Qureshi empowers women engineers in Pakistan and beyond

How one PhD student is revolutionizing support for women in STEM

women participating in STEM program in Pakistan

Ramla Qureshi, a PhD student in civil engineering, is the founder of Women Engineers Pakistan, an organization devoted to helping women overcome barriers to working in STEM fields.

by Nicole Capozziello

Published November 30, 2018

Growing up, a lot of young girls want to be a veterinarian, or a teacher, like the female teachers who’ve nurtured them.

portrait photo of Ramla Qureshi

Ramla Qureshi, Fulbright Scholar and PhD student in civil engineering.

“My dream for my organization is to be put out of business. I want there to be no more need for Women Engineers Pakistan. I want an engineer to be called an engineer, not a female engineer.”
Ramla Qureshi, PhD student and founder, Women Engineers Pakistan
Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

As a young girl in Pakistan, Ramla Qureshi, a PhD candidate in the Department of Civil Engineering, dreamt of being a fighter pilot, and then a lab scientist. “I had never seen a female fighter pilot and usually, when you don’t see something, it doesn’t occur to you. The phenomenon doesn’t exist,” Ramla says. “But I don’t know why – it occurred to me.”

Over time, her aspirations shifted to becoming an engineer, a discipline that is made up of only 11% women internationally. On her first day of engineering school in Pakistan, a “benevolent” professor told the class that “civil engineering is not for girls” and without missing a beat, Ramla, one of three women in the room, blurted out, “You know, that’s what we’re here to prove wrong.”

Over the years, this has become a sort of rallying cry for her, motivating her to keep working, to keep doing the best that she can. “’I will prove you wrong.’ So I will do better. And in engineering school, I did amazingly,” Ramla smiles. Before graduating, she had three job offers, anomalous not just for a girl, but for anyone.

This mantra continues to drive her in her third year of work as a PhD student, and her unwavering commitment to empowering other women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. By day, Ramla works on her PhD, and then goes home to work on her organization Women Engineers Pakistan (WEP) late into the night. “It’s always daytime somewhere,” she laughs.

Ramla, who’s also a Fulbright Scholar, started WEP in 2013 in response to the discrimination and gaps in resources for women that she saw within her field. Working as a civil engineer in Pakistan, Ramla wondered, how can we let girls and women know the door to STEM careers is open? How can we help them advocate for themselves once they get there? And what resources do they need to stay in the field?

WEP aims to help women overcome the barriers Ramla and other women in STEM disciplines often face, from a K-12 schooling system that can sometimes discourage girls from going into STEM fields, to universities where female students are in the vast minority, to a workforce where it’s not uncommon to not even have a restroom for women in the building.

Leveraging the powers of technology, the organization connects undergraduate women with resources for the job market, from presentation and soft skills development to CV screenings and mock interviews. Members also get connected with job opportunities at a host of organizations, who pay to post on the WEP site. Most services are free for WEP members, and others are provided on especially discounted prices. WEP then asks women to pay it forward by doing STEM outreach in schools, creating a resource cycle that is sustainable and rewarding. Women in WEP go into schools to talk to girls about STEM disciplines, all the while modelling that it’s possible for a girl to grow up to be an engineer.

By asking for 20-40% male participation at their university chapters, WEP calls upon men to advocate for their friends and classmates –and the future. “If you understand what we’re doing then you better join us because we need your help,” Ramla says to the guys. Of course, this collaboration also fosters a culture shift, with men playing a role in creating space for women in these male-dominated fields.

“I always say, we didn’t start an organization,” says Ramla. “We started a revolution.” After only four years, they’re in 13 universities throughout Pakistan, in seven cities. “It’s been incredible.”

In 2016, the project won second place in UB’s Summer Sandbox competition, a business development program that pairs student-led companies with resources at UB and in Western New York.

As if she weren’t busy enough, earlier this year, Ramla started a new project which takes the goals and spirit of Women Engineers Pakistan to other countries. Collaborating with Manjusha Choorakuzil from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and Jasmina Tacheva from the School of Management, Ramla created the project ElevatHer. Born out of their shared passion to improve opportunities for women globally, the three women drew on their individual expertise when conceptualizing ElevatHer.

ElevatHer named World's Challenge Challenge winner.

ElevatHer, an idea conceived by (from right)  Ramla Qureshi, Manjusha Choorakuzil and Jasmina Tacheva, won first place and $2,000 in UB's World's Challenge Challenge.

Jasmina brought her knowledge of operations management, suggesting they use a peer-mentor model to maximize the organization’s sustainability. Manjusha’s skills in software and programming were integral to developing a web portal that is user-friendly and customizable to individual needs.

“The concept of ElevatHer is simple,” says Ramla. “Locate a skills gap, fill it in with training in partnership with local universities, and then make it sustainable by cascading it digitally. And we ensure that skilled women get linked to relevant employers by partnering with firms.”

While engineering is a growing industry, Ramla says connecting companies with the right STEM graduates and job candidates can be a challenge, especially due to the multidisciplinary nature of today’s jobs. “With ElevatHer, we ask the industrial firm, what industry-specific skills they’re looking for in job candidates, and we ask the university, ‘what have you been providing?’ Then we look to identify and fill that skills gap. We make this process completely customizable for our trainees, so that they can also personalize their own career journey.”

From there, ElevatHer plans to create lessons to bridge this gap, and then lead on the ground, tailor-made workshops.

To start, the workshops will take place in three cities in three different countries, with 30 women in each session. These women will get trained in skills similar to the ones provided by WEP, such as soft skills and career enhancement. After women are trained, they are tasked with mentoring and training three other women –and from there the cascading process is digital. Trainees can use ElevatHer’s gamified portal to take part in a month-long course that moves them through three levels of training –novice, intermediate, and expert – giving them the option of selecting specific modules that round out or build on their experience. Once they reach the expert level, women take an online test to validate that they’re trained and become certified. After they train three other women, they become connected –for free –to job opportunities.

Ramla, Jasmina, and Manjusha developed this plan for the World’s Challenge Challenge, an international competition in which students pitch their ideas for solving a complex global issue tied to one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. In April, they won UB’s internal Challenge Challenge competition, hosted by UB Sustainability, Blackstone LaunchPad, and International Education at UB, bringing in $2,000 to put towards the project.

The next step is more funding –Ramla is hoping they can secure $50,000 –and then rolling out the program’s successful model in other countries. The next destinations are India and Malaysia.

Ramla says that they’re thankful for the support they received from the NAVIGATE Project, a program led by Liesl Folks, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, that aims to increase and support women in STEM. The project not only gives students an outlet to share their personal experiences with gender bias, but also offers them practical skills for recognizing and dealing with it. The ElevatHer team believes the project “highlights the efforts UB puts into sensitizing us to the problems women face within STEM fields, and catalyzing this activism to help mitigate these issues,” working at the systemic level to achieve the goals Ramla works so hard for every day.

“My dream for my organization is to be put out of business. I want there to be no more need for Women Engineers Pakistan,” says Ramla. “I want an engineer to be called an engineer, not a female engineer.”

To learn more, visit Women Engineers Pakistan.