligence. This will give them an advantage over their male peers and to embrace challenges ahead. Indeed, Nurul and Liana epitomise the three essential traits women engineers need: a kind heart, a fierce mind and a brave spirit. 

At the end of the day, both Nurul and Liana hope to see women treated equally in the engineering field. They hope that men would be more open minded to work with women, to believe in their potential and appreciate the different skills and rich diversity women bring into this profession. This most assuredly, is a hope shared by every single woman in the world across any industries. 

5. Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Research Update: Women in engineering by the numbers (

6. Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Research Update: Women in engineering by the numbers (

7. Why Do women leave engineering? (

KSM Group celebrates the milestones of women engineers all over the world and draws inspiration from the Top 39 powerful female engineers of 2018. We are an equal opportunity employer and believes that the hand that rocks the cradle shapes the world. If you would like to know more about us, engage us at 

KSM Group are specialists in the Electrical, Instrumentation, Noise and Vibration control sectors, dedicated to making environments smarter and more efficient. Established in 1983, KSM Group has since evolved from a humble electrical company to trusted distributed and partner to some of the world’s biggest brands. In addition, we design and manufacture our Phoenix range of in-house noise control equipment. We are the first local manufacturer of top quality blowdown silencers. We achieve ISO 9001 recognition in 2000, a global standard for quality management systems. Our testing lab is the first in Malaysia for air distribution system silencers based on ISO 7235.

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