Think Engineering is a Man's World? Think Again

Working in a male-dominated industry does not faze Ng Siew Leng and Rachel Xie as they share details of their career journey, discuss the lack of women representation in the industry, and offer tips for aspiring engineers.
Elliyani Mohamad Ali
Editor, gradsingapore

We know there is no such thing as men’s work or women’s work. There are male nurses, female firefighters, male manicurists, female truck drivers, and so on. Yet, a significant number of industries is disproportionately dominated by one gender, even (if not especially) engineering.

Women being under-represented in engineering is a global phenomenon, and Singapore is no exception. According to Channel NewsAsia, there are currently about 240 female professional engineers here, making up just six percent of the total number of professional engineers. They are almost as mythical as unicorns.

Nevertheless, they do exist, and at Rohde & Schwarz, two women from distinguished engineering backgrounds, Ng Siew Leng, Head of Lab, Research & Development (R&D), and Rachel Xie, Marketing Manager, share their journeys in making it big in a so-called man’s world.

Going from engineering to managing

Engineering is an extremely broad profession, as shown by the fact that engineers can be found in diverse fields such as medical, agriculture, and theme parks (you don’t want just any Tom, Dick or Harry designing the rollercoasters, do you?). In fact, even working in an engineering capacity does not restrict you to only engineering-related roles.

Xie, for example, is now Rohde & Schwarz’s marketing manager juggling multiple projects, including the company’s recent 20th anniversary, and heading various product introduction

campaigns. It sounds vastly different from a typical engineering job despite having an engineering degree and working in an engineering industry.

While she started as a product engineer in Rohde & Schwarz, her decision to start a family means there was a need to reshape her career.

“I needed this change as I was not able to travel as extensively as a product engineer should due to family commitments. The management was supportive and I was offered the opportunity to join the marketing and communications team,” explained the 32-year-old mother of two.

Even engineers working for over 10 years can expect changes in their job roles. Having been at Rohde & Schwarz since she graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Electrical Engineering from the National University of Singapore in 2007, Ng has now risen up the ranks from being a system application engineer to the head of lab in the R&D department.

“What attracted me to the company was the vast opportunities they were willing to offer me. Even though I was new, my manager saw my potential and gave me the confidence and support to succeed. I continue to stay because I am still receiving learning opportunities, even eleven years on,” said the 36-year-old.

The R&D team incorporates the end-to-end process of gathering ideas to eventually conceptualising the project. As the head of lab, Ng described her main duty as enabling and empowering her team to transform ideas to reality.

Where are the ladies?

While Ng and Xie may not be the only female engineers in Singapore, they are certainly a rare breed.

“When I was studying in university, males studying engineering make up about 70 percent of the cohort. Even in my team right now, about 80 percent of the team members are men,” Ng said.

Even women who have graduated with engineering degrees ended up working in different industries.

Ng added, “The reason some of my female course mates left engineering is mainly personal. Some of them were pushed to study engineering courses by their family members and only realised too late that they were not interested in pursuing engineering as a career.”

“Certain types of engineering jobs also require intensive overseas travels. While this opportunity may initially be appealing, its excitement wears off when they wish to settle down and start a family,” Ng said.

To manage this issue, Rohde & Schwarz allows its employees to align their office working hours around their children’s childcare arrangements. The combination of the company’s efforts and finding fulfilment in the industry are the key reasons Xie continues working in engineering.

“There are other more glamourous industries, but you can end up doing very administrative or operational tasks there, even though you come to work all suited up in high heels or black ties. We need to remove the superficial layers that are unimportant and focus on the job you are doing to make a difference,” Xie said.

“As engineers, we can be required to have plenty of hands-on tasks. Some may see that as a downside, but in reality, that is one of the ways engineers gain their job satisfaction,” Xie added.

Perhaps the real issue boils down to the general lack of interest in engineering-related subjects. People do not often watch movies about engineers saving the world or winning wars. Or, do they now?

“I think there are avenues to portray engineering as a sexy industry. I remember watching an Indian movie called the Three Idiots, which focused on the friendship between three friends in an engineering college. It made me feel so proud to be in the engineering sector and to see the industry being appreciated on the big screen,” Ng said.

“Even right now, seeing a teen girl genius, Shuri, in the hit movie, Black Panther, who is the brain behind the movie’s awesome innovations, is inspirational. I feel this can at least interest girls to find out more about engineering, if not inspire them to be engineers themselves,” Ng added.

Needing more than just an engineering degree

With the country’s Smart Nation initiative in full swing, Singapore will need 1,000 new engineers every year just for public infrastructure projects. If you are a graduate engineer, chances are, you will find plenty of available job vacancies for you.

However, finding a job and succeeding in it are two different matters. Graduate engineers must continue to learn new knowledge and master new skills to be an asset to their employers.

For Ng, she believed that the industry needs candidates that are equipped with problem-solving, critical-thinking, creative-thinking, and design-thinking skills. Meanwhile, Xie advocated building up technical skills as a way to gain respect. Ultimately, they need to continue learning even after they have graduated, like Ng, who took up a part-time Master Degree in Software Engineering.

“I worked on weekdays and went to classes on weekends. This meant my weekends were burnt, and my holiday plans were non-existent. It felt like I was learning new solutions and ideas in school over the weekends, and applying them at work on weekdays,” Ng reminisced.

In addition, Xie also highlighted the importance of “aligning our interests with each other” and working as a team. In the end, engineering is open for everyone with the passion and aptitude to excel, and it is not just restricted to a boys’ club. Even for Ng and Xie, they do not see any limitations to how high and how far their career in the engineering industry can go.

“For me, personally, no one in the industry has treated me differently just because I am a woman. So to all our female fresh graduates out there, do not think there’s any discrimination against you. Don’t walk into the interview room with that kind of mindset. Hold your head up high and know that the industry values women as well,” Ng said.