The steady progress of women in engineering
By Angela TAM
"What, how come it's a woman?" cried the startled contracts manager as Ir Sammi Wong walked into the interview.
In Hong Kong to try her luck after graduating with a degree in civil engineering from the University of London in the UK, Ir Wong had spent three fruitless months trying to secure a job in the construction industry without success.
"I realised that people were rejecting my application as soon as they saw the name and gender," she said. So she decided to take action: she sent out more job applications with her name amended to "Sam" and the box for "gender" left blank.
It worked: she got an interview and, to the contracts manager's credit, she was immediately hired despite his initial surprise. Ir Wong became the first female assistant engineer and went on to accumulate 16 years of experience in the industry. Now working as a construction manager for the MTR Corporation, she is based on site, supervising two Shatin to Central Link contracts, both of which involve tunnelling works.
Tunnelling, of course, was one aspect of the industry that was most opposed to the involvement of women. Barely 20 years ago, women were barred from tunnelling projects due to a combination of superstition (something to do with jealous mountain goddesses or simple bad luck, depending on who one talked to) and prejudice but, according to Ir Wong, this is no longer the case.
"The education level of the workers is higher now so that kind of superstition is fading away," she said.
Women are certainly making progress in engineering. Ir Prof Irene Lo became the chairperson of the HKIE Environmental Division this year, becoming the first woman in the Division's history to assume the position.
Ir Prof Lo is used to being in the minority. Studying for her first degree in Taiwan, she was one of just five women in a class of 120. There were just as few women in her class when she was pursuing a masters degree in environmental engineering in the US and, by the time she stayed on to pursue a PhD, she had become a minority of one. Not only that, she was studying a subject that was unheard of in Hong Kong.
"More than 20 years ago there was a subject called sanitary engineering, but not environmental engineering," she said.
That changed, however, when the newly-established Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (HKUST) set up a Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering under its School of Engineering. Ir Prof Lo became part of the first batch of faculty when she joined the university in 1992, one year after its establishment. Since then, she has noted a gradual improvement in the ratio of women studying engineering degrees.
"In my first batch of students there were 36 students: 35 boys and one girl. Now, out of the 160 students I have, 15-20 are women," she said.
That trend continues into the working world. When Ir Mandy Leung joined CLP Power Hong Kong Ltd in 2001, she was the only woman in the engineering department. Although there are now a few more there, she remains the only woman engineer in the department to which she has been transferred. She is optimistic about the prospects of women engineers, however.
"When I was studying only ten of my classmates out of 100 were women, but now I'm seeing more graduate engineers who are women," Ir Leung, now a senior planning development manager at CLP, said.
However, Ir Prof Lo believes that, even though more women are pursuing engineering careers, it would be difficult for the industry to achieve a 50:50 ratio of participation by men and women. Statistics provided by the University of Hong Kong indicate that may indeed be the case: of the students studying engineering there at present, only 18.63% of undergraduates are women; of research postgraduates, they make up only 27.2%. Opinions differ as to why this is the case. For Ir Prof Lo, there is the issue of child birth; for example, when it comes to assessment of the performance of a female academic, including her period of maternity leave would obviously lower the score.
For Ir Emily Hung, who is an electrical and mechanical engineer at the Electrical & Mechanical Services Department, some engineering disciplines appear to attract less interest among women.
"I studied mechanical engineering and building services engineering in university. I think there were fewer women studying mechanical engineering than other disciplines," she said. "Very few went on to work in the industry, perhaps because the training is tough and they have to work in site offices. Many of my classmates chose to work in manufacturing in the Mainland, where they have more opportunities and better pay, than as engineers here."
To attract more women into the engineering profession, both Ir Prof Lo and Ir Leung believe the solution lies in education, at different stages of the career trajectory.
"Statistics show that only 4% of chief executives in Hong Kong-listed companies are women," Ir Prof Lo said. "In US universities there are rules designed to attract more minorities in terms of race or gender, etc, in order to balance intake. This approach hasn't reached Hong Kong yet, but we've set up a women's faculty association at HKUST to lobby for the recruitment of more female faculty."
Set up about four years ago, the association represents a beginning in the academics' push to see more female professionals brought in. Linking up with female academics from the other universities to form a larger lobby group is a future possibility.
Ir Prof Lo is also playing an active role in nurturing women engineers. "There are lots of women engineers in the Environmental Division and I'm encouraging them to join the committee," she said.
Ir Leung believes more women engineers will reach more senior levels in five to ten years. In the meantime, she is targeting young girls, hoping more of them will become interested in becoming engineers. As a HKIE School Ambassador, she has given talks at many schools, playing a part in dispelling the common perception of engineering as 'dirty' work.
However, for many of those who have opted for an engineering career, the 'dirty' site work is precisely what they find stimulating.
"I like being hands-on rather than being stuck in an office all the time, so I'm assigned to a site office. I like the challenge," said Ir Wong.
Her feelings are shared by colleague Ir Lesly Leung, another MTR construction manager. "Yes I think cleanliness and the need to work under the sun may be the reasons for women's reluctance to work in construction, but I take a different view," said Ir Leung. "I also like clean places and do not like too much sunshine. However, if you asked me to sit in office to just carry out design work, doing calculations and running design models, I would have quit the job. I love seeing what's been designed being built. The sense of accomplishment derived from that is enormous."
Ir Leung also felt that it was precisely the presence of women engineers that improved the work environment. "I think workers take safety more seriously when there are female engineers around. They usually make the site or their part of the work better if there is a woman engineer around. They will even use less foul language," she said.
Ir Wong is also encouraged by the presence of other women engineers in her workplace. "There are lots of women engineers in the MTR. In fact, I'm surprised how many there are," she said.
The HKIE is certainly taking an active role in encouraging more women engineers. The Women in Engineering Group was established several years ago and many of its members are involved in the School Ambassador Programme. HKIE President Ir Victor Cheung has stated his desire to see a woman engineer assume the role of President of the Institution as well as a wish to expand the Institution's female membership, which currently stands at 13% of the total.
Interestingly, the current manpower shortage in the construction industry could further the cause of women engineers as bosses cannot afford to ignore female job applicants. Once hired, women engineers show they are just as competent as their male counterparts. And if the prospects are bright, the girls who Ir Prof Lo describes as those who prefer science subjects and rational thinking and are task-oriented would be more inclined to join the profession.
"Most engineers respect you for your capability. In my experience it's people from other fields that tend to show bias against women," she said. To even the numbers and dispel any misconceptions about women in engineering, Ir Prof Lo felt women would have to take the first step; once they have demonstrated their ability to excel in the profession, they will be recognised and serve as role models for other women.
The women engineers agree that, while many girls are inclined towards the arts, there are also those who naturally prefer the sciences, who may become engineers of the future. "They need to be shown the industry's potential," Ir Hung said. "We now have summer interns who appreciate the industry has very good prospects."
There is also agreement that, with more women joining the profession, many will reach a more senior level soon. Although few of them can name a role model within the profession, chance is one or more of them will become role models for the girls and young women aspiring to make their mark in the engineering profession in the hopefully not too distant future.
"Sam" Wong on site. Image: MTR
Ir Prof Lo (first right) at an environmental function with other professional women
Ir Hung (second left)studying a scale model of Ocean Park
Ir Leung at a school talk
Ir Lesly Leung at a tunnel boring machine breakthrough. Image: MTR