While the lines of gender-specific career options are being blurred, there are still some fields that men predominate. Here we meet two women who have taken up career paths where few women have tread before.

Earning her wings

Rita Tariq Al Jaderi, 35, was born in Iraq but considers herself to be part of three countries and cultures. ‘The first is of course Iraq (the birthplace I share with my father), the second is India (my mother’s birthplace) and the third is the UAE, where I have lived for the past 20 years,’ she says.

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As far as she can remember, Rita was fascinated by airplanes. In 1990, at the age of six, she boarded her first plane to India to meet relatives from her mother’s side. She remembers being astounded by the huge structure of the airplane, which had looked very small to her when up in the sky.

‘That was the moment that sparked my interest and curiosity to learn more about airplanes,’ she says. While other girls her age were busy playing with dolls, Rita began to learn more about planes through books, aviation magazines and documentaries.

From a young age, she was very competitive and always came out with flying colours. In her last year of high school, she achieved 98.4 per cent and was granted a scholarship by Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, to study engineering at Emirates Aviation University.

‘My parents are my greatest supporters and they have played a big part in the successful person that I am today. They taught me the importance of working hard to achieve my dreams and that nothing is impossible, and for that I am so grateful to them,’ she says.

Rita says she always had to work harder to get treated the same as her male counterparts
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She holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Emirates Aviation University in Electronic Engineering with a focus on Aviation Electronics. She went on to complete two Master’s Degrees, one from Coventry University with a specialisation in Aviation Management, Airport Operations and Airline Operations, and the other from Middlesex University with a specialisation in Education (Coaching & Mentoring).

In 2005, she began her career at Emirates Aviation University. Her first job was as a laboratory engineer and her Professor, Luay Taha, taught her a lot about electronics and avionics. ‘Apart from being a good professor, he was also a great mentor. Even now he encourages me to learn more and take on new tasks and projects.’

But it is not easy to get a foothold in a predominantly male-oriented industry. ‘I always had to work harder to get treated the same as my male counterparts. I faced a few challenges along the way, but overall it has been a powerful and positive journey,’ she says

She remembers an incident during the first few years of her job when a group of technicians were asked to test transformers. ‘Somehow, I connected the transformer terminals in the opposite direction while it was still plugged in and as a result it caused a short circuit. Everybody was quick to criticise. But I felt that had it been a male colleague, they might have laughed it off,’ she says.

Times have also been aplenty when her ideas were not taken seriously in a meeting or she was cut off by a male colleague while trying to make a point. ‘But over the years I have learnt how to take charge, to get my point across, and to overcome challenges. When it comes to my dreams, I don’t want to let anything get in the way,’ she says.

And she hasn’t, judging by the words of appreciation from peers, who describe her as self-motivated, goal-oriented, focused, and driven to finish tasks in the shortest time possible, with minimal errors.

Rita is now the Aircraft Maintenance Engineering Lecturer, and Course Leader at University of South Wales in Dubai, where she teaches several courses on electronics, electrical and control engineering and has supervised several avionics engineering projects. She has also worked as a programme coordinator and faculty advisor for engineering foundation programmes.

USW’s Aircraft Maintenance Engineering programmes focus on the academic theory and practical knowledge of maintaining and repairing aircraft to precise industry regulatory standards. ‘It requires a lot of passion as well as expertise and skills to teach aircraft maintenance engineering. It’s about teaching students management, planning, organisation, and importantly, the responsibility of aircraft maintenance engineering to the highest levels of safety,’ she explains.

In engineering, her research interests are energy-harvesting systems, simulation and the modelling of power electronic systems, and avionics technology.

She has also received her PhD from Coventry University specialising in Energy Harvesting Systems. In addition, she is a Fellow of the United Kingdom’s Advance HE (formerly Higher Education Academy) in recognition of her commitment to teaching, learning and the student experience.

Just like any mechanical industry, she feels engineering is still a male-dominated field. But as the field of Aircraft Maintenance Engineering continues to grow, more women are developing an interest in it.

‘Aircraft Maintenance Engineering is a very responsible and respectable profession, and for women it could be a great choice. Women are just as capable as men in maintaining aircraft to the highest levels of safety to ensure ongoing airworthiness. My biggest satisfaction comes from performing a job that requires a lot of effort, focus and a combination of theoretical and practical knowledge,’ she says.

An avid traveller, she has visited 40 countries so far and aims to reach 100 soon. She also enjoys cooking, cycling, folkloric dancing and playing squash. After spending most of her work day around airplanes, she usually heads directly to the flying school to fly for an hour or two. ‘I particularly enjoy watching the sun set and my favourite moment is when the runway lights switch on gradually at the beginning of twilight.’

She is also currently training to be a pilot and looks forward to gaining a commercial pilot licence soon.

So what attributes would a woman require to survive in what is commonly termed as a ‘man’s job’?

‘If you think about it, every job was initially a man’s job. Women slowly worked their way around it and became successful. A key lesson I have learnt is to surround myself with motivated, smart and positive people. Determination, discipline, setting goals and working hard to achieve them are the keys to a successful and fulfilling personal and professional life; whether you are a man or a woman.’

Woman on board

A petite figure stepped out of the car in a striped miniskirt and red stilettos. Even as she introduced herself as marine engineer Nyari Nain, she hardly looked like a girl who would toil in the boiler room of a ship, scrubbing machines and turning valves.

When Nyari dresses up for events on board the ship, 'people are surprised that this is the same woman whom they see every day in shabby coveralls'
Anas Thacharpadikkal

But just like her first name implies, Nyari is unique. At the age of 28, she is a Third Engineer with the Anglo-Eastern Univan Group shipping company and spends six months at a stretch aboard big ships; maintaining and calibrating the machines, which run the vessel.

Though she has travelled to many countries, she is in Dubai for the first time to attend a seminar by the Royal Institution of Naval Architects.

Born in Ranchi, Jharkhand, Nyari is the third daughter of Binod Kumar, who was a Defence Auditor in the Punjab Regiment. Since her father was mostly posted away from home, she and her sisters became very independent and were expected to do all the chores that were done typically by boys.

‘After school, I prepared for the Indian Institute of Technology entrance exams. When I got selected, one of the options available was Merchant Navy and I decided to go for that,’ she says.

So she enrolled in the International Maritime Institute (IMI), the only girl in her batch.

In 2013, during her third year of studies, she joined as a junior engineer intern in a ship, becoming the first girl in college to ever go on board. ‘Even in the acceptance letter it was written ‘Mr’ Nyari Nain, as there was no provision in the format for a female title,’ she recollects.

Initially she relegated herself to maintaining the log book. But the Chief Engineer reprimanded her for ‘taking it easy’.

‘I felt that was a big insult for me personally and for women in general. So I got out of my comfort zone, put on my overalls and did maintenance of purifiers, air compressors, and decarb of generators and engines. Once I even swallowed some lubricant oil, but have lived to tell the tale,’ she says.

After her six-month tenure was over, the same Chief Engineer gave her an excellent appraisal, saying she had really grown beyond expectations.

She graduated in 2014 as the topper in college and was soon sailing around the world, breaking stereotypes wherever she went.

‘People judged me first as a woman and then as an engineer. I had to work with machines under a constant pressure of always having to prove my competence beyond what I was certified for,’ she says.

In one ship, a senior engineer looked at her biceps and asked if she would ever be able to turn a valve. ‘I looked him in the eye and said even though you have more biceps than me, both of us are here in the same ship doing similar jobs and that should say something. He just left quietly after that,’ she says.

Every time she joined a ship, she would be welcomed with sexist jokes, jibes and mostly scepticism. ‘But after some time, people even forget I am a woman as we are busy trying to get the job done. After every job ends at six months, there is always a party on board. When I dress up for these events, people are surprised that this is the same woman whom they see every day in shabby coveralls,’ she says.

But not everything was smooth sailing. In one ship, she says the Chief Engineer hated her because he felt she would be a liability as a woman, and work wouldn’t get done. ‘Nothing I did could shake his pre-set notion,’ she says. ‘And I was stuck with him for six months. So to vent out my frustration I started writing.’

Her first book, Anchor My Heart, was published last year and the antagonist was based on that particular Chief Engineer. The book has been commended worldwide by eminent personalities such as veteran Bollywood actor Dharmendra, Dr Dnyaneshwar Mulay, member of National Human Rights Commission, cricketer Gautam Gambhir and more.

She is also in talks with a prominent production company in India to turn it into a movie or web series.

‘When I met the content head she was on the phone talking to another prominent male producer. As she hung up, she said “men have it so easy”. That’s when I realised that gender disparity affects women in all strata of life,’ she says.

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Nyari has been conferred with the Young Seafarers’ Achievement Award by National Marine Dredging Company, India and nominated for the Seatrade Maritime Awards in Hong Kong.

Currently, she lives in New Delhi with her sister. When she’s not covered in grease in a control room, she likes to work on future scripts, where the backdrop is always a nautical setting. ‘When I look back, at the end of the day, I have worked with some great men who have helped me rise when they saw I was doing my job well. So it is not fair to generalise that all men try to pull women down in a workplace.’

Nyari says she would tell all the aspiring women that there’s no point complaining about the odds ‘because without them there wouldn’t have been any evens. Just enjoy what life has presented you with.’