UAE: First female Emirati aircraft engineer on breaking the glass ceiling

Dr Suaad Al Shamsi, who is also an author, talks about the challenges she has overcome, the importance of family, traditions and hard work

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Nandini Sircar

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Published: Tue 14 Feb 2023, 7:20 AM

Last updated: Tue 14 Feb 2023, 1:58 PM

A well-known personality now, Dr Suaad Al Shamsi, who is the UAE’s first female Emirati aircraft engineer, opened up to Khaleej Times in a conversation that ranged from breaking the glass ceiling and women in leadership to raising her two boys.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Women in Leadership Panel Discussion of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation, held recently in Dubai, Dr Al Shamsi emphasised the importance of remaining grounded, no matter what one's achievements are.

The media spotlight is not unknown to her because of her trailblazing career — she is a also an accomplished author apart from being an aviation engineer — but Dr Al Shamsi retains a humble personality with a pleasing demeanour and a contagious smile, which is a testimony to the values that she has been raised with.

“I respect my religion and culture, and what I represent… I am an Emirati woman. I keep saying you must forget about the titles — like holding a doctoral degree or being the first female Emirati aviation engineer and all other titles I have received. When I enter my mother’s house, I forget about my degrees and accolades. All I know at that moment is that when someone elder to me is asking me something, I must stand. We are still old-fashioned that way," said the aviation consultant for Abu Dhabi’s Midfield Terminal, one of the biggest airport terminals in the world.

"When I enter my mother’s house, we have a basket where we deposit all the mobile phones and answer only emergency calls. So, I feel good value systems are imperative in life; they take you a long way.”

Pursuing her career for 18 years now, she often wakes up at 4am and works long hours while managing both home and office.

“People need to understand that in this field you have to work for long hours. Some people say six or eight hours. For us, sometimes it stretches up to 14 hours a day with different shifts. But if you are passionate about your career you won’t think about the environment and the timings.

“In aviation we come across people who belong to different religions and backgrounds. So, initially I had to understand them and put myself in their position… They are from different places — like India, the UK, France, several Arab countries. In the beginning it was tough, but now I am part of the team. One has to work hard to be a part of the team. I think the UAE is changing and its approach towards women is changing for the better. More and more changes have happened in hiring patterns with regard to pilots and aviation engineers.”

Her love for aircraft and knack for fixing things were apparent from early on in her life. While her mother wanted her to be a doctor and pursue a career in medicine, she resolved to become a different sort of doctor — one with a doctoral degree.

“I am crazy about mechanical stuff — cars, aeroplanes, etc. I always gave the money that I received from my parents to my brother and said I want your toy (to repair things). My mom said ‘enough’ and wanted me to be a doctor. I hated medicines and hospitals. So, I thought I’ll be a doctor but in a field that I am passionate about. I told my mother that I want to be an aeronautical engineer. That was over 18 years ago and (there's been) no looking back.”

Dr Al Shamsi, who has received an honorary doctorate for her work in supporting and empowering women in aviation, finished her higher education in aerospace engineering at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK in 2006. She went on to obtain an MBA in aviation management from Coventry University, also in the UK, in 2012.

Shedding light on breaking the glass ceiling in pursuit of her passion, she highlighted that she has proven herself to be an inspiration not just for Emirati women but for women across the world, aspiring for similar roles.

“It’s a male dominated field and people didn’t accept me easily, initially. Somebody even said 'you will resign within a month', and I kept smiling. The problem sometimes is with people’s mentality, but it is changing," she said.

"The UAE is really doing everything to aid women to enter into any field that they want to pursue, even the niche fields. As a country, I feel the UAE is a role model for many others. In our nation, you’ll find women in leadership positions in many different fields.”

Successfully juggling her professional and personal commitments is by now second nature to this remarkable woman, who is the mother of two boys, aged nine and four.

“I am the kind of a mother who wants to know what my children are doing... are they studying? But it becomes doubly difficult when you are a mother because time becomes precious. I sometimes have to cut down on my sleep to manage all ends. I try to be successful on both the personal and the professional fronts. I want to show the world that women can be both. But for that one has to be prepared to work very hard.

“The only thing that I wished (back then) was that I had longer maternity leave. But now (as they are growing up), every day I share with them my daily schedule and what I am doing. We need to show them that they need to support women, just like women support them. Live your dream and follow your passion. Have faith and persevere."

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