Hiwar event focuses on triumphs and challenges of female scientists

November 07, 2022
Female engineers and scientists examined the challenges women face in scientific professions and ways to overcome them at Northwestern Qatar’s most recent Hiwar Speaker series event.
The event included a screening of Picture a Scientist, an award-winning documentary exploring the various obstacles women who work in science face. It follows a group of female scientists and researchers as they provide new perspectives on how to make science more diverse, equitable, and accessible to all.
Following the screening, a panel of experts from Qatar reflected on their experiences overcoming social and cultural hurdles and the efforts that are in place to empower women to pursue careers in science in Qatar and globally.
In opening the discussion with Abeer Buhelaiqa, founder of the Qatar Women Engineers Association and Ghada Salama, a chemical engineer professor at Texas A&M University at Qatar, and Northwestern Qatar Professor Anto Mohsin, the moderator, Northwestern Qatar Professor Rana Kazkaz asked them how they became interested in science.
“Science was a natural career path for me because both of my parents were also scientists,” said Salama, who recounted that in addition to her parents’ influence, her success in math and science courses in school were also driving forces for her decision to pursue engineering as an academic and professional career.
But soon after completing her engineering studies, Salama said it became apparent to her that engineering as a profession is unwelcoming to women. “Right after I finished my master’s in engineering, I applied for a job in the national oil company in my country, but I was immediately rejected, just because I was a woman,” said Salama. “They told me they were only hiring male engineers, and that is when I realized that engineering for our society was for men only.”
Expanding on Salama’s experience, Buhelaiqa said while explicit discrimination is uncommon in Qatar, female engineers in the country suffer from other forms of implicit biases. “Harassment and such kind of explicit biases and violence are merely the tip of the iceberg,” said Buhelaiqa. “Women in our profession are being refused a promotion, not invited to a meeting, paid less than their male counterparts, and, on top of that, face gaslighting and subtle slights on a daily basis just because we are women and there is a cultural and social dogma against women in engineering.”
According to Buhelaiqa, these challenges deter women from pursuing careers in science and hinder their professional growth. “When people ask why there is a ‘leak’ in the pipeline of female students going to engineering, these are the issues we need to look at,” she said, emphasizing the need to examine the experiences of female professionals as part of the challenges women around the world face in the workplace.
Buhelaiqa also pointed to the impact that role models and male allies have in making scientific professions more welcoming to women, Buhelaiqa said, “we live in the era of social media and celebrities, so it's really important to have female engineers and women in leadership positions for women who want to enter into science to look up to and be inspired by.” She recounted how having Sheikha Hind bint Hamad Al Thani as a role model and some male colleagues as allies inspired her to create the Qatar Women Engineers Association and lead its efforts to increase female engineers’ representation in the media.
Mohsin stressed the importance of having discussions in the classroom about the challenges women face in science. “This is the reality of how science is practiced today. It is still hierarchal; it’s still discriminatory in many aspects,” said Mohsin. “I’m happy to learn today that female students represent around 50 percent of the total student body of engineering schools like Texas A&M at Qatar, but the ‘leaky pipe’ metaphor is also important to acknowledge, and […] we need to stop these leaks and holes.”
The Hiwar Speaker series at Northwestern Qatar features discussions about pressing issues around the world. To watch the panel discussion with Buhelaiqa, Salama, and Mohsin, click here.