It is said that the passing of time brings positive changes in any society. However, many improvements that has happened were possible because some members of society call for it, and the status of women in society has been one of those issues that motivated people, specifically women, to demand improvements asking for their rights. In this interview, we talked to the Qatari engineer Abeer Hassan Buhelaiqa, who dreamt of creating a better environment for Qatar’s female engineers. She acted and brought that dream to life. So, who is Abeer Hassan Buhelaiqa?
I am a reservoir engineer (a branch of petroleum engineering), a wife, and a mother of three blessing kids. Back in 2011, I obtained my bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University in Qatar (TAMUQ), and in 2020, I obtained a master’s degree in Women, Society, and Development from the College of Humanities & Social Sciences (CHSS) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU).
Furthermore, I am the Founder and Vice Chairperson of the Qatar Women Engineers Association (QWEA). I am a member of the Qatari Women’s Affairs Steering Committee and a member of the Advisory Board for CHSS. I am also a board member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers-Qatar section (SPE). Along with being a member of many organizations, I presented a technical paper titled: “Petroleum Engineering and Geoscience Integration” at International Petroleum Technology Conference in 2014 and presented my master’s thesis, titled: “Qatari Women’s Leadership in Oil and Gas Industry”, in The World Conference for Women Studies in 2020.
How was your journey in the master’s program that was about community development and gender issues when you hold a degree in engineering?
Let me tell you first that it was an extraordinary journey because I was a full-time student who was working full-time whilst raising toddlers. Also, it was a non-engineering program, so it was something new to me. I used to finish my work and rush to the university, finish the classes, and rush home to teach my children. Only after the kids were asleep was I able to have time to study, so I used to stay up late at night to finish assignments. It was challenging period of my life, but I liked the experience as it showed me how capable and how resilient I can be.
My thesis focused on studying the history of women who joined the STEM fields, which are the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. It was a comprehensive study focused on the major factors that prevent women from joining these fields as professionals. These factors range from the existence of rooted biases in society, like socio-cultural biases, the organizational policies, the opportunities available for women, and the visibility of women working in those fields. One of the findings of the study was that, indeed, women working in those fields are less visible than their male colleagues, by which I mean they are less highlighted to the public, which leads to another problem and that is the lack of role models and the lack inspirations for other girls to look up to. This raises the question: is the lack of visibility of women a result of no inclusion? Or is it the women themselves who decided not to be visible, for example, not to appear on social media, press, the internet, etc.? We need to answer this question clearly. In terms of learning and training opportunities for women, Qatar provides quality education in STEM fields, which encourages more women to join these fields in comparison to before. Today, fair opportunities exist for women in those fields.
I published my thesis on March 2020, and I am proud that my paper was selected and presented at two international gender conferences and journals in late 2020 and early 2021. And just recently, in late 2021, I was happy to see female engineers being promoted to team leads/heads in engineering. This is indeed a very promising step for all female engineers.
How does being a woman shape your experience working as an engineer?
On the day of graduation from TAMUQ, I found out that I am pregnant with my first baby. Two months later, I was asked to start my role as a petroleum engineer, and with my pregnancy growing, I knew that I would face some challenges in my professional life. I was sure of this because it is one of the expectations that some people have from married women, and from women in general, and as a woman, I made it my responsibility to prove the opposite.
We used to have 40 calendar maternity leave days, and I added 10 days from my allowed leave days when I gave birth. So, 50 days after giving birth, I resumed and started work on a site that required one hour of driving and another hour coming back home. I used to leave my baby with my mother around 5 in the morning and take the one-hour drive as a nap for me, as I would be so lucky if I was able to sleep for three hours straight. I would take another nap while coming back home. But once I would be at home, I would dedicate my time to being with my baby. I missed him so much during those times, but I kept myself motivated by thinking that at least I am getting two hours of nap. It was what we call the bitter-sweet. So, I would be away from my baby for at least 9 hours. It’s the extra pressure or effort we do to prove ourselves and fight the implicit biases about us as women.
To date, I remember my first site visit. I was overwhelmed by the huge size of the site and the scale of its components compared to what we imagined them to be when we were studying. After that experience, I and other colleagues reached out to TAMUQ, told them about our experience, and advised them to take the students on-site visits so they can experience how it feels to work on a site. Another thing that I remember is that our presence was something new to all the men working on the sites, which made them uncomfortable as the accommodations at the site were for men only. So, they were a bit worried about how to make us feel comfortable and how to arrange the use of the facilities, like sharing the washroom and how to fit us into the small cabin restaurant where we had our breakfast and lunch. They were so kind in trying to arrange these things and everyone there was collaborating and working together. Alhamdulillah, all of this changed within a few weeks after we raised our concerns, that we, as females, need separate accommodations, and today, all sites are prepared to accommodate women easily.
One of the events that happened to me during work is when one working staff told me: “you are married and have a baby, why would you compete with us on a men’s job? Your place is at home and in the kitchen”. I could have raised this incident to authorities, and he would probably be warned or fired, but I didn’t want to stop his livelihood, but I wanted him to be there to watch what I am capable of. Two years later, in an email received from the executive director regarding a project, I was appointed the leader of that project, and the person who made that previous comment would be one of the members who will be reporting to me. I called him directly and told him: “I am good at the kitchen, but I am the best at meeting my deadlines, so let’s get ready”. Of course, we all work in a collaborative environment, but I commented only to tell him that we all should respect each other. We need to take a stand against the misconceptions spreading that women were not getting promoted because they are not committed, or that they are not good enough, or that that refuse to go to the site. Alhamdulillah, I think I and other engineers were able to encourage a lot of changes in the field and make it more women-friendly. Like any new field, there were challenges that we faced, some of which we raised, and we were able to change. However, there were things that we started seeing as time passed, like the invisible limits that they put for women, a glass ceiling as they call it. This was especially true when it comes to promoting women to leading positions. At that time, I was thinking to continue my education and get a master’s degree, but to study something close to my heart this time, and something within humanities and social sciences. I remember I saw a post about the Master of Arts in Women, Society, and Development, so, I applied and joined Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU).
Studying the history of women’s struggles and how some communities managed to grow where others didn’t, made me want to do my master thesis on this topic. The thesis ended with a list of recommendations that might help in closing the gap between men and women. One of those recommendations led, in late 2020, to the inception of QWEA , the Qatar Women Engineers Association.
What inspired you to establish QWEA?
To be honest, establishing QWEA was a challenging process, something that I did not expect it to be, but now I look at that time proudly, and I surely learned a lot from those experiences. QWEA was formed as a result of my experiences and observations throughout the years that I worked as an engineer, such as those that I mentioned earlier. In addition to those reasons, and as I was studying for my master’s, I had the privilege to meet Her Excellency Sheikha Hind bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani back in 2018. As soon as I introduced myself to her as a petroleum engineer, she said: where are you, ladies? She expressed that she is aware that many female engineers have been graduating from Texas University, but she added that they are invisible in the industry. This is when she advised me to form a community dedicated to female engineers. The community can serve as a space to inspire and empower and highlight to the community the achievements of Qatari female engineers. And through the community, we can change the many misconceptions people have about female engineers.
The work on establishing QWEA started in 2019 with a meeting with Dr. Hanan Farhat, the founder, and director of Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute’s (QEERI) Corrosion Center, to whom I was introduced by Dr. Amal Al Malki , the Founding Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at HBKU. The plan was to start the association by February 2020 and to launch it in a big event, but due to Covid-19, we delayed the event till September 2020 and launched it via a virtual event.
We had our first event in December 2021, to announce the establishment of the association and it had a panel talk about women and leadership. The speakers in the panel were: Dr. Amal Al Malki , Dr. Buthania Al Ansari , Strategic Development and Human Resources Expert, and Aysha Al-Mudahka, Director of Strategic Initiative Partnership Development in Qatar Foundation. The announcement of the association was met with huge media attention; we were asked for interviews on channels such as Al Rayyan and Al Jazeera. Quickly enough, we were known as QWEA with more than 150 female engineers as its members.
QWEA faced many challenges as we struggled to make it recognized by the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs. We wanted QWEA to have a strong foundation because many women engineers were waiting for it and putting hope on this platform. There were looking for inspiration, support, and for understanding, and all of those can only foster and grow in an environment with other women who are going through the same journey. As we were going through those challenges, I felt many times that it would be easier to give up, but soon I would get back and try again and again. The continuous support that we have received from Dr. Amal Al-Malki made us stronger and we have always tried to find solutions to move forward. Engineer Khalid Al-Naser, the Chairman of the Qatar Society of Engineers (QSE) welcomed QWEA, to be under the umbrella of QSE. This made the existence of QWEA even stronger. Since January 2022, we have established a board of members and committees, and people are showing great interest in our organization and working for it voluntarily. I am always amazed by the energy of our members and their excitement to work, even with their full-time jobs.
Our calendar this year, 2022, is full and we have already participated in many activities, like the Qatar International Sports Engineering conference and exhibition in 2022, and career fairs at Qatar Foundation and Qatar University. We even were judges for science and engineering competitions on the level of the State of Qatar. Currently, we are working on several big projects with different institutions that we will announce soon through QWEA’s social media platforms.
What is the vision of QWEA?
Our vision is to encourage women to pursue engineering as a degree and career path. We also aim to highlight women who are great role models in their respective fields. Highlighting role models is very important, for both girls and boys. By shedding light on women who are breaking the norms and practicing their work just like anyone else, we can foster acceptance in men. As for girls, having role models encourages them to follow the path of those role models.
My three-year-old son gets so excited whenever he sees me in a helmet when I come back home from work. And by the age of five, he told me he wanted to be an engineer, and he started searching about engineering on google; he even tried to fix things around the house. Such events made me realize that I was his role model and that it created a positive perception of engineering in his mind. This made me realize that we need to change the perception of the new generation by providing them with role models that they can follow. It is important to highlight role models as the lack of visible role models gives people the opportunity to create stories about the women working in any field, also, by doing so we write our own narratives.
We were able to achieve this goal as different organizations and schools reached out to us to host talks or discussions with students, highlighting a specific specialty in engineering. A lot of students show interest in pursuing engineering. Through QWEA, we want to make the next generations of women excited to pursue engineering and know they can dream of it and achieve it. Another major goal of our association is to recognize women’s efforts and struggles, empower them, and encourage them by highlighting their work and achievements.
Can you tell us more about your achievements?
I am not that good at highlighting my achievements, but the one that is closest to my heart, and the one that I always remember is when I was awarded the Engineer of the Year from TAMUQ in 2020. The year after that, in 2021, I was named the Female in Engineering Champion.
I consider my children my biggest achievement. They are the engine that keeps me going; they are why I wanted to change the world. I want my daughter to know that her dreams have no limit and that she does not need to dream according to society’s norms. I want my son to be a man who supports the women in his life, and I am overjoyed whenever my children get excited about my interviews and the work that I do.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Always support each other, because it takes two hands to clap. Live your life, enjoy what you are doing, and try to create a balance that suits you.
Published on 15/09/2022
- All Pictures were provided to us by the interviewee, unless stated otherwise.
- Interview was edited to improve clarity and readability.