Professor of Mechanical Engineering: ‘Girls need better role models’
INTERVIEW – Women in engineering are a minority and they face prejudices and discrimination. Professor of Mechanical Engineering Nesrin Ozalp has gone a long way despite the negative stereotypes.
According to the National Science Foundation 17 percent of the people who received their bachelor’s degree in any engineering field in the United States in 1989 were women. By 2008 the number only grew to 19.6 percent. The percentages even get smaller when it is about women with a master’s degree or PhD in engineering.
is an energy researcher and at the moment works as an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the (KU) Leuven. Her research interests are reactor design, heat transfer and solar fuels.
The numerous awards and successes in her career didn´t come without hard work. In a field dominated by men, women often have to prove themselves to their colleagues and break prejudices and stereotypes.
‘When I was studying, I really felt that I needed to work twice as hard as the boys. Even if I had better grades, the boys were often favoured. If I ever needed help in the laboratory for example, it was always because I was a girl. That taught me to completely solve problems myself and it made me stronger!’
Everything starts from home
The number of women studying engineering rises slightly, but it still leaves women in a clear minority. Most likely the reason for that is not that there are not enough girls interested in mathematics or physics.
‘In my opinion, the reason is in the culture. Girls are not encouraged to choose engineering and they are not being viewed as seriously committed as boys.’
‘There are not enough role models for girls that are not based on superficial things. You can see pop stars or so, but not females who come up with new inventions and make a difference to the world. Even those few female superheroes are more about looks than brains and skills.’
Ozalp believes that the media has to play an important role to show women as researchers and inventors and not just as passive and pretty creatures. Still, she thinks that the most important work is to be done at home.
‘If kids see that parents are sharing chores at home and that they set the example there are no things that you cannot be interested in. It is important that things are not divided by gender. '
Ozalp was the youngest of three girls in her family. While the older sisters were looking up to mom, who was a housewife, Ozalp was travelling with her engineer father who was also a successful manager at an oil company.
‘I remember when we were at a chemical plant and I saw this woman coming from the laboratory wearing a protection suit and my father said that that woman was the manager of that factory. It was the only woman in that position that I saw on these trips with my father and the image strongly lived in my head along with the tone of my father voice, showing respect for that woman.’
Ozalp said that the reason she chose engineering was because of talent, enthusiasm and the support of her father.
‘When I was a child, I wanted to be an astronaut and I was always interested in how things work. I thought that the best way to get closer to these subjects was to become an engineer.’
At the moment the biggest concern for Ozalp is the use of energy on the planet.
‘We are the smartest species in the world, so it is our responsibility not to ruin it. I believe that there is enough energy on the planet for us to use, we just need to use our brains to see how to catch it.’
Now Ozalp works on many projects like the one where one tries to transform waste into fuel and how smart materials, that bend when heated, could replace motors in solar energy.
Full support for the girls in engineering
‘There are of course small groups of smart men who are not treating women differently, but then there is the majority that want to keep their guys' club and that do not treat women equally. In some places, I could see how my male colleagues got a better salary even if it should have depended on the amount of work you did, so it was easy to see that some women were given less just because of gender.
In addition to exhibiting smart, and seriously committed work ethics, women should also pay attention to looking professional. If you dress in a ‘too’ feminine way, that would easily give a less intellectual impression to some of the simple thinkers in society. In a way, you have to become one of the guys in all aspects.’
She thinks that prejudices against women in engineering are more visible in Switzerland and Belgium, where she has been working, than in the States.
Ozalp also feels that women in engineering are mostly supportive of each other all over the world and she doesn´t think that there is competition between them.
‘If I see a female student I know how hard it is for her to excel and how hard she has to work. For me it is of course rewarding to come up with a new invention, but I feel that I have succeeded as much if I have inspired some students on their way.’
Text and photos: Marie von Bell