Niranjanie Ratnayake (nee Kodikara), Professor Emeritus in Civil Engineering of the University of Moratuwa, and President of the Institution of Engineers of Sri Lanka, delivered the 28th Susan George Pulimood Oration to mark the 111th birth anniversary of the late educationist and Visakha Vidyalaya principal. She spoke on “Breaking Barriers and Changing the World – [...]

Sunday Times 2

Women in engineering: Breaking barriers and building hopes


Niranjanie Ratnayake (nee Kodikara), Professor Emeritus in Civil Engineering of the University of Moratuwa, and President of the Institution of Engineers of Sri Lanka, delivered the 28th Susan George Pulimood Oration to mark the 111th birth anniversary of the late educationist and Visakha Vidyalaya principal. She spoke on “Breaking Barriers and Changing the World – Women in Engineering”. Excerpts:

Niranjanie Ratnayake delivering the Susan George Pulimood oration. Pic by Priyantha Wickramaarachchi

Gender stereotyping has been an ongoing practice in both the developed and developing world since time immemorial. Whilst some conservative cultures strictly enforce a differentiation between males and females in education, employment, and social freedom; even in more liberal cultures, stereotyping is still apparent from the day a child is born.

Boys should fix things while girls need things fixed. As girls grow up, they are expected to be beautiful, graceful, soft spoken, and cultured, whereas boys will be handsome, outspoken, and strong.

Since my childhood days, I have always challenged these stereotypes. Looking back at my time spent at this prestigious institution, I can see how my own views and attitudes were formed and influenced by strong female role models who also challenged society’s lazy stereotyping of how a woman should live her life. Our school’s founder, Mrs. Jeremias Dias, after whom this hall I address you in incidentally is named, and Mrs. Susan George Pulimood, whom I honour with my oration today, were not only pioneers in the advancement of girls’ education in Sri Lanka, but were in their own right tremendously successful in running a top class educational institution for girls, thereby breaking barriers imposed by a patriarchal society.

A very important role is played by the doctors who diagnose diseases and treat them effectively, before it results in permanent damage to organs or even death. But without the diagnostic tools like CT scans, MRI scans, echo, ultrasound and other sophisticated equipment, this would only be a dream. Robotic surgical systems are becoming fairly common in the world now.

We become engineers because we get excited about solving problems and making things happen, by design. Engineers change the world: We improve human life by catering to the needs of society, providing solutions to facilitate everything from basic human necessities such as shelter, food, water, transportation, clothing, and medical equipment to fancy extravaganzas like Trevitas and Lamborghinis. We help advance cultures through providing platforms for entertainment and communication.

We also design and implement others’ concepts, collaborating with architects, doctors, and scientists to create buildings, medical equipment, and laboratories. This list is endless. Without engineers, these concepts would remain merely as ideas.

That is how engineers are changing the world.

Of course, being a female in a male-dominated field is apparently inconvenient to many people.

To illustrate this social dilemma, I’d like to draw your attention to an interesting quote I came across. “Female engineers have been termed double stereotype breakers; that is, we break the stereotype for a ‘good woman’ as well as that for a ‘good engineer’ “

I do not see being a woman as a handicap for being an engineer. Family and school support is extremely important for any girl taking this step. Visakha Vidyalaya has always empowered girls to take on challenges and do what they are best at, not being confined to stereotypes. This foundation helps a girl to confidently enter a male-dominated field and still be a ‘good woman’; beautiful, graceful, eloquent, and cultured.

Females bring something to a team that is lacking in an ‘all-male’ society.

The benefits of female participation in fields like product design are being recognised now.  A recent article by Sue Williams — titled ‘Why we need women in STEM’ (that is, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) — describes this advantage.

She says, “As more women enter the fields of STEM, we are seeing the difference a women’s perspective makes. For instance, engineer Surbhi Sarna of ‘nVision’ is developing a technology to detect ovarian cancer and tube blockages, which would improve a century-old procedure that is painful to the patient. Amy Sheng, a mom and bioengineer, is working on ‘CellScope’, which allows parents to use a smartphone attachment to diagnose children’s ear infections. Leah Sparks and Katherine Bellevin have created ‘Due Date Plus’, a smart phone-enabled maternity program.’

These are products that improve the quality of life of the people, which, probably men would not have thought about. Another aspect of development that female engineers are contributing to, in a significant way, is in the social and environmental aspects of engineering works.

I speak to you today as a Professor Emeritus in Civil Engineering of the University of Moratuwa, as well as the current President of the Institution of Engineers of Sri Lanka. I was the first female to achieve this combination, but I am hopeful I am merely the start of a long line of many more to come.

Recently we did a study among the female engineers of the IESL. Incidentally, we have a total current membership of 15,500, all qualified engineers, out of which 2,290 are female engineers, which is about 15%.

Our questionnaire went to all the female engineers, out of whom about 20% responded. The greater majority of them (88 percent) are working full-time in the government or private sector, and 25 percent have postgraduate qualifications too. We got some revealing statistics from that survey, on which we need to take some initiatives at the IESL, to improve the lot for the women engineers.

Just to give a glimpse about the situation among female engineers in Sri Lanka:

When asked if they feel that engineering is a Man’s World, 91 percent said no; but 71 percent said women face more opposition in leadership roles than men.

With regard to the workplace environment, when asked if they get treated equally by their engineering colleagues in the work place, a little over half (54 percent) said yes, while about one third (30 percent) said No.  A large majority (77 percent) say that some men do not feel comfortable with having to report to women.

61 percent think that there was (or will be) a time in their engineering career they had (or will have) to choose between family and career, and of them 52 percent chose, (or will choose), family.

So we can see that although in Sri Lanka, there does not seem to be any barrier to study engineering (the current university intakes being totally impartial to gender), when it comes to the workplace and home front, there may be barriers that have to be overcome to rise to the top.

For example, three quarters of the female engineers in the study, feel that the male employees resent having to report to female bosses. A majority feel that a male or female mentor would help them to succeed. A point where support is really needed is when the woman engineer has to choose between career and family, where slightly more than half who have either faced or expect to face this situation, have said that they would chose family over career.

On the positive side, most of these women engineers are doing very well in their careers, as they have chosen to do engineering, rather than just go along with the wave.

So, in summary, engineering is an exciting, ‘people serving’ profession, where we can really change the world into a happy, livable place, working with other professionals to make their dreams come true. Girls can not only do it well, but they bring a very important dimension to engineering because of the way we think and act.

There are certain barriers to women getting into the fields that are stereotyped as men’s jobs, in the patriarchal society we live in, but these barriers can be broken if you develop the right skills and have the passion for it.

To end, I leave you with this statement by Stacey DelVecchio, Past President, Society of Women Engineers, USA. It nicely sums up the sentiment most of us women engineers feel at work as well as when we meet people socially.

“I wish people would stop being impressed by the fact that I’m a Woman Engineer. We want it to be normal to see beautiful, social, intelligent women out there that are engineers”

To all the parents and teachers in the audience, I urge you to help your daughter and pupil to find her passion, be it engineering, business, surgery, or anything in between, encourage her to break all barriers she comes across, and not let stereotyping stop her from changing the world into a better, more beautiful, peaceful and happy place to live in.

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