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Female engineering professor talks challenges of working in male-dominated field

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Businesswoman Getting Interviewed

For many, working in a field dominated by the opposite gender may prove difficult. To Engineering Professor Afef Fekih, Ph.D., working in a field mostly populated by men is both a challenge and a source of opportunity.

“It is a challenge, but it is an opportunity at the same time. You get the attention of the other gender. The advantage is that you get noticed,” Fekih said.

However, Fekih said she is expected to work harder and felt it was necessary to earn the respect of her male colleagues due to her gender.

“When I first started, I felt that I had to work harder than everybody else and prove myself because there are people who doubted (me) just because I was a woman. You have to earn your respect. You have to work harder. You have to gain their trust and show them you’re capable,” Fekih said.

Even if she has to work harder for it, Fekih said she appreciates the support she has gotten from her colleagues.

“I wouldn’t be here without the support of my colleagues, either. I wouldn’t be here without the support of my dean,” Fekih said.

According to Fekih, former Dean of Engineering Mark Zappi, Ph.D., worked hard to improve pay equity between men and women in the College of Engineering.

“He was very, very supportive,” Fekih said.

After gaining the support of Zappi and her colleagues, Fekih said she learned to fight for herself.

“After that, I learned to fend for myself and I learned to go and fight and say, ‘Look, I’m doing the exact same thing as you,’” Fekih said.

Additionally, Fekih said women tend to team up together in a male-dominated workplace.

“The fact that we are a minority (makes us) team up together as women. In the beginning, there was only myself and two other female faculty. Now that we are seniors, we are trying to mentor other (female) faculty also,” Fekih said.

Fekih said being female allows her to interact more effectively with some students.

“I feel like the students come to me … They talk to me about certain things that they are not comfortable talking to the guys about,” Fekih said, “I feel like I make a difference in their lives.”

Fekih said women face different challenges in life than men, allowing her to mentor female students.

“Our challenges are completely different. I have two kids and I have a house and I have a husband. So I have three or four jobs at the same time,” Fekih said.

Fekih added she feels like she can inspire female students to pursue their dreams in engineering.

“I feel like I can encourage (them) and serve as a role model. I can encourage students, female students, to pursue engineering, because the perception is that this is not for us, this is not for women,” Fekih said.

Fekih said she enjoys her job as a faculty member.

“I think this is the best job in the world,” Fekih said, “I believe being a woman in a male-dominated field—I’m the only woman in my department—makes it even more special because you can make a difference, and you can feel it,” Fekih said.

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