Engineering Stories - Sawsan Al Sharif

Hear from Sawsan Al Sharif, Operations Director – Design & Supervision, as she shares her engineering journey and advice for aspiring engineers…

Who are you and what is your role?
My name is Sawsan Al Sharif and I have two roles under the Transportation & Infrastructure Group: I am the Operations Director – Design & Supervision and I am the Head of Civils – Design & Supervision for WSP in the Middles East.

Tell us about your engineering journey?  
I graduated from university as a civil engineer in 1992 and started my career in Lebanon as a junior engineer before working my way up to became a senior project engineer. Before I left Lebanon in 2002, I worked on various projects and actually started as a property and building structural engineer for the first two years before getting more experience on roads and highways in 1996. This is where my real experience for roads and highway and I continued this until leaving Lebanon in 2001.

I then moved to the Gulf region and worked in the UAE, Muscat, and also in Qatar. I joined WSP in Feb 2007 where my main role was to establish the Roads and Highway team within what we used to call back then the ‘civils group’ under Property and Buildings. I started as a principal engineer, and I came all the way up to currently being Senior Technical Director on grade Operations Director for the design and supervision and also the head of the civils, which is the infrastructure.

Have you experienced any barriers as a female in the industry and how did you overcome these?
Everyone looks at females as being more emotional than males. When we are stressed, this is considered because ‘she is a female, because she's a woman, women always are emotional’. For me, I face this a lot even in WSP. If a female is being very precise in work, and I don't want to call it tough but specific, she might sometimes be called aggressive. Meanwhile it's different for a man; a man always will be labelled as having a strong approach. So why is it different for a woman? I always hear it as a comment or a statement from everyone, ‘you are a strong lady’, ‘you have a strong personality’, is that wrong? This has been my big issue throughout my journey. Something happens when you are in discussions with clients sometimes. Maybe they just find it a bit difficult to accept that they are hearing advice from a woman and their ego kicks in. In reality, at work, woman or a man, it shouldn’t make any difference.
The advice I always give it to our freshly graduated female engineers is if you act like a woman, you will be treated as a woman. Act as a professional engineer and you will be forcing everyone to treat you as a professional engineer, regardless of your gender.

What achievements are you most proud of as an engineer?
For me, the biggest thing that I’m proud of is becoming one of the first three joiners of WSP’s Transport & Infrastructure group when it was established. My biggest achievement was to establish Roads & Highways and build it from the ground up. I’m very proud of this team and what it has evolved into today.

In general, I am also proud of the work I did to train fresh graduates earlier in my career, to help them and train them on specific areas of engineering and make their dreams a reality. At the same time, I also volunteered with an orphanage shelter in Lebanon where I used to train the orphanage to use AutoCAD along with some background on engineering. This gave the children more opportunity to go and find a professional career once they left the shelter.

How do we hold ourselves accountable as an industry when it comes to Gender Balance & Diversity?
I think we should be accountable on each and every project. We should be treating every client the same – not based on the fees or the importance of the project. Each project is contributing to the reputation of the market and the future of our profession. Everything we do in our lives is related to engineering. It’s our responsibility to achieve this vision. I think it's definitely about making sure our clients are aligned with us, trying to influence their attitudes and getting them to accept a wider representation of people on projects – whether that be gender, skill levels, backgrounds or ethnicities.

What would you like to share with the next generation of females entering a STEM career?
Don't listen to anyone, engineering is not restricted to any gender. Females can prove themselves in any sector and engineering is one of them. Put your focus on developing your skills and capabilities. Don't take into consideration that you are a woman and you have limited opportunities or restrictions. Engineering is all about how you perform –prove your capability, and learn how to lead. That's how you succeed, it's not related to gender.