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Lani Rose R Dizon

Female engineers need to be proactive and assertive at work, Founder and Vice Chairperson of Qatar Women Engineers Association (QWEA) Abeer Buhelaiqa has said.

Buhelaiqa is considered a mentor by many female engineers in Qatar, particularly young Qatari women. An experienced reservoir engineer who has been working in the country’s oil and gas industry for the past 12 years, she has been chosen and featured among Entrepreneur Herald’s Top 30 Inspiring Women to Look Out For in 2023.

As a member of the Qatari Women’s Affairs Steering Committee, Buhelaiqa is passionate about empowering fellow women. With a master’s degree in Women, Society, and Development, she has delved into the complex issue of gender gap and the lack of women in leadership positions in the oil and gas sector, with her thesis paper ‘Qatari Women Leadership in Oil & Gas Industry’, which she has also presented at the World Conference for Women Studies in 2020.

Aside from her day job as an engineer, Buhelaiqa is also an inventor. Together with another Omani female engineer, the two women won third place at the recent Energy Hackathon for their Carbo-Eco-Gin project, which aims to combat climate change, generate clean energy, and promote circular economy. The duo competed against more than 250 researchers and innovators from different Gulf countries, with about 20 finalists.

In an interview with Qatar Tribune, Buhelaiqa went down memory lane and shared her journey as one of the first Qatari women engineers to work in the oil and gas industry. She went on to advise other female engineers to be adaptive to their environments.

“I was sponsored by one of the national oil and gas companies, so I joined the company right after finishing my university degree. During the first week I joined the industry, I used to be very quiet. I liked to do brainstorming by myself. But I saw that the industry was really different. I had to be proactive, I had to negotiate, I had to talk, ask questions, and not hesitate. I had to change my personality at the workplace. So, you can see me very quiet at home, but very proactive and assertive at work. Because this is the only way you can step in with your ideas and progress,” Buhelaiqa said.

While she encourages women to be confident and firm in sharing their ideas in order to grow as professionals, Buhelaiqa noted that it is also important to listen to other people’s point of view and accept the opinion of others.

She reiterated that having a dedicated mentor and coach since the beginning of her career provided a huge support in guiding her to be the woman leader that she is today.

Buhelaiqa said, “When I joined the company, we had a dedicated mentor and coach. The coach was helping me know more about the technical side of the work and trainings. While the mentor was directing me with the soft skills and personality development; such as how I should show up in a meeting room, bringing the attention to my idea, and how I could persuade others to buy my idea.

“Mentorship is really important, especially during the early stage when you first join the industry. This is when you convince others that you are well knowledgeable and belong to the same level with them. Otherwise, there are still some stereotypes that exist against women in the workplace,” she added.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Petroleum Engineering from Texas A&M University at Qatar in 2011, Buhelaiqa wasted no time and immediately worked as a petroleum engineer.

She recalled, “When we joined the industry back in 2011, it didn’t look as much as it looks now. Today, it’s more comfortable and easier for the ladies. At that time, we were one of the first batches of women petroleum engineers. So to travel to the site either offshore or onshore, there was no dedicated sleeping room for us. We raised a request that we needed our own room.

“Right away the company dedicated a single room for women in each of the sites. Even for travelling, we have a dedicated transportation, whether it’s through the car or helicopter. So the country is really providing these opportunities to make the industry very suitable for women. But parents and the community are not aware about these yet. That’s why during our forums when briefing students and parents about a career in engineering, we tell them how the industry is much friendlier now to women,” added Buhelaiqa.

Having fascination matched with the skills for Math and Science is something that Buhelaiqa discovered at a young age.

She said, “I was good in Math and Science. I always had fun learning Science so I knew I was headed towards this direction. When I was in Grade 10, I heard about the establishment of Texas A&M in Qatar for engineering. I remember telling my dad I wanted to be an engineer, and I wanted to apply to study at Texas A&M in Qatar. All the newspapers were reporting that the best engineering school in the world was opening its first branch in Qatar.

Most of us in the family pursued engineering while others went to medicine. We are a family of either engineers or doctors, even the women. That is why when I first told my parents that I wanted to take up engineering, they even encouraged me. They actually even feared I might pursue the medical field. Compared to a doctor’s work schedule, engineers have normal working hours for most of the time,” Buhelaiqa added.

One of the challenges Buhelaiqa had to face was adjusting to new environments, especially coming from an all-girls’ school and moving to a co-ed setting in college, then again working in a heavily male-dominated workplace. However, it was not just the women petroleum engineers who were adjusting to a new setting. Even their colleagues were also adjusting to having women at their workplace.

She said, “At the beginning, it was a bit challenging. Because it was new for them to have women in the site. They were all very polite and kind with us. But they were also very conscious about being around us. They were always asking ‘Is it ok if you will be here, we will empty the whole dining area for you’. That was not the point for us. We were there to work and finish a task.”

Until now, Buhelaiqa continually feels grateful for the support extended to her by her male colleagues. “A lot of them were very supportive; they were sharing their knowledge, briefing us about the sites, and giving us a lot of information which you would not learn if you’re not working at the actual site,” she added.

A strong proponent of going to the actual operation sites instead of just staying in the office, Buhelaiqa said many things can be learned better by being on site than just merely reading about them in books.

“It’s such an enriching experience. Until now whenever there is an opportunity for operation, I always volunteer to go on site, and we encourage the younger engineers to do the same. Especially now that the industry is growing; Qatar has its LNG expansion, so there are many opportunities for learning. You have to go and see them happening on site,” she added.

Speaking about time management and the importance of self-care to be able to continue to perform at her best, she also said, “Time management has really helped me. I learned early on from university that work is work, and my personal life or family life are another thing. I would not mix them together. Once you close your office door, that’s it. You don’t drag your work stress at home. In the same way, we don’t bring whatever happens at home to work.

“Along the way, unfortunately we saw several women collapsing either mentally, or they’ve been through a lot of stress that cause health issues. And when you see this, you learn that nothing’s worth your health. For me, I learned that work is where I dedicate my working hours and a way to give back to my country. My priority is my family and my health. So I also find time to read and try to always surround myself with positive people to feel empowered,” added Buhelaiqa.

Asked on how long she still sees herself working as an engineer and going to oil and gas operations, Buhelaiqa said she feels motivated to keep on keeping on whenever she sees her children as well as the younger generation.

“Sometimes, I would say why not change another industry, and be more relaxed before retiring. But again, when I go home and see my kids, who are happy and proud of me as their mom engineer, and they also want to become engineers in the future, that brings me back to my core.

I need to do this, not only for myself, but also for the kids and the community. Especially now, when you see a lot of the students asking us about the training camps for engineering, I keep going in my job and we keep the association running. The focus now is on the next generation of engineers,” Buhelaiqa concluded.

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