Headscarves and hard hats - with structural engineer Atiqa Rashid

New Zealand welcomed Atiqa Rashid with 'open hands' when she and her family moved from Pakistan five years ago. As the first female civil engineer in the 61-year history of Pakistan Railways, Atiqa was used to standing out in the crowd, but she felt right at home. 

Now a structural design engineer at Manktelow Consulting Engineers, Atiqa talked to us about being a woman in the industry and the differences between working in Pakistan versus New Zealand.  

Atiqa, what attracted you to engineering? 

When I was younger growing up in Pakistan, numbers always fascinated me.  

Once I began high school, my real interest lay in physics and math, which led me to enrol in a pre-engineering group in college.  

Engineering was considered a little different as most of my friends gravitated towards medical or computer science studies. 

What was the gender breakdown in engineering when you went to university? 

I studied civil engineering at the University of Engineering and Technology (UET) in Lahore in Pakistan and received a Bachelor of Sciences. 

UET is a very prestigious university with around 200,000 students vying for just 1,500 spots. About 200 students studied civil engineering in the years that I attended, and only 20 were women.  

Where was your first engineering job?    

I began my career with a small consultancy in Lahore. I was there for about three and half months before I moved on to become an assistant manager at BEMSOL were my duties involved civil, structural design; planning and cost control, office management and site progress reporting.  

My next move was to Pakistan Railways in 2008 as an Executive Engineer. I remained there for seven years before coming to New Zealand and taking on a structural engineering position with Manktelow Consulting Engineers in Whakatane. 

How were you accepted into the engineering workforce in Pakistan? 

As a female civil engineer, it wasn't easy to be accepted into the workforce.  

As in most parts of the world, the engineering industry is male-dominated in Pakistan, and that made it difficult for me to feel totally at ease. I found that my acceptance was very slow and challenging as I was the first female civil engineer in the 61-year history of Pakistan Railways 

The problems that I encountered may have appeared to be minor to some managers, but they were significant for me as I tried to fit into the business. However, I never lost hope, and I always believed I could make my way in the industry and overcome the barriers that I encountered.  

Thinking back, I am happy that my employment with Pakistan Railways has become the catalyst for other female engineers to join the organisation. 

Is there a difference in the work environment between Pakistan and New Zealand? 

Yes, there are some significant differences in the working environment between the two countries.  

I quickly became comfortable working as an engineer in New Zealand compared to how I felt in Pakistan.  

New Zealanders and especially the people in the Whakatane community have welcomed my family and me with open hands [arms]. I wear my headscarf under my hard hat, which as you can see, looks great!  

When I first started at Manktelow, my boss and I spoke about what things I'd need to continue my daily prayer. It has never been a problem for me - they've been so accommodating.  

Employees in New Zealand have more rights than their counterparts in Pakistan. One of the significant benefits of working here is the strict adherence to health and safety rules. That doesn't happen quite so much in Pakistan.  

Another advantage for New Zealand engineers is how businesses focus on ensuring there is diversity in the workplace. I see more and more females and immigrants entering the engineering workforce.  

Also, remuneration is much fairer in New Zealand. In my home country, I had to fight for CPD hours and leave as employment rights are not very clear. 

Are there opportunities for females to move into management in the engineering sector? 

Yes, I think there are robust pathways that allow women to move into management roles. Women undertake the same technical roles out in the field as their male counterparts. That enables women to develop the necessary skills that will lead them to a management or leadership role. 

You are the ACE New Zealand Regional Chair for the Bay of Plenty. What is the biggest challenge you have encountered in this role?  

One of the significant problems I regularly face is that many businesses in the engineering sector haven't appointed a contact person with whom I can discuss ACE New Zealand business. It's essential I find the correct person to talk with when I am organising events or trying to work out what topics we need to discuss at the next regional meeting. 

What do you like about the job? 

Challenges come with any job and to find the right and economical solution is the best part of my job. Progressing projects from start to finish within months is always exciting. It is particularly enjoyable when a client sends a courtesy email with final photos from my current project. That inspires me for my next job. 

What are the daily challenges you face? 

The daily challenges involve urgent site visits for projects that are at the Construction Monitoring phase.  

Another challenge comes from liaising with clients when the project exceeds the original scope of work, and you have to justify the additional costs. My typical day involves the design of in-progress jobs and communication with architectsclientsbuilders and more. 

How do you balance home life with work life?

With the support of my husband and kids, I can undertake this job on a fulltime basis. My employer is very accommodating, and we always find a consensus on how to handle my workload. I am flexible as to my work hours, and that allows me to balance my work life with my family time.

What is the best piece of career advice you received? 

Once I had achieved admission to UET, I quickly realised that the sky is the limit in engineering, if you apply yourself.  

People with civil engineering qualifications will always be in-demand as more houses will be required for the ever-growing world population as will the construction of roads and other infrastructure. Early on, I was advised to choose the engineering field that suited me best, and I have never regretted my decision to choose civil. It is a demanding career but has been very rewarding for me.  

Next steps  

If you work in the Bay of Plenty region, get in touch with Atiqa to discuss an event or activity.